After years of dysfunction, the state of American politics is clear: Washington, D.C. is broken, and the public is too divided to fix it. How did we reach this desperate point? Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos of Stanford University answer this question in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America. Our extreme partisanship has less to do with party politics than it does with social movements rooted in years of economic and racial inequality. In their engaging book, McAdam and Kloos explain how the hyperpartisanship that has infected our leaders today actually began decades ago.
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Politics and governance has and always will be a blood sport of sorts. Given what is at stake, how could it be otherwise? Politics invariably involves decisions that impact the distribution of valued resources and opportunities, which in turn, shape the life chances of all groups in society. Quite simply, the material and symbolic stakes at the heart of policymaking are often enormous, accounting for the intense passions and deep divisions that frequently characterize the political arena. Still, when it comes to party polarization and government dysfunction, we contend that no events of the past sixty years compare to the acrimony, bitterness and willful sabotage of policymaking that has characterized Barack Obama’s time in office. Only the bitter run-up to the Civil War clearly surpasses the past six years for partisan bloodletting and the constant threat of governmental paralysis.
The striking escalation in partisan politics and governmental dysfunction over the course of the past six years bear the clear imprint of the two central structuring forces that we have sought to highlight in the book. They are: the continuing—indeed increasing—significance of race in American politics and the dynamic interaction of, and tension between, movement and party as forms and logics of politics. More to the point, we see the rise and radicalization of a racially inflected Tea Party movement as largely responsible for the deepening crisis in American political life.
The Increasing Significance of Race
In the aftermath of Obama’s victory over Romney in the 2012 general election, there was much talk about how the Republicans were out of touch with the shifting demography of the U.S.; how they had become a party of older, white voters and unless they found ways to attract minority and younger voters, they were doomed to suffer the same fate in future elections. And while this analysis is demonstrably true, the skewed racial demography of the Republican Party is hardly new. Since Nixon and others first used a thinly veiled politics of racial reaction to court southern white voters and other racial conservatives in the mid to late 1960s, the GOP has been moving steadily to the right and becoming ever more dependent on a racially skewed demographic base. This is not to say that today’s GOP is, in racial terms, the same as it was in 1972 or during Reagan’s years in office, or even under George W. Bush. On the contrary, we claim that, owing much to the Tea Party, the current Republican Party is more racially conservative and demographically exclusive than at any point in the past 50 years. Before we take up these claims, we want to first emphasize the essential continuity we see reflected in the racial politics embraced by the GOP over the past half century.
On the eve of the 1960s, the racial politics of the two major parties was, notwithstanding cosmetic differences, largely unchanged since the consolidation of Jim Crow in the late 1800s. The GOP Congressional delegation remained far more racially liberal than its Democratic counterpart. Notwithstanding a certain rhetorical embrace of the need for civil rights reform, Democratic presidential aspirants remained generally committed to accommodating the racial sensibilities of the party’s Dixiecrat wing. Accordingly, the white South remained the most loyal and strategically important component of the Democratic electoral coalition.
The political environment that had sustained this particular system of racial politics was irrevocably altered by the revival and dramatic expansion of the civil rights movement in the spring of 1960 and the reactive rise of the white resistance countermovement in that same year. Consistent with our stress on the centrifugal force of movements in U.S. history, over the course of the 1960s these companion struggles pushed the two parties in opposite directions. Subject to the unrelenting pressure of the civil rights revolution, the Democrats shifted left, first tentatively and reluctantly under Kennedy and then much more quickly and dramatically with Johnson in the White House. At the same time, and despite protests from the dominant centrist, pro-civil rights wing of the party, the GOP began to shift to the right in an effort to claim the votes of a white South angered by the Democrat’s increasingly aggressive advocacy of civil rights reform. And when the southern resistance movement morphed into the nationwide “white backlash” of the mid to late-60s, the rightward shift of the GOP only accelerated. Running on what he called his “southern strategy,” Nixon claimed the White House in 1968 and then spent much of his first term in office perfecting a politics of racial reaction to cement his appeal with white southerners and racial conservatives elsewhere in the country. In their 1991 book, Chain Reaction, the Edsalls succinctly describe the racial politics that animated the Republican “brand” pioneered by Nixon. In their words:
Race was central, Nixon and key Republican strategists began to
recognize, to the fundamental conservative strategy of establishing
a new polarization of the electorate, a polarization isolating a
liberal, activist, culturally permissive, rights oriented, and pro-
black Democratic Party against those unwilling to pay the
financial costs of this reconfigured social order.
The strategy was to depict the GOP as the party of the law abiding, tax paying, “silent (mostly white) majority” and demonize the Democrats as the party of liberals and the undeserving (disproportionately minority) poor whose dependence on social programs was taking money out of the pockets of hard working, overtaxed (white) Americans. Sound familiar? It should since this very same critique was invoked by Mitt Romney in his famous—or infamous—disputation on the “47 percent” at a fund raising event during the 2012 presidential campaign. Romney’s intent, in making the remark, was to stress just what a difficult challenge he faced in the election, given the dependence of large segments of the American public on “big government.” As he saw it, “there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. . . . [they] are dependent upon government [and] believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing….you name it.”
Interestingly, while Romney apologized and sought to distance himself from his remarks when they first became public, he returned—even more explicitly—to the same themes in his first press appearance following the election. In fact, if anything, his post-mortem comments on his defeat were much more explicitly racial than his original remarks had been. Eschewing the normal practice of congratulating his opponent for the win and commending him for a campaign well run, Romney instead blamed his defeat on the policy “gifts” that Obama had bestowed on the very “dependent” segments of the population to whom he had alluded in his initial “47 percent” commentary. But this time he named those groups, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and young people,” going into considerable detail about how specific policies benefitted each group, thus effectively buying their votes.
We could offer countless examples of essentially the same thinly-veiled, racialized attack on liberal social programs, unfair taxes, and the undeserving, dependent poor offered up by prominent Republicans spanning the last five decades, but we will confine ourselves to the following examples of the most recent. We made note of Romney’s contribution to the genre above. For his part, Newt Gingrich accused Obama of being a “food-stamp president” and opined that, “poor people should want paychecks, not handouts.” But most explicit of all was Rick Santorum, who offered up the following quote: “I don’t want to make black peoples’ lives better by giving them someone else’s money.”
For all the consistency of the rhetoric of the GOP over the past 4-5 decades, a growing body of evidence supports the conclusion that the party’s racial politics have grown that much more extreme during the Obama years. Analyzing data from the American National Election Studies, Tesler and Sears show that the racial attitudes of those who identify with the two major parties are now more polarized than ever. Consistent with that finding, a host of analyses of that year’s election results suggest that a non-trivial number of white voters cast ballots for John McCain who otherwise would have probably voted for President Obama. Based on various statistical models, one analyst estimated that Obama would have received anywhere from between two and twelve additional percentage points of the vote had the racial attitudes of the American electorate been “neutral.” For all the evidence showing the influence of anti-Black attitudes on voting behavior and party identification in 2008, those attitudes have, if anything, strengthened and polarized even more over the course of Obama’s first term in office. Most tellingly Pasek and his colleagues show that Republican identifiers in 2012 expressed significantly greater anti-black attitudes than their counterparts in 2008.
We have devoted a great deal of attention in the book to the conservative racial politics that have defined the Republican Party at least since the Nixon administration. But nothing in the forty years between Nixon’s first election in 1968 and Obama’s ascension to the White House in 2008 could have prepared us for the extreme racial attitudes and behaviors exhibited by the GOP during Obama’s time in office. It is hard to imagine a starker rebuke to all those who wanted to believe that, with the election, the country had finally put its troubled racial past behind it. Far from the imagined post-racial society Obama’s election was supposed to herald, we find ourselves living through some of the greatest racial tensions and conflict since the 1960s and early 1970s.
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Reprinted from Deeply Divided by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Oxford University Press, 2014 and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.
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