Human Rights

The White Elephant in the Room

The 2004 presidential election demonstrated that racial politics are going to be the turning point in upcoming elections.
The 2004 presidential contest was a warning shot across the bow of all progressives. While the president and the Republican pundits vastly overstate their "mandate," progressives need to become clear on the motion of racial politics if we are to get ourselves in shape for the coming battles.

Many spin doctors would have us believe that the story of the 2004 election turns on evangelicals and moral values, the better to advance their rightwing agenda in both the Democratic and Republican parties, not to speak of the halls of power.

But an examination of the exit polls shows something very different (though not at all new): the centrality of race in U.S. politics. The bad news is that the Republicans, trumpeting their program of aggressive war and racism, swung the election by increasing their share of the white vote to 58 percent. This represents a four-point gain over 2000; a 12-point gain over 1996 and a grim18-point gain over 1992.

The good news is that people of color – African Americans, Latinos, Native peoples, Asian Americans and Arab Americans – surged to the polls in unprecedented numbers and voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the Bush agenda despite an unprecedented Republican attempt to intimidate them. People of color constituted about 35 percent of new voters and, despite their dazzling diversity, showed uncommon political unity.

A key lesson of this election is that progressives and Democrats need to stop chasing the Republicans to the right and instead adopt a clear vision that mobilizes our main social constituencies and wins new allies. Only a long term strategy that draws deeply and skillfully from the high moral ground of peace, jobs and equality and refuses to cede the South and Southwest to the right can enable us to staunch the country's longstanding movement to the right. Otherwise what Lani Guinier calls the "tyranny of the (white) majority" will continue to lead us into authoritarianism and empire.

The bitter truth is that the election marks a substantial and dangerous victory for the rightwing forces in this country. Despite a presidency marked by numerous impeachable offenses; despite daily exposure by the press over many months of the administration's lying and incompetence; despite both a disastrous war and an unprecedented loss of jobs; despite an impressive effort by the Democrats, unions and allied groups to mobilize and protect the vote; despite a massive voter turnout led by African American voters; despite the fact that people of color constituted 23 percent of all voters as opposed to 19 percent in the last election, the president turned a 500,000 vote loss in 2000 into a 3.5 million vote victory and the Republicans increased their majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Progressives have much to be proud of in our tremendous effort and substantial impact in the 2004 presidential election. But we must also face the fact our loss was not the result simply of the Republicans having more money or of a low voter turnout. The Republicans flat out organized us and methodically found white voters receptive to their racist program of "permanent war on terrorism at home and abroad."

The Myth of the Evangelicals

There has been much talk by the punditry about how the evangelicals were the key to the Republican victory. They counsel the Democrats to move to the right to remain politically competitive. There was indeed a tremendous mobilization of Christian religious conservatives (and National Rifle Association members) to work the campaign for the Republicans. They were the critical ground troops for the Republicans but they were not the critical voters.

Alan Abramowitz points out, "Between 2000 and 2004, President Bush's largest gains occurred among less religious voters, not among more religious voters." Among those who attend church weekly or more, his gain was only one point. But among those attending services a few times a month he gained 4 points. From those attending a few times a year, he increased his share by 3 points and from those who never attend services he racked up a 4-point gain.

The emphasis on the evangelical vote is a smokescreen motivated by the attempt by Republicans (and conservative Democrats) to move the country rightwards. Meanwhile, most pundits, left and right, refuse to squarely face the white elephant in the room: race.

The Republican victory turned almost exclusively on increasing its share of the white vote. In 2000 Bush won the white vote by 12 points, 54-42; in 2004 he increased this to a 17-point margin, 58-41. That increase translates into about a 4 million vote gain for Bush, the same number by which Bush turned his 500,000 vote loss in 2000 into a 3.5 million vote victory this time around.

This increase came mainly from white women. Bush carried white men by 24 points in 2000 (60-36) and increased that margin by only one point in 2004 (62-37). But he increased his margin of victory among white women from only 1 point in 2000 (49-48) to 11 points in 2004 (55-44). This accounts for a 4 million plus vote swing for Bush. (Women of color favored Kerry by 75-24.)

Another overlooked exit poll result is that Kerry actually increased the Democrats' share of the vote among rural and small town voters and held steady among suburbanites. However, his share of the vote in cities fell considerably. In cities of 500,000 or more Kerry won 60 percent of the vote, compared to 71 percent for Gore. Bush increased his big city vote by 13 points, from 26 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2004. We are apparently looking at a significant rightward motion among white women in big cities, a real blow to progressive strategy.

What Happened with the Latino Vote?

The other issue that has disguised the centrality of race in this campaign has been the National Exit Poll (NEP) survey of the Latino vote. The poll concluded that Latinos voted for Kerry by 53-44, a steep decline from Gore's 62-35 victory among Latinos in 2000. But the NEP's results are self-contradictory. Larger Latino exit polls show a tremendous Latino turnout that went for Kerry by as much as 68 percent.

Since the NEP polls only 13,000 voters, the size of the sample for Latinos was very small and therefore probably not very accurate. Latinos make up eight percent of the electorate, and their geographic location (more urban) and income/education (lower) are quite different from the majority white population that shapes the polling sample.

In addition, the NEP does not include the numerous Latino nationalities in appropriate proportions. This is important because these nationalities differ politically. For example Cubans tend to vote much more Republican than all other Latino groups, while Puerto Ricans tend to vote more Democratic.

More importantly the NEP's conclusion about the national Latino vote is not compatible with its own state-by-state polling results. For example, the NEP says that Bush won a mind-bending 64 percent of Latino votes in the South, the region with the most Latino voters (35 percent of the national total). But it simultaneously reported that Bush won 56 percent of Latino votes in Florida, the state where Cuban Republicans make up most of the Latino vote and 59 percent of the Latino vote in Texas. Something is clearly wrong when it is reported that the two states where Latinos are most likely to vote Republican voted less Republican than the South as a whole.

Indeed it is statistically impossible for both the NEP's results for individual states in the South and its conclusion that 64 percent of all Latinos in the South voted for Bush to be correct.

The William C. Velásquez Institute, as it has for many elections, performed a much larger exit poll of Latinos. The Institute polled 1,179 Latino respondents in 46 precincts across 11 states, and took into account the unique demographic characteristics of Latinos. Its survey concluded that Kerry won the Latino vote by 68-31, a strong showing in the face of unprecedented efforts by Republican operatives and Catholic priests to sway Latinos the other way.

It also found that 7.6 million Latinos voted, a record number that represents an increase of an impressive 1.6 million (27 percent) over 2000. This turnout was even more remarkable considering the widespread attempts by Republicans to intimidate Latino voters and the chronic shortages of Spanish language ballots.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Velásquez Institute, concludes, "President Bush tried unsuccessfully to increase his support among Latinos. The Democrats' message appears to have resonated with Latinos."

No Black Breakthrough

The Republican spin-meisters, as well as some "centrist" Democrats, are even claiming a Republican breakthrough among African American voters based on appealing to conservative Christian values. However, veteran political consultants Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile counter: "Those who trumpet inroads by Bush into the African American vote ignore history and show a strong prejudice against basic arithmetic."

The NEP concluded that Kerry won the black vote by an overwhelming 88-11 percent. Although this is two points fewer than Gore won in 2000, those two points are well within the margin of error of the poll. Even if correct, the results indicate that Bush received a lower percentage of the black vote than Nixon, Ford, Dole or Ronald Reagan in 1980.

This outcome is even more notable when one considers that, according to a Nov. 17 public memo by Belcher and Brazile, fully 60 percent of African Americans in the key battleground states, where the Republicans messaged heavily against abortion and gay marriage, consider themselves "born again Christians."

Their polling also indicates that, "The more likely African Americans are to be frequent church goers, the more likely they are to identify themselves as a strong Democrat." Clearly when pundits argue that the Republicans won by appealing to "moral values" or "evangelicals," they should really qualify their statements racially.

Perhaps most importantly, Belcher and Brazile point out that more than three million new black voters thronged to the polls in 2004, accounting for more than 20 percent of the total voter increase. They also erased the traditional 6-10 point voter participation gap between whites and blacks and increased their percentage of all voters from 10 percent in 2000 to almost 12 percent this year.

Black voters defeated the unprecedented Republican voter intimidation and suppression effort in the run-up to the election. Belcher and Brazile conclude that, "The real story is the reawakening of civic participation by African Americans in 2004."

Asian American Trends

Asian Americans also surged to the polls in historic numbers and, in all their great internal diversity, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

The political trajectory of Asian voters has been striking. Like most immigrant groups, most Asians have historically registered and voted Democratic. However, as their incomes rose and the percentage of Asian voters who had fled Asian socialist countries climbed as a result of the 1965 immigration reform act, many became "Reagan Democrats" in the 1980s. By the 1990s a higher percentage of Asians were registered as independents than any other racial/ethnic group.

Asians were not included in national exit polls until 1992. In that election, won by Clinton, their Republican and independent bent showed through, with Bush Sr. receiving 55 percent of the Asian vote, Perot 15 percent and Clinton only 31 percent. However, since 1992 Asians have turned strongly toward the Democrats. Clinton won 43 percent in 1996, Gore won 54 percent and Kerry at least 58 percent. This trend is probably connected to the hard right turn of the GOP in the 1990s, especially its fierce attacks on immigrants.

The NEP sample of Asian American voters was tiny, as Asians represent only 2-3 percent of all voters. By contrast, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund conducted a multilingual, non-partisan poll of 11,000 Asian voters in eight states. Mindful of the diversity among Asians, it surveyed them in 23 Asian languages and dialects as they left 82 polling places in 20 cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Michigan and Illinois.

AALDEF executive director Margaret Fung said: "The record turnout of Asian American voters demonstrated our community's extraordinary interest in the electoral process this year." A tremendous 38 percent of Asian voters reported that they were first time voters despite what AALDEF called "an array of barriers that prevented them from exercising their right to vote."

The poll found that Asian Americans favored John Kerry over George Bush by 74-24 percent. First timers voted for Kerry by 78-20. A Los Angeles Times poll of 3,357 California voters found that 64 percent of Asian Americans voted for Kerry and 34 percent for Bush.

Native People Turn Out in Force
The National Congress of American Indians spearheaded Native Vote 2004, a nationwide voter registration and turnout effort. In a press release dated Nov. 3, NCAI President Tex Hall reported, "Native voters turned out to the election polls in greater numbers for this election day than any other in history." The release documented voter turnout successes across Indian country, including a doubling of Native voters in Minnesota. This show of political force was especially impressive considering widespread reports of Native voter intimidation by Republicans.

Although no exit polls on Native peoples are available, the county-by-county map of the 2004 vote indicates that the Native vote was largely Democratic. In addition, the NEP results by race shows the "Other" vote (which includes but is not limited to Native voters) as going for Kerry by 57-43. A Democratic Native vote would be in line with historical trends and pre-election polling.

The NCAI states that "The 2004 election will be the first time Native votes will be quantified in a way to benchmark the population for future elections" and that "rising political clout [by Native voters] will only grow going forward."

Arab Turnaround

The only available analysis of Arab American voters indicates a major political about face by this group. According to a Zogby International poll, George Bush carried the Arab vote by 46-38 in 2000, with a strong 13 percent choosing Ralph Nader. The final Zogby poll for 2004 found Kerry winning by a landslide 63-28-3.

Arab voters contributed to Kerry's slim victories in Michigan, where they represent 5 percent of voters, and Pennsylvania, where they constitute 1.5 percent of the electorate. The Zogby poll indicates that Bush carried Arab Orthodox voters by one point, Arab Catholics favored Kerry 55-34-5 and Arab Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, 83-6-4. Both immigrant and U.S. born Arab voters went strongly for Kerry.

There are no figures available on Arab American voter turnout but, according to the Arab American Institute, there was an unprecedented Arab Get Out the Vote effort spearheaded by Yalla Vote. The Institute reports that Arabs organized GOTV efforts in 11 states that directly contacted at least 300,000 Arab American voters.

The Bush administration has rudely informed Arab Americans that they, like other immigrant groups from the Global South before them, are not just part of the "melting pot." They are also a group that is singled out by the government, the media and much of the public for racist stereotyping and harsh treatment.

As they have been increasingly treated like a racially oppressed group, Arab Americans have responded by voting like other people of color.

Taken together, people of color represented 23 percent of the total vote, but they accounted for about 35 percent of Kerry's tally. Their sense of political urgency was demonstrated by the fact that they represented about 35 percent of first time voters in this election. They are, unquestionably, the main base of the Democratic Party and the most avid anti-Bush constituencies.

White people and people of color are tremendously diverse groups and neither vote uniformly, but they are clearly trending in opposite political directions. How can we staunch the one and encourage the other?

LOOKING BACKWARD, LOOKING FORWARD

The political map of Election 2004 has a depressing but telling resemblance to the pre-Civil War map of free versus slave states and territories. And, although blacks and other people of color now have the right to vote, the outcome of the electoral college vote in the South shows that the 55 percent of black voters who still reside there have as little impact on the presidential race today as they did when they had no right to vote at all.

The same disenfranchisement afflicts Latinos in the Southwest and Native voters in the heartland. Quiet as its kept, the racist remnants of slavery and the Monroe Doctrine are alive and well in the political life, institutions and consciousness of Americans of all colors and classes up to today.

Racism – at home and abroad – is a central element of the Republican "moral values" and strategy. And racism is conciliated if not actively promoted by the Democratic focus on winning more white voters by moving to the right while taking voters of color virtually for granted.

The Democratic refusal to mount a fight for electoral reform and for the Southern vote leaves all its residents to the tender mercies of racist white fundamentalists, oil magnates, sugar barons and militarists. And it disarms progressives' ability to invoke the political and moral weight of the fight for racial and economic justice that still has deep Southern roots. And so it also is with urban racism and the burgeoning issue of immigrant rights concentrated (though by no means exclusively) in the Southwest.

It is about time for progressives, including those in the Democratic Party, to show the same basic common sense that the right has demonstrated. We should prioritize the issues and organization of our most powerful social bases as the foundation upon which to extend our influence to the population at large. It is time to stop chasing the Republicans – and the money – to the right. It is time to develop and fight for a coherent progressive political vision and set of policies that appeal to the positive sentiments of all people, and to fight for this vision over the long haul.

The fight for social and economic progress now, as in the past, cannot be won without challenging the racist, militarist right in its historic Southern heartland and its deep Southwestern echoes. We must have the confidence that skillfully doing so will win increased support from whites as well as people of color.

This is not just rhetoric. The future of our country and the well-being of the world depend on us. We cannot stop the right's incessant drive to dominate the world's resources and to steamroll all opposition to that program unless we pose a clear alternative. A powerful vision of peace, jobs and justice is our only chance to mobilize the democratic sentiments and courage of all the people of our country.

Bob Wing is national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice (www.unitedforpeace.org) and was the founding editor of War Times newspaper and ColorLines magazine.
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