Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

May 24, 2016

In The News

Older white guys learned their ballot control days are over

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted November 7, 2012
Note: North Carolina election figures corrected Nov. 9

Comparisons to the raw emotion Barack Obama drew in 2008 are somewhat misleading because even a married couple renewing vows after four years doesn’t flash the same passion as the first time around but ideally maintain a deeper, mature, quieter commitment. Time changes things.

So let me pause to also point out that, in the 2012 election, after 30 years – finally! -- the march of inevitable demographics and society’s own dynamic reconstructions sounded the death knell for the Reagan myth, the fantasy of a “Reagan Democrat” that the Republicans still imagine over and over as racing to their rescue and especially the embrace of white Southern roots as a path to electoral dominance.

I speak about my own breed, older white males. Politically and realistically (realism never having dominated right-wing think tanks) that’s a rather mixed bag of guys rightly tired of being stereotyped by these politicians. But stereotyping has been the GOP strategy, a blunt appeal to white America’s worst and most jaded side.

Most of us seem to have grown up and accepted we are dying down. Older whites are now another minority – the one that inherited a lot of advantages and social freedom, to be sure, the one reflecting a lot of anger about affirmative action and immigrants, both situations they once benefited from. They still have the advantages in acquiring money and position but are in their death throes in terms of having the numbers to control the electorate – and they sure can’t control their wives -- though certainly can be counted on for a few more decades of dominating the economic wealth and responding to fund-raising pitches.

Romney and the GOP misjudged on many fronts. Their disdain of clear opportunities to speak to women or to immigrants cost them dearly. And they grasped for a fading group of older whites, ignoring how the true varied majority in America now speaks up for and welcomes diverse opportunity, cannot be stampeded or buffaloed by appeals to an evangelical minority’s view of family and values. Such constant appeals have become the simple-minded feeble-minded approach to voters, as suspect as thinking blanket statements that you are “pro-life” spares you from providing details that expose your own medical ignorance.

Never again will older whites have the numbers to even think this way, or be thought of as the GOP strategists did, though they will for several generations have the positions of power and the money to try to impose things. The new public majority doesn’t like this “behave like whites” tactic and the new media is eager to expose it, even when the establishment media owned and controlled by conservative whites resisted speaking out.

The GOP actually should have gone back in time – but to that forgotten time when principled compromise and pragmatic belief in small government and staying out of the bedroom dominated the party, rather than those extreme eras of exaggerated prejudice falsely associated with true conservatism.

For the left there is also a new reality about moving with the times. Organized labor in its street smarts and general principles clearly still has the public’s ear and will for quite a while, but it also has to reach out with new techniques and attitudes to a non-union world full of citizens that actually honor its core beliefs and want to work alongside in political terms.

Of the nine battleground states that early on were determined to decide the election – a mere 21% of the nation’s voters – the Obama machine told the truth from the start and carried eight of them, barely missing the ninth by fewer than 97,000 votes out of 4.45 million (North Carolina). Pollsters who predicted the final results noted afterward that if anything they undershot how well the Obama team kept and maintained its coalition. And union grassroots were a big part of the victory.

Despite the claims that dominated TV, Mitt Romney never came close to flipping the map, failing to make gains in Pennsylvania and losing Ohio. That internal dismay by a team clearly outmatched by Organizing for America provided a curious 90 minute delay in conceding. I suspect this was more about realizing that Romney was also going to lose Virginia and Florida and really had no way forward even if he was talked into dragging Ohio uselessly through a court battle.

The election killed – at least on a national level – the myth of the dim-bulbed American voter along with the fantasy of the Reagan Democrat. Yes, in local races and entrenched enclaves of self-comforting righteousness, money and right-wing principles still rule, but nationally common sense evaluation of how well this president was handling his job won out.

The GOP’s superior money, their endless wealthy anonymous third party ad conduits, the frightening hostility of their attacks on Obama’s Americanism, their efforts to paint a leader dedicated to compromise and negotiation as a dictator – all failed.

“We are not as divided as our politics suggest,” said Obama in an eloquent but actually quite thoughtful acceptance speech the morning of November 7, which may go down in history as one of his best. “We are not as cynical as the pundits believe.”

The voting pattern that still will bother many Americans is that Mitt Romney even came close with about 48% of the national vote. Pollsters who had it right point out that Rasmussen, the conservatives’ favorite pollster, was consistently wrong in hyping Romney – off by 3 percentage points in poll after poll. Dead right again was poll analyst Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight. Southern states in particular remain remarkably hostile to Obama while Western and even Midwest states that trend red proved more balanced. Even where Romney won their electoral votes, Obama fared strongly.

Romney will probably be criticized as a candidate but on reflection, what else could he do but dodge and sell in the face of a popular and capable incumbent? Even Romney finally returned to sensibility in a gracious concession speech so startling different to the lies and feints of his final campaign. It was a recognition that the nation’s progress, in defeat, was too important for political games. But it was also recognition that Obama now had the upper hand and something of a mandate to move forward in his measured manner – that the Republicans had spent four years and some $500 million demeaning the most consequential and conciliatory Democratic president they could hope for.

Unfortunately, while many Republicans now read the handwriting on the wall and know they must pull back from the extremism that long controlled their policy, grouchy Senate leader Mitch McConnell stood in rhetorical defiance November 7 – at least initially. Realists on both sides surely recognize that it will take years for full economic recovery and that any president will need cooperation, tax revenue as well as budget reductions, to move forward.

But Mitch’s grumpy old man act may be understandable. This bourbon-loving political player twice saw his own party’s refusal to be sensible cost him majority control of the Senate. It happened again when two states normally GOP, Missouri and Indiana, went to the Democrats because of the rape twins, Todd Aikins and Richard Mourdoch, who destroyed their chances by revealing aloud how too many Republican men know so little about women.

Even in a strongly GOP state like Montana, Democrat Jon Tester retained his US senate seat and while Romney took North Dakota it was moderate Democratic powerhouse Heidi Heitkamp who took the Senate. The hostility of the GOP to Latino concerns was crucial, but the hostility to women produced more women in the Senate than before and demonstrated again that the Democrats were a far more welcoming party – and they didn’t even have to search binders to find qualified females.

Even with a GOP House and initially grumpy opponents, Obama gained leverage and a clear mandate that the public wants to get things done. The continued GOP control of the House was quickly misconstrued by some corners of the GOP who didn’t get the message of what the general public wants. House races are cases of individual districts where historical patterns dominate, changes are slower and entrenched power and money can rule. Even a 52% victory in Wisconsin translates quite differently given red designed redistricting. It shouldn’t disguise the general trend of the electorate is younger and more insistent on change, compromise and cooperation.

Truly on issues the Democrats gained, but this was not a Democrats vs. Republican contest – this was the public saying “Get things done!” Obama was shrewd enough or perhaps humanistic enough to recognize that and make it the central power of his campaign. He ignored the statistical excesses of the other side and put his faith in the pubic recognizing how much he had done and how well he had done in a lousy situation.

His victory brought to mind that satirical Onion headline in 2008 – “Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job.” And he’s got it again.

He is likely to continue to dismay the most liberal corners of his own party and even some union members by continuing to seek compromise, ignoring the clearly nasty nature of the opposition. But the clean support from the nation gave him new leverage. It means he can draw a line in the sand on important principles established in the campaign on gaining tax revenue from the very rich, closing corporate loopholes and protecting Medicare and Social Security from voucher fantasies.

There was another surprise in a $1 billion national election. The superior conservative money hurt in local races but it didn’t derail the country’s trend to a more inclusive vision. But it certainly had an effect in Wisconsin local politics where the GOP largely used money and control of the media attention to take back the state senate by either one or two votes and fought back moderate gains in the Assembly.

But even Gov. Scott Walker must realize he faces a new world where he can’t bully through legislation – and he faces a genuine election in 2014 where recall is not the issue but failed economic policy certainly will be, particularly if the rest of the nation continues to rise while Wisconsin staggers.

The Obama team was focused on its own re-election, so it didn’t work down-ballot a lot, except for select Senate races like Tammy Baldwin’s strong victory over Tommy Thompson.

That’s hardly a criticism of the Obama campaign – re-electing the president was primary. But it underlies the reality of how progressive Wisconsin can hardly rest on its laurels but take to heart the president’s message that victory only means getting back to work harder.

There is a target on the back of politicians who don’t produce or only produce ideas bad for this new and largely non white bloc of decisive voters. Dare I say it, but 2014 is just around the corner.

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