Appealing to privilege is no longer a winning political strategy
Republicans lost their bid for the Presidency, and also lost two seats in the Senate. Republicans did not come close to losing control of the House, but when all of the vote counting and recounts are hashed out over the coming days and weeks, it appears that they will have lost 8 or more seats in a year when the states where Republicans controlled post-census redistricting (read gerrymandering) outnumbered states where Democrats controlled it 2:1. When a party LOSES seats in a year where they had the opportunity to re-draw districts in their favor in significantly more states than their opponents, they are clearly doing something wrong. (For some seriously nerdy wonkery on 2011 redistricting/reapportionment and how it theoretically should have helped Republicans, see here.)
Mind you, all of these losses occurred in an election year when the economy, in a word, sucks — which is normally bad for the party of the incumbent President.
That’s important data, but not the only data. It’s also important to note exactly where the Republicans held their ground or even gained a little since 2008: As Jon Stewart quipped Tuesday night, “Most of the Confederacy went for Mitt Romney.”
But I think the most revealing facts of all lie in the demographics: Romney earned 59% of the white vote, and lost every other race/ethnicity demographic by a large margin. (Reagan was elected when 90% of voters were white, and Romney would have won decisively with similar demographics — but only 72% of this year’s voters were white, a downward trend that will certainly continue for years to come.) Romney earned 55% of men’s votes: 60% or higher among white men, and much, much, much higher for over-forty, middle-to-upper income white men. But he earned only 44% of women’s votes, most of those concentrated among older, white, married women. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any access to exit polling raw data yet where the real demographic details lie: The link to the Sacramento Bee’s AP exit poll graphic only has categories like sex and race, not cross-correlations. Maybe I’ll dig into that data when it becomes available later in the week and update this paragraph.)
But this isn’t just about the Presidential votes and demographics. Two Republican Senate candidates who formerly had leads in the polls saw those leads evaporate and wound up losing on election day after they made comments exposing their real views about women. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin lost in Missouri and Richard “Rape Pregnancies are God’s Will” Mourdock lost in Indiana. (INDIANA! The most consistently red of red states!) Mind you, they only lost because they happened to explicitly express in public the kind of reasoning that underlies the official Republican Party platform, which seeks to criminalize all abortions and makes no exception for women pregnant by rape.
Also, *every* vote on marriage-rights-related state ballots came down in favor of marriage equality for gay men and women. And voters elected our nation’s first openly gay Senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. And two women from religious minorities were elected as well: Senator Mazie Hirono (the first Buddhist in the Senate) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (the first Hindu in the House), both of Hawaii.
There are a number of ways to interpret this broad array of results, but most of those explanations are partial and inadequate. For example, this broad pattern of voting does not simply indicate a rejection of the Republican economic policies that got us into our current mess, because that wouldn’t explain why white men believed Romney’s supply-side voodoo economics nonsense while other demographics rejected it. Nor would that narrative explain the thrashing of rape apologist Senators, nor marriage equality victories. Ditto for explanations about Republican intransigence and obstructionism in Congress: Why did only some voter segments see that as problematic? And what does that have to do with the differences in voting based on race and gender?
The one factor that unifies ALL these election results is this: Securing the votes of the privileged is not enough to win American elections any more. Political rhetoric and policy proposals primarily aimed at the socioculturally privileged are doomed to fail because the electorate has changed: the privileged no longer have the numerical dominance to go with their other relative advantages in life. Appealing to male privilege alienates women, who vote in ever-increasing numbers — so anti-choice extremism plays poorly with the electorate as a whole. Appealing to white privilege alienates both racial minorities *and* non-bigoted whites — so exploiting fear of privilege loss (Damned immigrants taking our jobs!) and appeals to racism play poorly with the electorate as a whole. (Of course, appeals to racism are generally veiled — but you don’t think white people imagine themselves when Republicans use phrases like “the culture of dependency”, do you? That’s just the 21st Century version of “welfare queens.”) Appealing to religious privilege alienates the ever-growing segment of the population that identifies itself as non-religious; appealing to heterosexual privilege alienates an electorate growing increasingly comfortable with diversity in human sexuality and gender expression; and so on and so forth.
The Republican Party has grown more reactionary year by year, and they don’t seem to be capable of switching that trajectory. Ever more extreme candidates win Republican primaries because the party’s infamous electoral “base” — which skews dramatically older, whiter, more Evangelical, and more male than the general electorate — dominates the primary process, but the narrow world view that appeals to those older white males has no appeal to the rest of the electorate: It’s a world view very clearly shaped by fear of change — and not just any change, but specifically fear of losing the privileges they enjoy with respect to women, gays, racial minorities, non-Christians, younger people, etc. Yes, Republicans continue to win in the parts of this country where white/male/Christian/heterosexual privilege is still socially dominant — the American South as a whole, and rural/suburban America to a much greater degree than urban America — but that’s just a matter of lag-time. That sort of sociocultural hegemony is tenuous, and slips away more every year, in every way.
In short, I think the primary lesson of this election is that appealing to privilege is no longer a winning political strategy. But I don’t think the collective sense of identity of the Republican Party allows it to do otherwise: At the most basic level, political conservatism is rooted in fear of change, and those who enjoy privilege have the most to fear from change.
Many sensible political commentators have talked about the same general ideas that I’m addressing here. (Nicholas Kristof at the NYT wrote one of the clearest.) However, all of the analyses I’ve read focus too much on pure demographics, and not enough on the more basic underlying facets of human psychology at play here: privilege and fear of losing it. Hispanic voters went for Bush in much greater proportions than they voted for Romney. Why? Yes, one could point to the strong correlation between Hispanic identity and conservative Catholicism & Pentacostalism, which almost certainly played a significant role in 2004 with its Republican anti-gay referendum get-out-the-vote strategy. However, Romney’s self-deportation rhetoric and immigrant-abusing legislation pushed by Republicans around the country surely encouraged this election’s Hispanic turnout and massive preference for Obama and other Democrats. Okay, then explain that! Why did Georgia and Alabama Republicans feel compelled to copy Arizona’s much-maligned state immigration law model — over the protests of their respective states’ influential farming lobbies — when they know damned well that Hispanics are a growing voter demographic? Why did Romney spout anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail? Republicans are compelled to prey on white voters’ fears because those fears actually exist — they genuinely do feel a nagging, not-always-conscious fear of losing their privileged position in American society, which they are actually losing — and conservative political consciousness is rooted in fear of change.
This leads me to think that Republicans simply CANNOT change in the sorts of substantial ways that would prevent their inevitable decline into political irrelevance — which would be wonderful, if only it changed anything fundamental about American political life. Unfortunately, both the Democrats and Republicans are thoroughly wedded to the interests of a loss-of-privilege-fearing segment of the populace which exercises influence wildly out of proportion to its numbers: the wealthy. I didn’t mention economic privilege above precisely because there is not very much difference between our two major parties in that respect. (Libertarians are thoroughly wedded to the interests of the wealthy, too, so don’t look to them for change.) And as long as that remains the case — as long as Democrats remain nearly as dedicated to serving the interests of the plutocracy as Republicans are, with the only differences lying in rhetoric (and perhaps a slight, still-to-be-demonstrated-with-real-action willingness on the part of Democrats to undo a miniscule proportion of the past three decades’ upward-redistribution of wealth through minor policy changes) — American political life will not change significantly. Yes, women’s rights and welfare are better served by Democrats, as are the rights and welfare of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, etc. And that does matter, and I’m glad for it — especially if Obama gets to appoint a few more Supreme Court Justices. But if the interests of 99.9% of the populace remain subordinated to the interests of the 0.1%, those comparative improvements will ultimately be no more than bread and circuses, providing only a bit of distraction and a few minor improvements in some respects while the inevitable collapse of our society proceeds apace.