Monday, May 21, 2012

Tom Edsall is still riding his favorite hobbyhorse: 2012 version

Tom Edsall has been playing liberal concern troll for decades with a special focus on race, going back at least to his 1991 book with his wife Mary, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics. The Edsalls' analysis in that book assumed basically that race and only race (specifically anti-black white racism) had been the overriding issue in American politics since 1964 or so. They made a circular argument from their assumption rather than trying to isolate the actual effects of race and civil rights. Which was to push most white Southern Democrats to become Republicans.

Tom Edsall is still at it over two decades later, this week in Obama on the High Wire New York Times 05/20/2012. Digby reacts to it in They just don't like us Hullabaloo 05/21/2012, where I also left some comments along the lines I'm making here.

This Edsall piece is his own twist on the Pod Pundit conventional wisdom that Obama has to move to The Center. Edsalls' version differs from the rest mainly in the particular focus he likes to put on race. And the figures he cites pretty much make the stock argument that we're a "center-right nation", in the stock phrase.

His analysis is still shabby. Obama "has put on a full court press" to "maintain the loyalty of the liberal wing of his party" Say what?!? By signing the "JOBS Act" that removes many post-Enron regulations on stock deals and virtually guarantees more financial fraud? By telling Tom Coburn that he was willing to gut Social Security and Medicare? And Obama said, "I like hanging out with women"? This is supposed to scare off white male voters? Edsall seems to think so.

Edsall mentions polling figures on income inequality that he interprets exactly as David Brooks would. But somehow in his analysis of Obama's poll problems, he manages to avoid any consideration of the fact that the economy sucks. White racism plays a real role in US politics, obviously. And I also wonder whether Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage with no new policy connected to it really is good politics for the kind of re-election campaign he's running. But Edsall's thing with race is a hobby-horse he's been riding for decades, not seeming to have learned a whole lot along the way.

The Edsalls' 1991 book argues that whichever of the two parties is perceived as more anti-black will dominate American politics for the foreseeable future. He had some trouble to explain why Bill Clinton was elected the next year. Clinton may have had the "Sistah Soljah moment" our pundits will probably never stop talking about. But the Democrats in 1992 weren't perceived as the anti-black party. He did some good reporting in the later 90s about Republican ties to white supremacist groups. But his analyses of elections seem to begin and end with the assumption that white racism makes good politics, though he tries to sound like he regrets it.

He had to make adjustments for reality at times, though. As the 1992 Presidential election approached, it was clear that Bill Clinton had a good shot at winning. In "Clinton's Revolution" New York Review of Books 10/08/1992 (11/05/1992 issue), he wrote:

The former Reagan Democrats still feel threatened by minorities; they still resent the Democratic programs that created special preferences for blacks, first through busing and then through affirmative-action programs that, in their view, threaten their chances for jobs and promotions. No one should have any illusions that such feelings have diminished. But they are now counterbalanced by the Bush administration’s evident determination to weaken unions and to limit protection for employees on the shop floor, and by the recession that has sharply increased unemployment among bluecollar workers. For white workingclass voters the busing of the 1970s is now less alarming than the danger that the corporations that employ them will be destroyed or broken up, while financial manipulators like Frank Lorenzo, the union-busting former head of the bankrupt Eastern Airlines, walk away with millions of dollars. [my emphasis]
In other words, the economy sucked in 1992, though not nearly as badly as now. And the Democrats were able to turn that into a Presidential win, even carrying California, which until then had been largely a safe state for Republican Presidential candidates. In that piece, he even manages to acknowledge that issues like "stagflation" in the 1970s and Jimmy Carter's "failure ... to rescue the hostages in Iran" had played key roles in the vote for Reagan in 1980. Even Edsall was able to recognize that race was one of a number of issues in American politics when he put his mind to it.

And he recognized that events of 1992 had called into question the heavily race-focused analysis of his 1991 book. In that article, he recites some of the evidence that had nominally formed the basis of the 1991 book, pleading that "only last year the mood of the electorate on issues of race, values, and rights seemed favorable to Bush conservatives". It seems more likely that he was basing his arguments on the conventional wisdom of the time among his fellow pundits and star reporters.

It's true that Clinton did talk about welfare reform in that campaign and adopted Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) rhetoric on responsibility that addressed the expressed concerns of whites complaining about black people getting welfare.

After the 1994 "Gingrich Revolution" election, Edsall seemed to be relieved to his comfortable 1991 argument in "Revolt of the Discontented: The GOP got the votes of key groups it can't expect to satisfy when it's in power" Washington Post 11/11/1994 (from Lexus/Nexus search):

The realignment of Nov. 8 has unleashed at least four groups that provided crucial support at the margin for the GOP. ... These groups include:
  • White men who feel devalued and displaced everywhere from the service sector to the ranks of middle management, who see the rights revolution in behalf of women and blacks moving beyond a level playing field to a system of exclusionary favoritism and who see a future (and present) of sharply declining wages and status. White men voted Republican by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.
  • The Christian right, whose troops see their values under assault in the public schools and in almost every sitcom on television -- men and women who are seeking a cultural revolution to restore primacy and respect to the traditional two-parent family.
  • Southern moralists, who overlap with and share many of the cultural discontents of the Christian right and, in many cases, who challenge the liberal goals and values of diversity and multiculturalism. These voters reject outright the principle that past wrongs to women, blacks and other minorities justify numerical or quota-driven job hiring and school-placement systems designed to compensate for past injustice.
  • A broad segment of voters in virtually every region of the country who see or intuit a linkage between political/cultural liberalism and the decline of the traditional family structure that has reached epidemic proportions in the black community and rapidly escalating levels in the white community. This large bloc of voters sees welfare as part of the cause of family breakup, and with that breakup, the growing incidence of wanton and brutal crime, much of it committed by juveniles. This segment of the electorate strongly supports committed fatherhood and the two-parent family. Illegitimacy is seen among these voters as a cause not only of crime but of economic unproductivity [sic] and educational failure.
At last it was safe to be a liberal concern troll again! Although I don't believe the "concern troll" term had yet been invented.

He's still making the same old argument today, his views and approach to analysis showing a remarkable continuity and a distinct imperviousness to learning for experience. Or polling data.

A few days after that piece, he was partying like it was 1991. In the Washington Post of 11/20/1994, he was writing about "The Implosion Of the Democrats: And Why Prospects for a Party Revival Are Bleak" (from Lexus/Nexus search):

The Democratic Party has emerged from the debacle of Nov. 8 trapped by a set of financial, demographic and geographic constraints that, in the near term, increase the likelihood that the party will remain in the minority. In the long term, these forces raise a far more ominous question: whether the Democratic Party can survive as a legitimate competitor in a two-party system.

These pressures will severely restrict Democratic strategists seeking to push the party to the center or right. At the same time, such constraints will increase the leverage of those who want the Democratic Party to be a left alliance of minorities, feminists, gays and labor dominated by public sector employee groups.

More importantly, the power of money, demography and geography, as well as cultural conflict, will interfere with the ability of the Democratic Party to regain credibility with the group that once stood at its core: the working and middle class -- the essential component of a majority party. [my emphasis]
There are plenty of things to complain about with today's Democratic Party. And I do so here on a regular basis. But it's safe to say that even with an African-American Presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Party still "survive[s] as a legitimate competitor in a two-party system."

Edsall hadn't been vindicated by the 1994 election. Part of his problem was that he assumed that the Democrats had to stay competitive in the South in Presidential elections. In the article just cited, he said, "Without the South, and facing overt hostility throughout the region, Democratic presidential candidates can only make weakened claims to be fully national figures."

What he missed in that picture was that while conservative white Southerners were aligning with the Republican Party, then-Gov. Pete Wilson's anti-immigration position shifted energized enough Latino voters and shifted enough of them to the Democrats to make California a safe state for Democratic Presidential candidates since then. And it was Proposition 187 of that same year, 1994, that was the catalyzing event for that shift in California. But that didn't fit into Edsall's simplistic racial concern-troll model for how politics was working.


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