Just below the Surface: The Role of Race in This Year's Election

By Cochran, David Carroll | Commonweal, October 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Just below the Surface: The Role of Race in This Year's Election


Cochran, David Carroll, Commonweal


November 2008 answered once and for all the question of whether the country would ever elect an African American president, even as it opened up new questions about how race would shape President Barack Obama's political success or failure--including his prospects for reelection in a campaign environment very different from the one he faced the first time around.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has had to contend with intense Republican opposition and a series of nasty, often farfetched attacks on his character and background. Many on the left see racism behind this antagonism. They point to racist signs at Tea Party rallies, racially charged language from GOP presidential candidates, and accusations by conservative opinion leaders, such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, that Obama hates "white culture" and is purposefully destroying the economy to avenge centuries of racial oppression.

In truth, the intense opposition to the president has less to do with race than with politics. Ideological division between our two parties has sharpened in recent decades, and the zero-sum game of politics, where one party's failure is the other's gain, favors choosing opposition over cooperation. GOP resistance to the president's agenda, including policies Republicans once routinely endorsed, is not personal; it's just business. Yes, opposition to the president on the right has been irrational and hysterical at times, but this tendency predates Obama. The Clinton presidency saw wild conspiracy theories and overheated rhetoric as well. Remember accusations of ties to Arkansas drug smuggling, a congressman recreating the Vince Foster "murder" in his backyard with a gun and a melon, and an impeachment featuring detailed evidence about oral sex in the White House? The modern American right is built for intense oppositional politics, vehemently defending against what it perceives as ever-present threats to liberty by big government and to traditional values by elite secularism. Given the electoral incentives of a Republican Party increasingly dominated by its conservative base and the country's current economic conditions, any sitting Democratic president would face similar opposition, regardless of his or her race.

But while the larger motivation for the right's opposition to Obama has little to do with the president's race, certain accusations leveled against him do tap into racial prejudice. Charges that Obama is really a Muslim, that he wasn't born in the United States, that he is trying to take the country away from "real Americans," or that his election was stolen by activists from ACORN and the New Black Panthers all resonate with a significant percentage of citizens in ways they would not if Obama were white. These charges differ from those leveled at Clinton, and the difference is partly about race.

The role race plays in the modern conservative movement, and in the post-civil-rights Republican Party more generally, long predates the election of Obama. It's something that has challenged Democrats--white and black alike--for some time. Modern conservatism has many elements, but overwhelming evidence suggests that a white backlash to racial changes in the wake of the civil-rights movement is one of them. This is certainly not to say that all conservatives are racist, or that the movement is defined solely or even predominantly by a racial backlash. Yet to deny the role of white racial resentment in the rise of the modern Republican Party and its conservative base is to deny the obvious--indeed, many conservative leaders have themselves acknowledged this racial strain and tried to purge their movement of it.

Since the discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised many African Americans were outlawed by Congress in 1965, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote. That's almost half a century in which the average white support for Democratic candidates has been 40 percent. …

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