I’m voting for Barack Obama on Election Day. This fact will appear on Slate’s list of which candidates its writers are voting for, a list which will almost certainly look like the 2008 list, which is to say an almost unbroken string of “Obama.” People will look at this list—Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama—and they will say, Look at the Slate writers, inside their bubble.
And they will be wrong. There is a real, airtight bubble in this election, but it’s not Obama’s. As a middle-aged white man, in fact, I’m breaching it. White people—white men in particular—are for Mitt Romney. White men are supporting Mitt Romney to the exclusion of logic or common sense, in defiance of normal Americans. Without this narrow, tribal appeal, Romney’s candidacy would simply not be viable. Most kinds of Americans see no reason to vote for him.
This fact is obfuscated because white people control the political media. So we get the Washington Post reporting that the election is “more polarized along racial lines than any other contest since 1988“:
Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president—and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.
That’s not polarized. Polarization would mean that various races were mutually pulling apart, toward their favored candidates. “Minorities” is not a race (nor, you may have noticed, is “women”). Minorities and women are the people standing still, while white men run away from them.
What is it with these white men? What are they seeing that ordinary people don’t see? What accounts for this … secession of theirs, from the rest of America? John Sununu, Romney’s campaign co-chair, responded to Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama by saying, “I think that when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States—I applaud Colin for standing with him.”
Sununu was trying to be snide. But there he is, standing with Mitt Romney. Just like Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood and Buzz Bissinger and Meat Loaf—one aging white man after another. It’s a study in identity politics.
White people don’t like to believe that they practice identity politics. The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.
Yet Mitt Romney’s election strategy depends on the notion that the white vote is separate from the rest of the vote, and can be captured as such. Back in August, National Journal ran a report on campaign math headlined “Obama Needs 80% of Minority Vote to Win 2012 Presidential Election“:
Romney’s camp is focused intently on capturing at least 61 percent of white voters. That would provide him a slim national majority—so long as whites constitute at least 74 percent of the vote, as they did last time, and Obama doesn’t improve on his 80 percent showing with minorities.
Again, why are “minorities” treated as a bloc here? The story mentions no particular plan by the Obama campaign to capture the nonwhite vote. Instead, it discusses how the Romney forces hope to get a bigger share of white voters than John McCain did—by “stressing the increased federal debt” and attacking “Obama’s record on spending and welfare.”
Welfare, yes. Let’s come back to “welfare.” But first, how’s the strategy been doing? A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found Romney leading Obama 65-32 among white men and 53-44 among white women, giving him a 59 percent share of the white vote overall—“a new high,” and closing in on that 60 percent target.
This has been the foundation of Republican presidential politics for more than four decades, since Richard Nixon courted and won the votes of Southerners who’d turned against the Democratic Party because of integration and civil rights. The Party of Lincoln became the party of Lincoln’s assassins, leveraging white anger into a regional advantage and eventually a regional monopoly. It’s all very basic and old news, but it’s still considered rude to say so, even as Republican strategists talk about winning the white voters and only the white voters.
And so we have two elections going on. In one, President Obama is running for re-election after a difficult but largely competent first term, in which the multiple economic and foreign-policy disasters of four years ago have at least settled down into being ongoing economic and foreign-policy problems. A national health care reform bill got passed, and two reasonable justices were appointed to the Supreme Court. Presidents have done worse in their first terms. In my lifetime—which began under the first term of an outright thug and war criminal—I’m not sure any presidents have done better. (The senile demagogue? The craven panderer? The ex-CIA director?)
In the other election, the election scripted for white voters—honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the story is. Republican campaigns have been using dog-whistle signals for so long that they seem to have forgotten how to make sounds in normal human hearing range. Mitt Romney appears to be running on the message that first of all, Obama hasn’t accomplished anything, and second of all, he’s going to repeal all the bad things that Obama has accomplished. And then Romney himself, as a practical businessman, is going to … something something, small business, something, restore America, growth and jobs, tax cuts, something. It’s a negative campaign in the pictorial sense: a blank space where the objects would go. A white space, if you will.
The passion comes from what Romney is running against. For more than four years, without pause, Republicans have been campaigning and propagandizing against an imaginary Obama. At the most grotesque end of the fantasies, he is a foreign-born, anti-colonialist Muslim. In more reputable precincts, he is a power-mad socialist and a dumb affirmative-action baby, promoted all the way to the presidency by a race-crazed, condescending liberal elite. (As if the presidency of the Harvard Law Review were awarded to anyone but the hungriest shark in the shark tank.) This is the position of the party’s mandarins and reputable spinners—that Obama was foisted off on regular Americans against their will, despite all those votes last time around.
Hence the baiting of Obama, throughout his term, for supposedly being unable to speak without a teleprompter. Republicans predicted, over and over, that the president would be exposed and humiliated in face-to-face debate with an opponent (Newt Gingrich especially fantasized about being that foe). Eventually this led to Clint Eastwood haranguing the empty chair. And then in the first presidential debate, Obama was slack and ineffectual against a sharp Romney. See? It was true!
And then Obama shredded Romney in the second debate, and kept cuffing him around in the third. Now Romney was the deflating balloon, wild-eyed and babbling and licking his dry mouth in desperation. From which Peggy Noonan—whose proudest credential is having written the scripts for a Republican president who couldn’t function without being fed his lines—concluded in the Wall Street Journal that the only meaningful debate was the first one.
“Nothing echoes out like that debate,” Noonan wrote, creating her own echoes. The president was “Petulant, put upon, above it all, full of himself.” Full of himself. “[H]is failure seemed to underscore the cliché that the prompter is a kind of umbilical cord for him.” (“He is not by any means a stupid man,” she added.)
It’s a strange, inverted world, the white-people’s bubble, full of phantoms and rumors. Candidates are at the mercy of voter fraud, or the “urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine,” according to the chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio’s Franklin County. (Voter turnout is a bad thing.) Jobs numbers are being fudged. Polls are being skewed. The liberal media are trying to hide how popular Mitt Romney is.
So it was that Romney, speaking to ultra-wealthy supporters in what might have been the Whitest Room in America, ventured a joke about his father’s birth in Mexico: “And had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this, but he was [audience laughs] unfortunately born of Americans living in Mexico.” Note that “Americans” is a synonym for “whites,” here. Note also that a room full of millionaires—a minority group that has dominated presidential politics in recent decades—believes that the true political advantage in this country belongs to children of Mexican immigrants.
If there’s one thing white people have learned from decades of being targeted by campaigns, it’s that someone, somewhere, is trying to cheat them. This is the idea behind Romney’s 47 percent remarks in that appearance—America is divided between regular, productive folks and the people who are victimizing them.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Here, Romney is speaking fluent White. In white people’s political English, “personal responsibility” is the opposite of “handouts,” “food stamps,” and particularly “welfare,” all of which are synonyms for “niggers.” This was Ronald Reagan’s rallying cry, and it was the defining issue for traumatized post-Reagan white Democrats. Like George Wallace vowing not to be out-niggered again, the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Republic and Bill Clinton made Ending Welfare as We Know It the policy centerpiece of the 1990s.
The actual policy never mattered. Now the Romney campaign is running ads in Ohio saying that Obama “gutted the work requirement for welfare” and “doubled the number of able-bodied adults without children on food stamps.” In mixed company, Romney glosses the food-stamp lines as concern about the country’s economic status, but that’s not why “work requirement” and “able-bodied” are in there. It’s the rusty old Confederate bugle, blown one more time.
At the end of the National Journal piece about Romney’s white-vote goals, a Republican strategist acknowledged the campaign was hanging its hopes at a shrinking target: “This is the last time anyone will try to do this.” This is a demographic proposition rather than a moral one: The GOP will end its get-out-the-white-vote strategy whenever it stops working. Maybe, with luck, this will be the final sounding of that bugle.