Platitudes about the civic utopia that would spring forth from the election of Barack Obama have vanished. Thomas Friedman’s claim that “the American Civil War ended, as a black man . . . became president of the United States,” has now been replaced byPBS host Tavis Smiley’s prediction that the 2012 presidential election is “going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive, and the most racist in the history of this Republic.” E. J. Dionne’s trope that “it is time to hope again. Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over,” has given way to the statement by CBS’s Bob Schieffer that recent criticism of Obama represents “an ugly strain of racism that’s running through this whole thing.” Paul Krugman, who wrote in 2008 that “Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics, but we’re now a different, and better, country,” has taken to equating the anti-Obama Tea Party with the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s not just the punditry that overpredicted the soothing qualities of Obama’s presidential salve. Average citizens have also been chastened. A Rasmussen poll in October of 2010 found that just 36 percent of voters said relations between blacks and whites were getting better, down from 62 percent in July of 2009.
The experts can be forgiven their erroneous certitudes. They were enthralled by the historical significance of Obama’s election and, at least for those on the left, genuinely proud of how thoroughly involved they were in bringing it about.
Average citizens, too, should be given the benefit of the doubt. Most Americans are largely unaware of the important differences in political viewpoint between the races, and prefer to refrain from commenting publicly about such things.
So it wasn’t for them to point out what the pundits ignored: Obama is and always has been a hardened, bare-knuckled veteran of the culture wars, who not only pursues racial divisions among Americans for political gain but personifies the stark differences in political attitudes between whites and blacks. It was as obvious in 2008 as it is now that electing a man who describes a sermon containing the passage “white people’s greed runs a world in need” as the formative moment in his spiritual life would guarantee a period of unusual social bitterness and resentment.
And that is, in fact, where we are. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that non-college-educated whites are the most alienated of racial groups. Only 44 percent of this demographic said they expected their economic situation to be better ten years from now, compared to two-thirds of minorities (and 55 percent of college-educated whites).
The familiar clichés with their subtle innuendos featuring “angry white males” who suffer from economic “anxiety” have been trotted out to explain white disillusionment. “The sense of being eclipsed demographically is almost certainly compounding the white working class’s fear of losing ground economically,” is how Ronald Brownstein of National Journaladroitly phrased it.
But the perception of an irascible white working class seems more of a projection of what liberal elites themselves would feel if they lacked power and prestige than it is an accurate depiction of white attitudes. More likely, white attitudes are being shaped by the perception that the top people in government, led by President Obama, embody a vision for America that is at odds with their own. Specifically, Obama’s efforts to broaden the role of the federal government through health-care reform, carbon capping, transfer payments, and profligate spending has amounted, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, to a redrawing of the American social compact, a recasting of “the relationship between government and citizen,” a sharp shift in power toward Washington, away from individuals and the free market.
America’s current social unease, in other words, stems from the feeling among large swaths of Americans that Obama’s agenda poses a direct challenge to the American Dream: the idea, as one prominent writer recently put it, “that through hard work and good choices the average American can be prosperous and independent, and that ordinary people . . . can govern themselves wisely and well without the ‘guidance’ of their ‘betters.’”