Ugh. Maybe I should’ve stayed away longer. In my absence from the blogosphere, media pundits have continued their onslaught on the minds of the American people. This time their weapon is bad history. It seems that David Kuhn is concerned about the Democratic Party’s problems with white voters. As we learned from Kuhn’s post, Democrats fared worse amongst whites in the 2010 election than they had since World War II. As a postwar historian I get the impulse to use the war as a major political benchmark. The Cold War, in many ways, marks the beginning of modern political discourse. On a Presidential level, for example, isolationism and open criticisms of large corporations quickly went the way of the dodo bird within the political stratagem of the national parties. Indeed, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich’s exceptionalism on these matters speaks to the ways in which the end of World War II is an instructive for understanding the relationship between our political discourse and our society’s wholesale acceptance of the consequences of modern globalization since World War II.
But when it comes to racial politics, media pundits simply refuse to think critically about political history. It’s true, lots of white people voted for Democrats between the 1940s and Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. And in those years a significant percentage of the Democratic party’s white support came from the party’s explicit endorsement of white supremacy, and not only in the Jim Crow south. Big city Democratic mayors had no problem entrenching redlining, signing municipal budgets that underfunded black schools, supporting urban renewal programs that left hundreds of thousands of black residents and turning a blind eye to systematic police brutality against black citizens. It was only when these policies came under attack by civil rights movements in the south and the north did “the white vote” begin to question their undying allegiance to the so-called New Deal coalition. The Republicans “southern strategy” may have targeted anti-integrationist whites in the south, but the party’s focus on “law and order” was also meant for white suburban voters none too pleased that black voters could not be satisfied with “well enough.”
Of course nothing I’ve said here is unfamiliar to American historians, but for some reason we can’t seem to get media pundits to stop creating these false periodizations when they talk about racial politics. Any claim that compares the Democratic Party’s percentage of the white vote with pre-1968 numbers actually suggests that the means through which Democrats secured white voters in those years represents a legitimate political strategy, perhaps ones that the Obama Administration should emulate. The rub of course is that if Kuhn’s article had read, “the Democrats lost more white voters than they had when Richard Nixon swept to power in 1968,” readers might pause for a moment. They might wonder what exactly was happening in American racial politics in the late 1960s. They might discover that white supremacist candidate George Wallace also won a major portion of the white vote that year. They may start asking themselves what political parties tend to have to do to win white voters. And Mr. Kuhn is pretty uninterested in that dialogue. What matters is to argue that Obama lost white voters for being “too liberal” and no other take on the matter is allowed.
More on Kuhn’s bad political history tomorrow, because yes, there is more. Lots more. Ugh.