The Magazine

It's Not Race, It's Arugula

Obama's real electoral challenge.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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On the way to his rendezvous with destiny, Barack Obama consistently lost white voters, especially of the middle and working classes, to Hillary Clinton--voters variously known as Appalachians or Reagan Democrats, rural voters and white ethnics in the industrial states. Because of this, he lost most of the big swing states that a Democrat needs--Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia (which would have made Gore president in 2000 had he won there), that last by a staggering 41 points. Heading into the general election, in which the weight of the black vote will shrink as compared to its importance in the Democratic primaries, this weakness emerged as the prime threat to his promising candidacy and gave birth to two schools of thought on its cause.

School number one thinks it reflects racial hostility that Obama's opponents--first Hillary Clinton and now John McCain and the Republican party--are doing their best to rub raw. This is a case that Democrats have been making for the past 30-plus years, and its most recent airing came in a long piece in the May 19 Newsweek by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe. "The real test is yet to come," they warned. "The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower-and-middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower and middle-class whites in industrial and border states--the Democrats' base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but 'Reagan Democrats' in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as 'the other'--as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots."

In this view--let us call it the Newsweek Doctrine--race is the issue, and the big years in history were 1964 and 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson did the Right Thing, signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and consigning his party to electoral darkness by losing the South for the next several eons. By these lights, bigotry and fear are the main factors, and all the others are thinly masked surrogates for them. If Obama loses, this will be the excuse of the campaign and of the press that supports it.

The second school of thought admits the presence of bias as a contributing factor, but not the most important one. The real cause, it thinks, is a cultural divide among whites that splits them on matters of worldview and attitude into hostile and competing camps. Let us call this rival approach the Barone Manifesto, after its author, political analyst Michael Barone, who crunched the poll numbers for Obama's primary battles with Hillary Clinton and discovered that while the former did exceedingly well with white voters in university towns and state capitals, he did poorly almost everywhere else. From this, Barone broke the electorate down into two large divisions--academics and state employees who live in these places, whom he calls Academicians, and Jacksonians, who live elsewhere, especially in the regions close to the Appalachian mountains.

While the term Academician explains itself, Jacksonian comes from Andrew Jackson, the first of the Democrats' warrior heroes (with an echo perhaps of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who seems now to have been one of the last). The Barone view is a close cousin to that of political reporter Ronald Brownstein, who identified a split in the Democratic party's candidates between those he described as "warriors" and "priests." In this reading of history, the critical year would be 1968, when the Democrats splintered on crime and security issues, and afterwards became the party of peace (and/or appeasement), of moral equivalence, and of aversion to force. In this reading, the Jacksonians or warriors reject Obama less because he is black than because he is a priest or academician, and they see him as "the other" not because of his name or his background but because of his ideas. "Academics and public employees .  .  . love the arts of peace and hate the demands of war," Barone tells us. "Jacksonians, in contrast, place a high value on the virtues of the warrior, and little value on the work of academics and public employees. They have, in historian David Hackett Fischer's phrase, a notion of natural liberty: People should be allowed to do what they want, subject to the demands of honor. If someone infringes on that liberty, beware."

The divisions between these two classes tend to be deep. Academicians traffic in words and abstractions, and admire those who do likewise. Jacksonians prefer men of action, whose achievements are tangible. Academicians love nuance, Jacksonians clarity; academicians love fairness, Jacksonians justice; academicians dislike force and think it is vulgar; Jacksonians admire it, when justly applied. Each side tends to look down on the other, though academicians do it with much more intensity: Jacksonians think academicians are inconsequential, while academicians think that Jacksonians are beneath their contempt. The academicians' theme songs are "Kumbaya" and "Imagine," while Jacksonians prefer Toby Keith:

Well, a man come on the 6 o'clock news

Said somebody's been shot, somebody's been abused

Somebody blew up a building,

Somebody stole a car,

Somebody got away,

Somebody didn't get too far,

Yeah, they didn't get too far

Justice is the one thing you should always find.

You got to saddle up your boys,

You got to draw a hard line.

When the gun smoke settles, we'll sing a victory tune,

We'll all meet back at the local saloon.

We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces,

Singing "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses."

Academicians don't think "evil forces" exist, and if they did, they would want to talk to them. This, and not color, seems to be the divide.

In their glory days (i.e., when they had a semi-permanent lease on the White House), the Democrats frequently sported a veneer of priesthood, but it covered a Jacksonian heart. In the beginning, Woodrow Wilson was "too proud to fight," a stance that enraged Franklin (and Theodore) Roosevelt, but in the end Wilson led his country into world leadership, and into the "war to end wars." FDR in his turn was a relentless hot warrior. Harry S. Truman--a Jacksonian, if ever there was one--bombed Japan back into the Stone Age and later drew two lines in the sand (in Berlin and Korea) against Communist powers, moves fervently backed by Congressman Kennedy, who later became JFK. Kennedy, a millionaire's son who took to the great country houses of England like a duck takes to water, scored his breakthrough primary win in, yes, West Virginia, when he sent Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. into the state to contrast his war record--and that of his brother, who died on a suicide mission--with Hubert Humphrey's draft deferment during World War II. Kennedy had no trouble in winning Jacksonians. Roosevelt and Kennedy were children of privilege who had passed through prep schools and Harvard but stayed in touch with their warrior side. In fact, so completely were Democrats linked to saber-rattling and assertion of power that as late as the 1976 election Bob Dole, a wounded World War II combat veteran, was still complaining of "Democrat wars."

It was when they lost their warrior edge that Democrats started losing the White House, winning only in unusual circumstances such as the Watergate scandal or in that brief window in history (from the fall of the Berlin Wall through September 11) when foreign threats had faded out of the picture. Reagan Democrats did resent post-1968 liberal activism--and racial preferences and busing much more than the original Civil Rights measures--but they also were drawn to the muscular foreign policy, democracy promotion, and unabashed patriotism of the FDR-HST-JFK line. When these were picked up by Ronald Reagan--who was himself an FDR fan and the very prototype of the Reagan Democrat--they quite willingly followed his lead into his new political bailiwick. When academicians insist that Republicans use fears about race and other cultural flashpoints to blind middle and lower class voters to what they call their "real interests," they forget that to most voters defense and security are often the most "real" issue of them all.

This neglect often leads to a reading of history that aligns rather poorly with the facts. It is true that Johnson lost the South in 1964 to the Civil Rights issue, but he also won almost everything else on the table. And when the Democrats fell apart in the 1968 cycle, it owed more to Vietnam and rioting students than anything else. They lost again four years later on "acid, amnesty, and abortion," but also through an isolationist nominee who ran on a platform of nonintervention and retreat in foreign affairs. Democrats won both the South and the White House in 1976 with a southern governor known as an integrationist but also as a social conservative and an ex-naval officer--a résumé that later looked misleading after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Iran took over the American Embassy with shockingly little resistance on his part. After 1968, Democrats would win and lose for a number of reasons, none of which seemed to touch on their civil rights stances, which did not seem to vary. On the other hand, it appears indisputable that, both before and after the Civil Rights battles, Democrats lost when they put up an anti-Jacksonian, who seemed both weak and too wordy in foreign affairs.

Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' first major anti-Jacksonian, lost twice by large margins to General Eisenhower, the man who freed Europe. Following him, academicians such as Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, and "Clean Gene" McCarthy couldn't even get nominated, and the Massachusetts duo of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry--who in 1983 ran and served on the same ticket--lost to two Texans named Bush. Kerry, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war, lost partly because other vets ran ads that showed him testifying before Congress as a shaggy-haired antiwar activist. Dukakis sealed his fate in the second presidential debate when, asked if he would support the death penalty if his own wife had been raped and murdered, he bloodlessly said no, and talked about his antidrug program. No less Jacksonian answer has ever been uttered.

As a political type, Barack Obama is not Middle America's idea of a "black" candidate, wholly unlike Al Sharpton (who ran briefly in 2004) or a demagogue such as Jesse Jackson, who put the fear of God into Democratic leaders when he won the Michigan caucuses in 1988. But he is beyond doubt the Academician Incarnate, heir to all of the (white) priests before him. Even some of his more notable missteps recall the gaffes that they made in the past. His complaint in Iowa about the high price of arugula at Whole Foods (an expensive grocery chain much favored by trendies) recalled Michael Dukakis's advice to Iowa farmers that they grow Belgian endive; his faux pas at a fundraiser at a millionaire's pad in San Francisco about small town residents of Pennsylvania who cling to God and guns out of sheer desperation recalled the "joke" told by Gary Hart in the 1984 cycle about toxic wastes in New Jersey while at a millionaire's pad in L.A. "Priests .  .  . write books and sometimes verse," according to Brownstein, and indeed, Obama wrote two of them. "They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by an inchoate longing for a 'new politics' as tangible demands for new policies," and indeed, Obama's main theme, which has listeners swooning, is an inchoate though inspiring mantra of "change." "Obama is not at all a warrior, and is something of an academic," writes Barone:

He is all college campus and not at all boot camp. He has campaigned consistently as an opponent of military action in Iraq. His standard campaign statements on Iraq seem to suggest that all honor should go to the opponents of the war and none to the brave men and women who have waged it. He clearly lacks the military expertise of John McCain or Hillary Clinton, both diligent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like another eloquent little-known Illinois politician who emerged suddenly as an attractive presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, he seems more comfortable with the language of diplomacy and negotiation than with the words of war. Like Stevenson, he speaks fluently and often eloquently but does not exude a sense of command. He is an interlocutor, not a fighter. His habit of stating his opponents' arguments fairly and sometimes more persuasively than they do themselves has been a political asset among his peers and press but not among Jacksonians, who are more interested in defeating than in understanding their enemies.

And he is up against John McCain, a true Jacksonian if ever there was one. Of course, he dispatched another Jacksonian in Hillary Clinton, who, against all expectations, emerged as a lower-to-middle-class spokesman, and all-purpose warrior queen. As a feminist and graduate of Wellesley and Yale, she was an unlikely choice to appeal to Jacksonians, but she won them over by her grit and tenacity and her stubborn refusal to give in to pressure. Like McCain, she gave the impression that she would never stop fighting, while Obama, as Barone puts it, gave "the impression, through his demeanor and through his statements that he would never start." Obama may be the first nonwhite with a serious chance of reaching the White House, but he is also the latest in a long line of anti-Jacksonians who have tried, and have failed, to win the office of president. The second obstacle may prove more formidable than the first.

In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson, the first black candidate to compete seriously in the national primaries, won the black vote in them by huge nine-to-one margins, but carried virtually nobody else. Historically, priest-like white candidates win the upscale white vote and the students, but tend to do poorly elsewhere. As the first black candidate to run on the wine track, Barack Obama combines these two demographics, though to his credit his appeal is nonracial, and he did not begin to win large tracts of black voters until after taking lily-white Iowa almost by storm. Nonetheless, it is the addition of the blacks to the students and upper-scale whites that allowed him to run better than the Harts and the Bradleys, and his share of the white vote--and his failings within it--tracked largely with theirs. Does this mean that Jacksonian voters are holding Obama's race and his background against him? It's hard to say that, as his problems among them are no worse than those of other, white, academicians in the past. Priests such as Hart, Tsongas, and Bradley, Brownstein notes, "run better among voters with college degrees run well in the Northwest, the West Coast, and portions of the upper Midwest where wine track voters congregate. Warriors usually thrive in interior states such as Ohio, Missouri, or Tennessee, where college graduates constitute 40 percent or less of the Democratic electorate."

This is the pattern Barone found in Obama's battles with Clinton. "When I first noticed Obama's weak showings among Appalachians, I chalked them up, as many in the press will be inclined to do, to an antipathy to blacks," Barone allowed. But then he went back and compared the results from the Virginia primary race on February 12, with those in the gubernatorial election of 1989, in which Democrat Douglas Wilder defeated Republican Marshall Coleman to become the country's first black governor since Reconstruction. In the Appalachian precincts of western Virginia--which border both Kentucky and West Virginia--Wilder, a moderate Democrat with an air of authority, greatly outpolled Obama everywhere in the region. "Jacksonians in southwest Virginia showed no aversion to Wilder. Take Buchanan County, which runs along both West Virginia and Kentucky. In 1989, it voted 59 percent to 41 percent for Wilder." In February 2008, it voted for Clinton over Obama by 90 to 9. "Wilder lost what is now the Ninth Congressional District (long known as the Fighting Ninth) by a 53-percent-to-47-percent margin. But that is far less than the 59-percent-to-39-percent margin by which George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the district in November 2004 or the 65-percent-to-33-percent margin by which Clinton beat Obama there in February 2008. Jacksonians may reject certain kinds of candidates, but not because they're black," Barone concluded. "A black candidate who will join them in fighting against attacks on their family or their country is all right with them." And these results in general elections included Republicans and independents, who are more likely to vote against liberals, which makes the anti-Obama results from the Democratic primary voters--who were presumably not moved by the putative attack machine of conservative bigots--all the more striking. Obama's problem may be less that he is running while black than that he is running to be the first Academician elected as president, a category that is zero for eight in national contests thus far. He is peering into an abyss not of bias, but a large Jackson Hole of rejection by warrior voters. And this problem is more than skin deep.

Complicating all this are the disparate facts that the voters most imbued with warrior instincts--southerners, rural voters, and many white ethnics--are those most suspected (by Newsweek) of harboring deep racial bias, and that the first credible black candidate to be running for president of the world's greatest power is also one of the least Jacksonian candidates who ever drew breath. The interesting counterexample of course would be to see a black Jacksonian run against a white Academician, and if Colin Powell had chosen to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996, we might have seen this take place. (Whether the black warrior could have been nominated is another whole story, as the centrism that would have made him electable would have given rise to hysterics in the party's activist base.) The charming, war-tested moderate Powell would have presented a fair test of whether an ultra-acceptable black candidate could have been undermined by prejudice. The charming, untested, and left wing Obama will not.

Now let us imagine a different candidate, one who looks like Barack Obama, with the same mixed-race, international background, even the same middle name. But this time, he is Colonel Obama, a veteran of the war in Iraq, a kick-ass Marine with a "take no prisoners" attitude, who vows to follow Osama bin Laden to the outskirts of Hell. He comes from the culture of the military (the most color blind and merit-based in the country), and not the rarefied air of Hyde Park. He goes to a church with a mixed-race congregation and a rational preacher. He has never met Bill Ayers, and if he did he would flatten him. He thinks arugula is a town near Bogota and has Toby Keith on his favorites list. Would he strike no chords at all in Jacksonian country? Does anyone think he would lose 90 to 9 in Buchanan County? Or lose West Virginia by 41 points? For those Jacksonians who would be fine with a black man in the White House (not as tiny a group as Newsweek thinks), Colonel Obama is the one we are waiting for. When we will get him is anyone's guess.

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.