The Issue Emphasis Shift

A few days ago, I said that the Democrats were abandoning many traditional liberal issues, such as welfare, the environment, and gun control, as part of their attempt to appeal to moderate voters. On Ezra’s blog, Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math offers a reason that makes more sense: a change in the electoral map.

In the ’80s and ’90s, both the Presidential and Congressional electoral maps were substantially different from today. At the Presidential level, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia were highly competitive–all states with high-crime urban areas and significant racial tensions. California was still Republican territory (it went for Carter Ford … you know … the republican in ’76), meaning the South was even more criticial to Democratic Presidential hopes. In the House, supermajority white districts in the South voted for Republican Presidents while re-electing incumbent Democratic Congressmen, marking them as prime targets for the NRCC. All of this meant that the Republican Party, already committed to the “Southern Strategy” during the Nixon era, could gain a lot of ground without much in the way of policy shifts simply by wedging Democrats on race-related issues.

Fast forward to today. Only Bud Cramer (D-AL), Gene Taylor (D-MS), and maybe Jim Marshall (D-GA) remain from the Democratic “White South“, though perhaps Heath Shuler (D-NC) is a new member of the club. In the race for the White House, the blue-tinted swing states have migrated from the South to the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio (once Republican territory) and Pennsylvania. These states certainly have their socially conservative areas–check out the NARAL ratings for some of the Pennsylvania Democrats–but don’t have the same history of antagonistic race relations. Complaining that your opponent possesses insufficient zeal for locking people up just doesn’t get you as far in these parts of the country.

While this is certainly a plausible reason why race is less important in national politics than it used to be, it’s only one of several. After desegregation, conservative rhetoric about race shifted to codewords like “welfare queen” and “crack addict.” These were always euphemisms for “nigger,” but in a climate when being overtly racist was unacceptable, they helped convince people that the problem wasn’t with black people but with welfare, crime, and drugs. After Clinton coopted the Republican positions on these issues, that avenue of conservative racism ran out of steam.

The new racist politics, which is based on hatred of immigrants and their descendants, provides a good analogy to that. Nobody in the US or Canada or Europe who matters says, “We’re a white nation and brown-skinned immigrants should be excluded.” That would alienate too many people. Instead, the racists appeal to the majority language, Western civilization, and cultural compatibility.

As a result, that appeal causes people to accept sufficiently assimilated immigrants, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Fareed Zakaria. These tilt right, since members of the majority ethnicity always get more leeway to be antiracist than minorities do; that, in turn, helps racists rationalize their bigotry based on cultural rather than racial criteria. Not coincidentally, that makes “Actually, they are assimilating” a powerful antiracist counterargument.

Now, back to the original issue. As soon as the race problem was clothed in terms of broader social problems, racists became vulnerable to attacks on the euphemized issues, though in this case the attack was a triangulation rather than a counterargument.

In the 1990s, the declining race gap and the purging of the White South from the Democratic Party did not correlate with more strident liberal positions on racially charged issues. Part of it is due to Clinton’s strategy of governing to the right of Eisenhower, but even New York City elected Giuliani and Bloomberg twice each.


One Response to The Issue Emphasis Shift

  1. Part of the problem is America’s well entrenched two-party system, which creates far too many “prisoner’s dilemma” scenarios in electoral politics. Liberals in this country are often stuck voting for right of center Democrats because they want to prevent an even further right Republican from taking office, and the Democrats often attempt to undermine more liberal candidate (especially social and cultural liberals) because they are perceived to spoil electoral success and hand victory to Republicans.

    Multi-party democracies usually aren’t plagued by such problems. And incidentally, in countries like Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, etc. the political center is usually far to left of America’s.

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