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February 29, 2008

"Obamacans" and "Reagan Democrats": The Limits of Transcendence

This extraordinary election year has brought talk of both party realignment and demographic shifts. But it’s hard to know what’s really changing and what’s staying the same. Ronald Brownstein writes today that the Democrats are “A Party Transformed,” that a “new democratic coalition is being forged” that may tip “the party’s internal balance of power.”

From New Hampshire to California, and from Arizona to Wisconsin, exit polls from this year's contests show the Democratic coalition evolving in clear and consistent ways since the 2004 primaries that nominated John Kerry. The party is growing younger, more affluent, more liberal, and more heavily tilted toward women, Latinos, and African-Americans.
Meanwhile, we hear talk of Republicans voting for Obama, “Obamacans,” a species of voter who is supposed to be the mirror image of all those “Reagan Democrats” who bolted the party to put conservatives and Republicans safely in power for nearly thirty years. In truth, until yesterday, I didn’t really believe these people existed outside the imagination of the press and a few starry-eyed propagandists on team-Obama. But yesterday, while repairing the lights in my front yard, my neighbors, Harry and Gwen, hailed me from their yard across the street to take my political-pulse. Now Harry and Gwen, I’ve always believed, are solid Republicans. Very decent people, mind you—retired conservative church-goers with whom I exchange a few good-natured barbs on most election days. I seem to recall Harry being glued to his set during the Clinton impeachment hearings—rooting for the prosecution!

Yesterday, however, as we chatted across the narrow street that divides us, they both volunteered the judgment that Obama was the better candidate. “You mean better than Hillary?” I asked. But since it was an intriguing comment coming from people I assumed were model McCain voters, I added: “Or better than McCain?”

“Better than the whole lot of them,” came the response—and with elaboration, too (not only were they impressed by Obama’s thoughtfulness, their feelings about McCain were summed up tersely with: “a hundred years in Iraq!!!”)

Still, the problem with claims for both the “shift” in Democratic Party demographics and party allegiances more broadly is that they seem a little too sudden. One could see in Reagan Democrats, for example, the seeds of thirty years of deep social dislocations coming to fruition (backlashes against the civil rights movement, the Cultural Revolution, the explosion of government and the corresponding changes in the way individuals were imagined to relate to the state). But this year’s transformations seem to come from nowhere. As arrogant and incompetent as the Bush presidency has been, and as unpopular as the war in Iraq is, it is hard to see these things as so profound as to transform the entire political culture. For the last twenty years or so it has been conventional wisdom to describe ourselves as a fifty-fifty nation, divided evenly into two antithetical, ideologically rigid, camps; and there’s been no apparent reason to doubt that wisdom.

That is, until now. The 2008 election may be telling us that, although we have been evenly divided, it hasn’t been along ideological lines. Here, it might be instructive to contrast Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. If we truly were as evenly divided along ideological lines as we’ve assumed, then you would assume that Bill Clinton would have had infinitely more crossover appeal than Obama. Clinton, recall, was the DLC candidate, the “third way” politician who advanced moderate policies and market-based solutions to achieve traditionally progressive goals. He proposed balanced budgets and left office with a surplus—a rather uncharacteristic achievement for a Democratic president. Yet, for all of his ideological gestures to the right, they vilified and impeached him. Obama, on the other hand, has been a safe liberal vote in both the senate and the Illinois legislature. As far as I can tell, he makes few or no ideological gestures to the right wing, save for a willingness to entertain their arguments. Yet, he incites very little hostility—indeed, he even generates a fair amount of respect.

What’s the difference? Clinton was a moderate, who campaigned as a Democrat. He campaigned against Republicans, and his wife vilified them as members of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” (Hillary often charges that her opponents have lifted a vile tactic “right out of the Republic play book.”) Clinton may have been a centrist Democrat who tried to reform his party; but to redefine your party’s brand, you have to claim ownership of it. In the end, Clinton may have transcended traditional ideological labels, but not party labels. Obama does the exact opposite. He embraces liberal policies, but without hugging the party brand too tightly. Since he does not vilify Republicans, many of them feel free to support him without the need to repudiate a cultural identity they’ve adopted.

All of this suggests, I think, that Americans may be more ideologically open—or free-thinking—than we’re accustomed to believe. But they’re much less willing to abandon who they “are”—that is, a name for something they perceive to be fundamental to their identity. As trivial as it seems, “Reagan Democrats” could still claim too be some sort of Democrat, just as becoming an “Obamacan” does not linguistically—or psychologically—require one to cast off the family name.

Posted by stevemack at February 29, 2008 09:58 AM


"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

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