The Democratic Party lost last week’s election in August of 2009, ignoring for the following fifteen months the ascendancy of the white “middle class” tea party that wielded its “non-partisan” clout to catapult conservatives to power in Congress and statehouses across the country.
The Party’s abysmal failure to create a counter-narrative to the tea party’s race-tinged agenda provided fertile ground for the “shellacking” that will, over the next two years, likely intensify the gridlock that is now the hallmark of American politics. As eighteen-term Democratic Congressman James Oberstar—Chair of the powerful and porky House Transportation Committee—put it as he conceded in defeat, he “never saw it coming until it was too late.” Neither did his Party.
While the abysmal economy is said to have driven the political sea-change, the realignment of many white voters, especially in the South, reflects the appeal of the tea party’s racially-derived narrative aimed particularly at the President, and grounded heavily in white “grievances.” The significant shift of white voters from the Democratic to the Republican column—a nine percent increase of white men, a seven percent increase of white women over 2006 returns—does not alone cement the impact of that narrative. It does, however, underscore the grim reality that race—as much as Democrats themselves want to downplay it—is a core, driving force among the now-dominant populace. That two African-Americans were among the tea party’s southern Congressional victors does not diminish this reality; as commentator Sam Fulwood III writes, they, too, are “far-right conservatives ”who will have to “embrace the Tea Party and the far-right wing of the GOP.” It will indeed be interesting to see that unfold.
In 1982 U.S. unemployment reached 10.2 percent, with twelve million workers out of a job; black unemployment hit a staggering 19%. Tens of thousands of white farm families were losing their land; banks were beginning to fail; 17,000 businesses went under. The Reagan recession was brutal. Voters punished the President with a loss of 27 House seats that November, but he came back strongly by 1984 on the back of an improving economy, sweeping the Democrats away with 59% of the popular vote. This in spite of the fact that he launched the three-decade long economic assault on the middle class that revered him, via his Economic Recovery Tax Act that began the dramatic shift of wealth to the rich—outcomes of which we are living with to this day.
Reagan had a winning narrative—a narrative grounded on race. In his first appearance after his nomination in 1980, he appeared at the county fair in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964; it was one of many signals and symbols he used to reassure whites that things would be “different” under his administration. His race-baiting “welfare queen” story was abominable. He declared that the 1964 Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the South.” And he won in a landslide.
Which brings us to last week. The current economic crisis is by no means the singular cause of white realignment. For Democrats to think so, and for the President ready to “make peace with business” is a gross affront. The Democrats have no alternative narrative to the one that Ronald Reagan foisted on the nation, and that the tea partiers and many Republicans echo. When the lame duck Congress reconvenes, we’ll see if they have courage enough to end the tax cuts on the rich, who have now gained even more concentrated power and wealth, and we’ll see if they have yet figured out that the sordid, unanswered nexus of race, class, and wealth did them in.
Buckle up: if Dems continue to dither, if whites continue to realign; if the rich continue to win, the years ahead are going to be very, very tough, particularly on African Americans; on low-wage and (the shrinking number of) blue collar workers; on those who have little; and on the “middle class” that threw the hapless Dems out for a bucket of promises that, enacted, will only accelerate the concentration of power and wealth among whites at the top.