A protracted stagnation will likely produce competing responses from voters in 2012, both of them bad for Obama. Polls show that African Americans continue to overwhelmingly support the president even though the unemployment rate for blacks is nearly twice the national average. That won’t change much, if at all, in the next three years. But will the laid–off African-American workers, who have exhausted their jobless benefits, turn out to vote in Gary, Ind., Detroit, Cleveland, Philly and Tampa with the same enthusiasm, and in the same numbers, as they did in 2008? Black New Yorkers certainly didn’t turn out last year for Bill Thompson, the African-American Democratic mayoral nominee, who lost narrowly to Michael Bloomberg, the Republican incumbent. Voter turnout was the city’s lowest in almost a century.
Conversely, while the economic climate is likely to leave the country’s most reliably liberal voting bloc demoralized and disengaged from an electoral process, this same dispossession has historically energized white, conservatives—particularly when cast in a racial hue. Consider the post-Reconstruction era, or the post-civil rights era, or even South Africa’s Afrikaners who responded to a fiscal crisis by electing the National Party which introduced apartheid in 1948. Today, you can see a populist, scattershot backlash, emerging in the form of the Republican-led “tea-bag” protests, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of Obama and the rock-star sized crowds generated by Palin’s book tour.
In a Dec. 20 interview with NBC’s Meet The Press, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal blog, the Daily Kos, said that his own polling showed that 86 percent of Republican voters plan on casting ballots in the 2010 midterm elections, compared to 56 percent of Democrats, and 32 percent of African Americans.
On the same show, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell said: “There’s an anger out there, and I have not seen it since my very first campaign which was George Wallace. There is an angry subtext because of economic dislocation.”
Like the defiant, segregationist Alabama governor, Palin, the former Alaska governor, speaks the language of the white Southern and suburban voters who fear that the American way of life is under attack from an out-of-touch, Godless, effete and multiracial big-city crowd. With her folksy charisma and parochial values, Palin is the latest in a long line of demagogues —from post-Reconstruction governors in the Deep South to Father Coughlin in the ‘30s, from Reagan to Lou Dobbs—who’ve emerged to redeem, or reclaim, the land from Northern carpetbaggers and uppity Negroes.
According to a December Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Palin, an increase of 4 percentage points from October, and narrowing the gap with Obama, whose favorability rating dropped 20 percentage points since his inauguration, to 49 percent.
As the Massachusetts election demonstrates, the problem is not, as much of the media alleges, that Obama and the Democrats have overreached. They haven’t gone far enough. Scott Brown, the Republican candidate in last week’s Massachusetts election, tellingly, made health care “reform” the focus of his triumphant campaign, traveling the state in an old, GM pickup truck, arguing, quite accurately, that the Senate health care plan would cost Americans more money, not less. According to one exit poll, Obama voters who opted for the Republican candidate Scott Brown in Tuesday’s election, said, by a margin of 3-to-2, that the Senate health care proposal “doesn’t go far enough.” Eight of 10 voters in the state continue to want a public option.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People (WW Norton) and the co-author of A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s “PostRacial America” (John Wiley and Sons).