Mitt Romney admitted to the new social truth in America when he remarked that had his parents been Mexican he’d have a better shot at the presidency. That the United States is a changed country, demographically, from the one that white men of Romney’s generation grew up in became manifest in the last presidential election and will do so again.
Republicans who argue that the Hispanic vote is less than 4 percent of the electorate in eight swing states must not be counting Florida. Romney’s select audience at a secretly filmed, private event in May in Boca Raton applauded a story from a fellow diner about Senator Marco Rubio’s parents telling him that if he went to school and worked hard then one day he, too, would be successful. They followed the political script that promised the Republicans would be supported by good immigrants who believe in the American way—i.e., success as exemption. But maybe not enough Hispanic voters will forget the Republican Party’s anti-immigration rhetoric and its angry opposition to Obama’s support for the Dream Act, by which undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors would be given a way to qualify for permanent residency.
Yet the Republican Party seems unable to concede that its ticket hasn’t much chance of winning the Latino vote. “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American bloc has in the past,” Romney said at Boca Raton, “why we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.” However, his appeal to his base that evening comes across in the Mother Jones video as an injured sense of personal whiteness, confusion that his being the candidate of rich and right-wing and male whites hasn’t made him more respectable and convincing to the nation as a whole.
Romney derided Obama’s charm as his only foreign policy, asserted that the Republican ticket could capture women, and added that college kids feel let down by Obama, too. He predicted that Obama’s campaign would be an “attack of one American against another American.” The president will attempt to divide the country “by going after those who have been successful.” He was calling in the tribe, shrugging off the likelihood that he won’t be able to reach that 47 percent of the American electorate that is going to vote for the president “no matter what.” He put his own faithful at around 45 percent of the electorate.
This descendant of white men who went into exile in Mexico in order to practice polygamy will always be remembered for his claim that 47 percent of Americans have been corrupted by their dependence on government. They are “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility” to take care of them, that they are “entitled” to health care, food, and housing. Moreover, this 47 percent doesn’t pay income tax, so “our message of low taxes” won’t register with it. He said he had to reach “the 5 to 10 percent” in the middle. In the derision following the release of Romney’s dinner speech, several sources pointed out that among the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes are the elderly and military personnel and that the relief was granted them by Republican administrations. Meanwhile, the old words scored no targets. The significance of the subsequent debate over Romney’s 47 percent was that he’d played the race card and it had failed him. It has lost most of its force.
The political language about victims who feel entitled to government help, do-nothings whose dependence on government only increases the tax burden of decent, hardworking people—these are among the coded phrases that have been used in past elections to conjure up the threat of a resentful black urban population. But the days when George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad could scare whites are gone.
So, too, is the era of the Democratic leadership’s despair at research that told them that if the party continued to be identified with the interests of black people then it would lose out big in the long run. Though the US remains a highly segregated society, perhaps most white people do not consider it an insult to their status anymore to be among black people. The chronic, global nature of the economic crisis has something to do with it, but Obama’s presidency mostly accounts for the sea change. No derogatory image about race that the right can come up with can compete with a photograph of Obama as chief executive, the First Lady by his side.
Obama’s ascendancy began with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fredrick Harris contends in his recent The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.* Twenty years later, Jesse Jackson brought in waves of unregistered black voters, making the solid black vote crucial to the coalition politics that elected Carol Mosley Braun Illinois’s senator in 1992 and finally Obama as the first black president. He is not the spokesman for black people; his race is not an issue in this election, in spite of crazy proxy subjects like his birth certificate; neither are black people in the dock as the source of social pathology.
But in another, very sinister manner, race is still at the center of American politics, in Republican efforts to suppress Obama’s supporters, to keep black people in particular from the polls. Romney may talk as though he’s surrendered that 47 percent, but Republicans are purging voting rolls and throwing up other obstacles in states where they hold governorships. Activists have expressed alarm that Democrats aren’t fearful enough for the ballot as an instrument of democracy, as bloggers say, but if people in the street believe the Republicans capable of anything, let us ask what the White House is preparing for.
The Republicans are expert at dirty tricks, but 2012 is not 2000 or 2004, because America has not forgotten Bush. Then, too, the right wing is mistaken in continuing to view what used to be called the Silent Majority as if it were as ideological as the party platform. The great tribunal, the American people, may not want to credit liberalism as a positive force in US society, but, on the whole, they welcome the legacy of the Sixties. They do not want to turn back the social clock, especially not the middle class, or anyone striving. They like informal America, to wear jeans, to have sex, to cohabit, and maybe not to marry. Though a large percentage of Americans go to church regularly, the majority do not. A majority also support same-sex marriage. They want health care. Because most households need two incomes, they accept the liberation of women, even if economic equality may mean domestic trauma for some men. If a Yale student got pregnant, how many families would urge her to have the baby? The history of the disenfranchised is bitter, so much so that it has long been a mystery why so many Americans who could vote do not. In 1940, when the rest of the world faced great dangers, of the 91,600,000 eligible US voters, only 49,815,000 turned out.
Though Romney, like every Republican contender since Nixon, is counting on white nationalism—even if this isn’t what courting the blue-collar white ethnic vote has been called—it won’t work for him anymore either. The Republican Party cannot revive the old atmosphere of the Solid South, and postmodern Yellow Peril hasn’t brought greater cohesiveness of US citizenry. Romney warned his frustrated Florida dinner companions that undecided voters like the president; Republicans were allowed to talk freely in their own company, but had to be careful how they spoke of Obama before independents. White nationalism is seen as retro and is distasteful, especially to white students.
Because they have not noticed that they have been reduced to another interest group, Romney’s constituents at the dinner sounded like the “victims” they scorn. “Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” “Why is it bad to aspire to be wealthy and successful?” So it is true that the Tea Party has hijacked the Republican Party and taken it even further back in time than the Reagan era. With its headquarters in Wisconsin and chapters in every state, the John Birch Society is still remarkably active on the margins of political life, a sign of how out of step the Republicans have become with a changed America. The American majority is not with them and everything is not permissible in defense of white nationalism, after all. We may have to wait years for another black president, but the vicious obstructionism of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Romney’s rhetoric in Florida about “entitlement” to “food” and his boast that his election would signal the return of investment capital show how harmful to the country’s future the blackmail of white nationalism can be.
Romney’s kind control the country’s wealth, but they cannot get back in charge, psychologically, and this induces a kind of mania in people like John Boehner and the Koch brothers, because power in America is real, and presidential power most real of all. Such white folk cannot forgive Obama for winning in the first place. He sits astride the engine of federal power and patronage—a bookish black man whose elegant family has been sleeping and eating in the quarters where Reagan cracked patrimonial jokes about welfare queens.
In Florida, Romney was wistful about the Reagan–Carter election, when the hostage crisis riveted national attention. Back then, Republican candidates didn’t doubt that their party was attuned to the mood of the general electorate. Now some Republican candidates like Scott Brown are distancing themselves openly from Romney’s theater of the nominee as an empty shirt. Wet-eyed, smiling, and characterizing Obama as a job killer, Romney’s performance during the first debate made for better television than the president’s asides about taxes on corporate jets and companies that move factories overseas. Romney was free of his party’s social platform for the evening, free to say anything about taxes.
It won’t be enough of a boost in the long run. Commentators could have misread what was going on when they pronounced Obama off his game in Denver. The seriousness with which Obama holds his office and his humility that even White House influence on economic growth has limits make him seem vulnerable. But we have been here before, with Obama’s supporters wild that he doesn’t slam the other guy, really put him in his place, and get over the notion—that is not reciprocated—about welcoming all sides to the table of national policy discussion. “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked,” Carl Sandburg tells us people were saying in 1864.
* Oxford University Press, 2012. ↩
Oxford University Press, 2012. ↩