The real meaning of “racist” birther birther conspiracy

Among other things largely drowned out in this amazing post debate week, is that twice during the debate, Hillary Clinton explicitly referred to Trump’s actions as “racist.”  (As they actually are, of course).  Jamelle Bouie has a great piece putting this in a far broader context and what it means for a Democratic politician to so openly accuse an opponent of racism for actions that are not overly racist.  Mostly, it means the Democratic party has changed a lot since Bill Clinton was running for president:

It’s no small thing to call birtherism a “racist lie” in front of the largest-ever debate audience. Presidential candidates slam opponents for almost everything under the sun. But not racism. Not because it isn’t present, but because it risks alienating white voters who aren’t comfortable with accusations of racial prejudice or racist intent. [emphases mine] But last week, facing an estimated 85 million viewers, Clinton did just that, in a way that wasn’t imaginable four years ago (when Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney and his veiled racial appeals), eight years ago (when Sarah Palin fueled her nascent celebrity with raw white resentment), and certainly 30 years ago, when George H.W. Bush and the Republican Party stoked white fears of black crime for political gain, crushing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in the process.

What changed to make Clinton—a woman of profound political caution, the virtual avatar of modern-day Democratic centrism—willing to name racism when she sees it? To describe millions of voters as “deplorables” with racist and misogynistic views?  To call the things what they are, even if it alienates voters?

The answer is straightforward. Clinton may represent the middle way of Democratic politics, but that middle way is substantively and electorally different from the middle way of the 1990s, when her husband was in office. Clinton can talk openly about white racism because she doesn’t need the old Democratic electorate.

In the 1990s, Democrats needed white voters and struggled to pull them into the fold, in part because of the party’s liberalism and its strong identification with black Americans and black political interests…

Running in 1992, Clinton danced a two-step. He tied himself to black voters and black communities, winning huge support through deft use of cultural affinity. He emphasized his Southern heritage: Here was a poor boy from Arkansas who could relate, personally, to the lives of many black Americans. At the same time, however, Clinton made a direct play to the cultural anxieties and political resentments of those whites who’d abandoned Dukakis for Bush…

It was a politics indexed to white anxiety. The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton relied on voters who were unfriendly—even hostile—to racial liberalism. And it moved accordingly. Bolstered by the economy as well as these cultural moves, Clinton would claim the center of American politics, winning an easy re-election and eventually ending his term as one of the most popular presidents in recent memory, despite scandal and an impeachment attempt.

But that was then. Today, those voters—among them millions of working-class white men—are lost to the Democratic Party, in a shift that began under George W. Bush but accelerated under the presidency of Barack Obama. Democrats today win a smaller share of white voters—and the white workers in particular—than ever before. The home for those voters is in the GOP, under Trump, who turned a substantial majority with working-class whites into an overwhelming one, enough to win Ohio and Iowa and possibly other Midwestern states. But there’s been a backlash to this backlash. Trump’s success with working-class whites has come at the expense of the Republican Party’s historic advantage with college-educated and professional whites, who now favor Hillary Clinton. Increasingly, the Democratic electorate is shorn of those voters who are skeptical of racial and cultural liberalism or who vote on that skepticism.

Yep.  Of course, there’s more to the college/non-college split among white voters these days, but it is surprisingly well-captured in not exactly racism, but attitudes about race and culture.  And with the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump, this split seems likely to grow in the future.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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