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A Racially Polarized Election Augurs Ill for Barack Obama’s Second Term


By Joel KotkinNovember 07 2012

Appearing in: 
The Daily Beast

President Obama, the man many saw as curing the country’s “scar of race,” won a second term in the most racially polarized election in decades. Overall, the Romney campaign relied almost entirely on white voters, particularly in the South and among the working class. Exit polls showed that almost 60 percent of whites voted for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor even won the majority of whites in California and New York.

In previous elections, including 2008, such a performance would have been enough to assure a GOP victory. But America’s demographics are shifting, with racial minorities constituting upwards of one quarter or more of the vote, and growing.

Essentially, Obama’s margin of victory was made up not only by a strong base of African-Americans but also Latinos, who appear to have voted for him more than two to one, a slight improvement from his 2008 performance. And for the first time, Latinos accounted for one in ten voters, up from 8 percent four years ago.

But—despite his poetic, inclusive victory speech—this alliance of people of color could create a potential tragedy for our democracy. This is not because of the final result, but because it suggests that, unless there is some massive change in GOP politics, we may see a re-hardening of politics along racial lines.

The election showed the efficacy of the new racial politics. Appeals to Latinos paid off massively, even though it may have cost the president some white votes. If Latinos remain solidly Democratic, the new racial outcasts will increasingly be middle- and working-class whites.

The Democrats will continue to press race, as some Republicans did in the past (remember Willie Horton?), because it works. The president’s race-conscious campaigning this year was assisted in part because the media did not stress his ties to abrasive reverends like Al Sharpton and Joseph Lowery. He also did well with his Latino gambit since, once again, the media, including many conservatives, were sympathetic to amnesty.

So where does this go from here? Political revolutions—particularly successful ones—tend to shift rapidly into excess. With the recalcitrant white vote seemingly neutralized, the Obama team can now ever more openly embrace a multicultural politics of the kind Bill Clinton was careful to avoid. One sure voice pushing for race-centered politics will come from Attorney General Eric Holder, who largely embraces the idea that affirmative-action policies should be continued until Latinos and African-Americans achieve social and economic parity with whites.

Affirmative action and other race-sensitive policies—promoted even by ersatz minorities like new senator Elizabeth Warren—could characterize our politics for the next decade or more. These divisions are already evident among millennials, where whites, particularly evangelicals, have become increasingly alienated from the president. White millennials, who backed Obama in 2008, went with Romney this year 52-44, according to an exit poll—a particularly troubling shift. The gap between white and minority millennials this year appears to be as high as 30 points—a bad augur.

And racial divisions may become worse if the economy continues to sputter. President Obama may be beloved among Latinos and African-Americans, but his economic policies have not been friendly to them. This is particularly true, ironically, for blacks, who, as Walter Russell Mead among others have pointed out, have fared worst of all in the recession. This situation could be exacerbated by growing financial stress in cities and states, whose governments have traditionally been major employers of black white-collar workers.

Unless growth comes back, this means minorities, particularly African-Americans, could become ever more strident in their demands. Their appeal to an administration—particularly now that it faces no new elections—that at times seems sympathetic to a racialized agenda could be stronger than could be imagined just a few years ago. This could end badly. In the long run, history has shown, groups that look too much to government (the Irish, for example) do not fare as well as those, such as yesterday’s Jews and today’s Asians, who look more to education and entrepreneurship.

Alienation among whites is also likely to increase. Like its minority counterpart, the white working class—including millennials—has also suffered in the recession, and suffers double-digit unemployment. Although this entire generation can be considered screwed, young whites—and young white males—are particularly so. Not only have many been left behind by the economy, but they have been deemed less worthy of assistance by the emerging new ruling class.

In many ways, this has ominous implications. To date America’s white working and middle classes have not drifted toward the kind of nativist movements that have risen in France, Germany, and, most recently, Greece. Yet a group that feels ignored by the establishment, and feels increasingly like second-class citizens in their own country, can drift in that direction.

The great tragedy here: the major challenges facing America are not primarily racial. They include stimulating economic growth for the broadest portion of our population. We need better jobs, roads, and bridges and less symbolism or redress for past sins. If politicians think the way to success is to open the scar of race, we will create the kind of politics that will undermine hope for our future success.

Joel on Reason.tv

Watch the full sized video at Reason.com.


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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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