Redrawing the map of US politics

Barack Obama's campaign for the US presidency may still have a long way to go, but the levels of participation by African-American and young voters in this year's primaries have the potential to transform the shape of US politics. In particular, they could neutralise the racist 'southern strategy' that has produced such an inbuilt conservative bias since the 1960s. Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C Minnite investigate

April 2, 2008
10 min read

The Barack Obama campaign stalled in the Ohio and Texas primaries in early March. But while Hillary Clinton did win handily in Ohio (by ten percentage points), the wide margins predicted for her evaporated in Texas where Obama came within two percentage points of a tie. More importantly, the participation levels generated by the Obama candidacy mean that his candidacy could well change the contours of American electoral politics, whoever wins the Democratic nomination.

Obama is attracting huge numbers of new voters to the polls, especially young voters and African Americans, and he is winning unprecedented support from whites for a black candidate. The inclusive and eloquent Obama rhetoric to which this is owed not only softens racial identities, but it is also likely to neutralise the Republican use of the ‘southern strategy’ that has poisoned US elections for half a century.

Of course, Obama’s campaign still has to confront the well-oiled Clinton machine in the remaining primaries, as well as its efforts to change the rules regarding the allocation of delegates. Then, in the presidential election itself, he will have to overcome the panoply of dirty tricks and vote suppression tactics on which the Republican Party has relied in the past. Still, the campaign points the way toward a transformed and strengthened Democratic coalition; and this would create the conditions to empower social movements at the base.

Obama’s emerging electoral coalition is an ever-surprising work in progress. Because the young were his earliest and most vocal supporters, many, including the Clinton camp, underestimated his potentially broader appeal. African-American voters were a little wary of him at first, showing less trust than whites that the US could elect a black man as president. But Obama’s commanding victory in the South Carolina primary changed the calculus for many black voters, especially for the traditional civil rights leadership, who have since steadily moved toward him.

Obama did not do well in the early primaries among poorer white voters, perhaps because they had more confidence that Clinton, then the front-runner, could actually win. And he did less well than Clinton among Hispanics, perhaps for the same reason, and also because many Hispanics were tied to the famed Clinton machine.

But as the campaign has rolled on more of these voters have rallied to Obama, shifting the electoral map. Most important in his expanding voter base are white male Democrats who have nearly tripled their support since the populist John Edwards dropped out of the race. The blue-collar vote went to Clinton in Ohio, which has been bleeding manufacturing jobs, but Obama’s appeal there among white male Democrats (39 per cent), union members (45 per cent), and those lacking a college degree (40 per cent), is still impressive and promising for an African-American candidate.

Skyrocketing turnout

The real significance of the Obama candidacy, however, is the skyrocketing turnout, a trend that continued in Ohio and Texas. In fact, in Texas, more people voted before the election (the state opens up voting for a two week period before election day) than voted in the 2004 Democratic primary altogether. In Dallas County, where the African-American population is concentrated, turnout among Democrats was up nine-fold over 2004.

African-American voter turnout has been exceptionally high in the primaries generally. So too has turnout among the young, quadrupling in Tennessee, tripling in Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma, and doubling in Massachusetts compared with 2004. In the 18 Democratic contests held during the first two months of the year, the youth vote increased over 2004 by more than 170 per cent.

The importance of rising turnout can hardly be overstated. US presidential elections typically attract about half of the formally eligible voters, and lesser contests attract far fewer. Turnout is especially anaemic among young and poorer people. This pattern dates from the turn of the 20th century, and is due to the interplay of an election administration system that makes registration and voting difficult and intimidating and party tactics crafted to suppress voting among potentially troublesome voter blocs. The resulting shrunken and misshapen electorate is an important factor in accounting for the conservative slant of US politics and policy.

Of course, voter enthusiasm and grit can in principle override these barriers, and sometimes it has, especially among African Americans, whose history implanted in them an almost messianic faith in the right to vote. US history since the civil war and emancipation is dotted with the occasions when blacks were seized by the hope that their votes would yield them the respect and the political influence to reverse the laws and tame the lynch mobs that kept them down.

In the post-civil war years, newly enfranchised freed men in the south braved guns and mobs in the effort to realise ‘the new birth of freedom’. They mobilised again in the mid-20th century, when the right to vote became a tenet of the civil rights movement. And even after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, protecting that right in principle, periodic black voter mobilisations faced obstructive and intimidating voter registration procedures, or the ‘ballot police’, voter ‘caging’ tactics and misinformation campaigns mounted by party operatives. Usually the operatives were Republicans, but when blacks challenged white Democratic big-city party organisations, it was the Democrats who acted similarly.

Neutralising the ‘southern strategy’

There is huge symbolic significance in a black candidate with a real chance of winning the presidency. Race has always played a pivotal role in American electoral politics. Fear and distaste of blacks has been used by the parties to lure white voters since the 19th century, and the effort to keep the black vote down also motivated the inventiveness of the US system of electoral administration with its rules and procedures to depress voting.

In recent decades, race has become even more pivotal to party strategies. Before the 20th century, most blacks had lived in the south, where they were stripped of the right to vote, and lived within the system of southern legal apartheid and lynch mob terror that disenfranchisement made possible. The great migration of blacks from the south to the urban north, a migration pushed by the mechanisation of southern agriculture and pulled by the availability of industrial employment, especially during the Second World War, brought African Americans into electoral politics, and into the urban base of the Democratic Party.

By the 1960s this fact became the basis of two contradictory developments. One was the emergence of the civil rights movement, itself largely based in the south, but nevertheless drawing political strength from the new concentrations of black voters in the Democratic cities. The second development was the rise of the Republican ‘southern strategy’, which took advantage of the identification of blacks with the Democratic Party to lure hitherto loyal Democratic whites, both southerners and working-class voters in the northern cities, into Republican ranks.

Barry Goldwater and George Wallace were the brazen spokespersons of the strategy, but every Republican presidential contender from 1964 on has relied upon it. And after the moral triumphs of the civil rights movement made the old racist slurs impermissible, new less obvious racist codes came into vogue in Republican campaigns. The code words denoting blacks included ‘welfare’, ‘crime’, and ‘illegitimacy’; still other code words signalled Democratic indulgence of blacks, such as disparaging references to President Johnson’s Great Society programmes, or simply the term ‘liberal’.

Obama is at least partially impervious to the stigmatising tactics of the ‘southern strategy’. One reason is the elegance and attractiveness of his person, along with his elite Harvard credentials. Another is his insistence on presenting himself not as a black candidate, but rather as the candidate of the majority who wants ‘change’. Of course everyone knows he is black, but unlike Jesse Jackson, for example, he does not talk much about blacks, or any particular minority group. Rather, he claims he wants to begin with the universal values we all share, and his campaign works to transcend targeted racial and ethnic payouts with an expansive and inclusive (if vague) multicultural rhetoric.

Another reason that Obama may be impervious to a revived southern strategy is his popularity among younger Americans. Even in Ohio, where Clinton won 54 per cent of the primary vote, the 17-29 year-olds turned out in record numbers and gave 61 per cent of their votes for Obama. It is the under-30s who are the big revelation of the campaign. All the evidence suggests that they are enthusiastic about Obama and not much affected by racial identities.

If this holds as the election proceeds, it will be due not only to the achievements of the civil rights movement, but also to the iconic role of African Americans in youth culture. Think about it. These under-30s spent their adolescence listening to black music and idolising black musicians; they plastered posters of black rappers and basketball stars on their walls; and they dressed in baggy trousers imitating black prison culture. If, as a result, they are at least partially immune to racist appeals, a historic change is indeed underway in American politics.

A new political era?

None of this is to say that we are on the cusp of political salvation. Political change, much less salvation, does not come so cheaply. No one gets to be a presidential contender without compromises, and Obama has made his share.

He has been criticised roundly by some people on the left for the vagueness and emotionality of his appeals. He has made some specific promises – he has a good economic stimulus plan, for example, that emphasises job creation and infrastructure development. But his health care proposals are scarcely distinguishable from those of the other Democrats; he proposes to withdraw from Iraq, but only gradually; and he has little to say about the defence budget. These may be decent steps when compared to what has gone before, but this is not transformational politics.

But focusing on the modesty of Obama’s proposals misses the point. When F D Roosevelt campaigned in 1932, his specific policy proposals were limited. Nevertheless, his bold rhetoric and the surge of voters to the Democrats set in motion a process that changed the United States, whether FDR intended it or not. The 1932 election created a huge new political space in which insurgent movements flourished, nourished by the sense that the new administration could not afford to ignore their demands. It was the movements of the unemployed, of the aged, of industrial workers and farmers that forced Roosevelt to act on relief and public employment, labour rights, farm supports and old age pensions. They pressed FDR hard, and because they did, they helped to forge the policy initiatives that we now know as the New Deal.

An Obama victory – if it’s big enough – could usher in another such transformational moment in American politics. If turnout remains high and the coalition holds, an Obama victory could mean a realignment of US electoral politics around a majority coalition similar to the one forged in the New Deal era, with African Americans replacing the white south as the reliable core of the coalition. Most importantly, a big Obama victory would also create new political space for social movements. It would simultaneously generate the hope that is always the fuel of movements from the bottom of society and it would put in place a regime that is susceptible to influence by those movements. ‘Yes we can’ could come to mean a lot more than an empty slogan.

Frances Fox Piven is distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York. Lorraine C Minnite is assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and co-author with Frances Fox Piven and Margaret Groarke of the forthcoming Keeping Down the Black Vote: Race and the Demobilisation of the American Voter

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