Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has to heal racial indifference within her own party before tackling racial antipathy coming from the Republican camp.
Donald Trump is America’s best excuse. The mainstream media, sections among the Republicans and most Democrats have used his larger-than-life personality to deflect attention from structural racial fissures in American society. However, Trump may not be the cause but the most visible symptom of a society whose subterranean racism has acquired for itself a megaphone.
America was celebrated for entering a post-racial phase with the election of its first African-American president, Barack Obama. But the country’s electoral college system, designed to be geographically proportional, camouflaged key statistics in the popular vote of the 2008 presidential election that first elected Obama. According to the Pew Research Center, Obama lost the popular vote among both male and female white voters to Senator John McCain, his rival at the time. This happened in a year when the Republican brand was at its all-time low, affected by the disapproval of the sitting president, George W. Bush, a disastrous war in Iraq and a collapsing economy.
In fact, Obama has lost the white vote to every white candidate he has run against since 2008. The New York Times found Obama lost the white vote to his then Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in 2008. He also lost the white vote to his Republican challenger in 2012, Mitt Romney, by 20 percentage points.
Obama won two presidential elections because the diverse coalition he assembled – comprising whites, African Americans, Hispanics – overwhelmed his rivals. However, his overwhelming margins among coloured voters in America seen against the constant rejection by a majority of white voters in successive elections only demonstrate a racially polarised society.
The progressive Left in America likes to view the Democratic Party as exempt from racial and cultural bias because the party’s voters twice elected an African American. The explanation given by most pundits and news media is that it is mostly Republican voters who may have hidden and vocal race antipathies towards Obama as they have been primed against other races by successive Republican politicians. The Republican Party’s war against welfare schemes, such as food stamps, healthcare and social security, are cited as racist dog whistles, considering a significant proportion of welfare recipients continue to be America’s black and Hispanic population.
The Democrats are right in their analysis of Republican campaigns. However, blaming the Republicans for their mistakes has helped Democrats hide their own racial fissures from scrutiny. Obama was never a popular figure among blue-collar Democrats. In the 2008 primaries, the social fissures were evident in the voting patterns. While Obama won resoundingly among African Americans and a ‘decent’ proportion of white voters, Clinton took the majority of the white and the Hispanic vote. In the 2008 general election, all three Democratic voting types did vote for Obama, but it is safe to say the coalition was more of an existential alliance than a racial rapprochement.
In 2008, the white Democrats who rejected Obama in the rust belt states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan) and favored Clinton, showed up for him in the general election against the Republicans, because most of the white Democratic voters were blue collar workers who realised the Republicans were never going to back them on crucial issues such as trade unions, workers’ rights, higher minimum wages and paid family leave. The Hispanics, who preferred Clinton in the 2008 primaries, also overwhelming voted for Obama because of the Republicans’ constant rhetoric against illegal immigration and talk of large scale deportation.
In 2016, the trends repeat themselves. Clinton has completely embraced Obama and made issues close to the black community, like Black Lives Matter and gun control, center pieces of her campaign. She has overwhelmingly won the support of the African American communities, who are suffering under police brutality and poorly regulated gun ownership. But a significant section of Hispanic and a clear majority of white voters, who supported Clinton over Obama in 2008 by significant margins, have switched their support this year to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The Democratic Party is loath to admit this indicates a racial divide, and credits Sanders’ success to his crusade against income inequality.
Income inequality has been a problem in America since 1980 and Sanders’ record on it is exemplary. However, the relatively casual attitude of Sanders’ voters to crucial issues of the African-American community indicates the Democrats have only managed to attract different groups towards a common political vehicle and not towards each other. The New York Times has recorded a white male voter’s quotation about Clinton talking to minorities and not so much to white people, indicating a clear racial rift in the Democratic coalition. The average democratic politician gets a vote each from a white factory worker, a Hispanic and an African American for three different reasons that have little in common. In 2016, the primary issue for the white voter is his job going to someone in China and Mexico, or to illegal immigrants within the US. The Hispanic voter is afraid he or his family may get deported by the government. The African American voter is afraid to let his adolescent children step on to the streets for fear of police harassment.
This analysis is clear from the voting trends in the Democratic Party. Clinton, who has taken the lead in championing issues of the African American community, has won their votes resoundingly. She is seen as generally being pro-trade deals that shipped millions of jobs out of America, for which Sanders, a long time critic of such deals, has taken the white vote. Clinton and Sanders, who are both equally pro-immigrants, have almost equally divided the Hispanic vote.
These patterns clearly indicate the Democrats have a loose coalition of voters, who have had to protect each other for survival so far. The Democrats have not actively pitted races against each other as the Republicans have, but somehow their better record against the shockingly low bar of the Republicans has been hyped as a resounding success in race relations.
These are the chinks in the Democrats’ armor that Trump has exploited. He has blamed the Hispanic community for taking up jobs meant for white America, while remaining platitudinous towards the African American community. This yields him three benefits. It drives a wedge between the white working class and the Hispanics, two blocks in the Democrats’ coalition. It helps in keeping the African American community from energising against his candidacy. The difference in his approach towards two racial minorities, Hispanics and African Americans, also gives him an excuse to point out his campaign’s theme is not so much racist as economic. Trump isn’t only a Republican Frankenstein; the Democrats have handed Trump a culturally loose coalition that he can carve into without too much effort.
In 2016, racial antipathy remains a Republican problem. But the lack of strong interracial solidarity, outside political compulsions, is a Democratic problem. This implies racism, whose spectrum extends from indifference to antipathy, is on the whole not a one-party political problem but an American sociological problem.