Politics & Policy

The Forgotten Americans

President Obama rallies the faithful in Wisconsin, November 2012. (Scott Olseon/Getty)
Obama’s coalition is held together only by his personal mythography.

Political analysts still are arguing over why the Democratic party was washed away in the midterm election. Since 2008, ascendant progressives had been crowing over a fresh mosaic of energized minorities, newly franchised immigrants, single young urban women, greens, gays, and — less often mentioned — upscale professionals and the 1-percenter super-wealthy.

These groups were united by their support for the expansion of entitlements, higher taxes, neo-isolationism, amnesty, opposition to any restrictions on abortion, curbs on carbon-energy development, and gay marriage. But what really held them together was Barack Obama. His exotic name, his racial background, his leftwing ideology, and his Ivy League training appealed to each of these diverse groups. Without him on the ballot — as in 2010 and 2014 — most of these identity groups apparently were not energized enough to turn out in sufficient numbers to make up for middle-class voters turned off by progressive rhetoric and the by-any-means-necessary distortions to achieve its ends.

Indeed, a cynic would sum up the unlikely liberal coalition as a bridge over the middle class. Wealthy, influential progressives had enough capital and income to support new efforts at government redistribution, higher taxes, and the sort of green projects that, at least in the short term, would slow the economy and cost blue-collar jobs — but not really affect the 1 percenters’ own livelihoods much.

At the other end, the underclass welcomed expansions of federal entitlement programs and the idea of an activist state guaranteeing an equality of result for the less-well-off, with the taxes to pay for it all falling on someone else.

Note that the new progressive coalition was largely abstract. In their own personal lives, the upscale denizens of Santa Monica, Chevy Chase, and the Upper West Side did not put their children in diverse public schools, much less live among undocumented immigrants or give up their Mercedeses and Volvo SUVs for fleets of Priuses. None promised to take two fewer trips by jet each year.

Ideally from its point of view, the new progressive partnership would end up with America looking something like California. Sky-high income, sales, and gas taxes and soaring electric rates, coupled with prohibitive housing costs along the state’s 700-mile-long coastal corridor, have turned the once golden state into two cultures strangely united by a common Democratic party.

The coastal elites champion wind and solar mandates, transgender restrooms in the public schools, gay marriage, and high-speed rail. In the interior, rarely visited by the elites or the journalists friendly to them, the preponderance of poorer and minority residents largely explains why of all the states California has the largest number of welfare recipients and the highest percentage of the population below the poverty line, and why it is nearly dead last in public-school performance.

For liberals for whom power is the true goal, California is seen as a success because there are no more conservatives like Ronald Reagan or Pete Wilson in statewide office. Over the last 30 years, unchecked illegal immigration, an influx of high-income urban liberal professionals to the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, and a steady exodus of the white middle and working classes explain why this liberal blue state has the largest number of both poor and wealthy people in the nation — and a shrinking conservative percentage of the electorate.

But is the California progressive future applicable throughout the United States? This month’s election suggests maybe not, and for reasons that transcend the fact that Californians can bail out of their state in a way that Americans cannot their country.

In our vast nation of 320 million people, there are still millions of mostly middle-class voters, along with the proverbial white working class, who are ignored by Democrats. They feel desperately squeezed by the higher taxes necessary to fulfill the dreams of progressive elites. And they feel they are not on the receiving end of government entitlements the way the underclass is, while being a regular target of cheap progressive rhetoric, from “clingers” to “stupid.”

But more importantly, the middle class resents wealthy progressives who lecture them about their supposed illiberality although they do not experience in their own lives the consequences of their ideology, whether that involves unchecked illegal immigration or job-killing regulations. Those who live in gated communities or mansions with heavy security talk down to those who don’t about their Neanderthal gun-owning. Wind and solar power seems to be supported by those who do not commute long distances in second-hand cars and who have enough money to care little about gas prices. If foreign nationals were swarming into the U.S. illegally from Europe to find jobs as journalists, government workers, and lawyers, the progressive elites might worry about their own employment and be less utopian about open borders.

There is also a psychological component to the 2014 backlash vote. Progressives seem to be tone deaf to the effects of their loud rhetoric on others.

#page#When President Obama promised to all but end the use of coal and to send electric rates soaring, would his own friends and associates be affected? What if a candidate from an Appalachian state had argued there that were too many lawyers like Obama and that it was well past time to stop all state and federal subsidies to universities that keep turning out redundant subsidized graduates? Or if he had argued that affirmative action should be based on class rather than racial considerations?

When Justice Sonya Sotomayor talked of a “wise Latina,” it may have sounded chic to those who believe in identity politics, but for millions of Americans it raised disturbing questions. If there were “wise Latinas,” were there logically also “wise white people” or “unwise Latinas”? When Eric Holder talked of “my people,” was the logical corollary that other Americans for Holder were not “my people”? Are we now a nation of my people, by your people, and for their people?

Once one goes down the road of racial chauvinism, the contradictions of prejudice only magnify. Al Sharpton may have his own cable news show and be courted by politicians, but many forgotten Americans remember that he is a serial tax cheat and a veritable racist. When Dinesh D’Souza is convicted and sentenced for an improper campaign donation, how exactly did Sharpton with impunity refuse for decades to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back state and federal taxes? Why was he never indicted? When Sharpton charges America with racism, the forgotten Americans instead remember Sharpton’s own history of gay-baiting, anti-Semitism, and cheap anti-white demagoguery — and wonder how he weaseled his way into being an Obama adviser.

Fairly or not, the Democratic party is now associated with European-style redistribution. It is seen as being opposed to the creation of blue-collar jobs in industries like mining, oil and gas production, timber, and irrigated agriculture, being shrill on issues like abortion and gay marriage, and being more worried about undocumented immigrants than about Americans who pay the additional costs or foreigners who play by the immigration-law rules. Any one or two of these issues might have been massaged or downplayed, but in toto they send a message to the middle class and working class that they are irrelevant or, worse, despised rather than just ignored. Their livelihoods are seen as unimportant while their culture is written off; they do not receive the empathy accorded the poor or the deference shown the refined tastes of the wealthy.

For six years, the Democratic party had boasted openly about its new constituency in contrast to a played-out, old, white, male — and shrinking — Republican electorate. Herein it committed two terrible blunders well beyond the serial and gratuitous smears. One, its coalition was predicated on the landmark candidacy of Barack Obama and his unprecedented personal popularity among minority groups and young singles. These groups were interested in Obama as the first black president, and not so much because of his liberal social agenda. So, when he is on the ballot, young people and minorities turn out to vote for the iconic, cool person, but they are not necessarily as enamored of his policies. When Obama is not on the ballot, his new base of identity-politics voters stays home, and the ballyhooed coalition dissipates.

Second, each time the progressive coalition panders to an identity group and uses the rhetoric of “my people” or “punish our enemies,” it turns off one voter for each one it energizes. Few have written of the astounding ability of Obamites — Joe Biden, John Brennan, Steven Chu, James Clapper, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Eric Holder, Jonathan Gruber, Lisa Jackson, Van Jones, Lois Lerner, Susan Rice, Kathleen Sebelius, and a host of others — to insult the intelligence of Americans on grounds of their supposed naïveté or illiberality or both.

In crude terms, the percentage of white and middle-class voters who support progressive Democrats is shrinking at a rapid clip at the very time when astronomical rates of participation by new minority and young voters are needed — groups that thus far show no predictable record of maintaining their historic turnouts when Obama is not on the ballot.  Hope and change was about Barack Hussein Obama’s youth, charisma, rhetorical skills, race, nontraditional background, and multicultural-sounding tripartite name, but not about an otherwise reactionary liberal agenda.

So the progressives won small and lost big: They got Obama elected twice and have nearly ruined his party in the process.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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