How tranformative is Obama?

by John MacBeath Watkins

There is no doubt in my mind that history will see President Barak Obama as a transformative figure in American politics, but in what ways?

He is something I've waited a long time for, the truly post-1960s president. The Vietnam war and the decade it defined broke down the old New Deal coalition, tore our country apart, and remade our politics. We have been fighting the culture wars since then in every election. Every presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has been defined by the battles of the 1960s. In 2004, one of the major issues (and a decisive one for my late father, a veteran of WW II, Korea, and Vietnam) was John Kerry's war record and anti-war activities.

The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act broke the alliance between the South, the unions, and northern liberals, and while Johnson was easily able in 1964 to best Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds, the transformation of the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Strom Thurmond had begun.

Humphrey, too close to Johnson for the taste of the left, saw his convention engulfed in the chaos of the Chicago riots, which helped Nixon, who ran as the unlikely peace candidate, with a secrete plan to get us out of war (cut and run close enough to the next election that Saigon would not fall until he was safely back in office. Well, he did indicate there would be problems implementing the plan if people knew what it was.)

Nixon rebuilt the Republican coalition around resentment -- of Northern liberals, un-American war protesters, blacks, feminists, etc. The coalition of people who resent those groups has given the Republican Party a string of victories that span from 1968 to 2010, and may have some life in it yet.

Here's a sample (from George Packer's wonderful The Fall of Conservatism, published in The New Yorker) of what we're leaving behind:

Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
 In short, the Republican coalition Nixon forged was based on the sort of people who did not approve of the sort of marriage that produced Barak Obama, people who feared and hated all that he is and all he represents. And that coalition has now lost to him twice, even though he was exactly the sort of candidate Buchanan once hoped for to recruit the sort of people who now belong to the Tea Party.

 Now, consider this fairly standard exchange from an internet forum:

[QUOTE=S.V. Airlie;3615278]Meli.. Nice thought but you are nuts to think the dems won't hold this sword over everyone who DIDN'T vote for HIM for four years.[/QUOTE]
 [QUOTE=elf;3615281]And it's about time too, Jamie.

In case you can't see it, this is how the Republicans look to the rest of us:[/QUOTE]
[QUOTE=S.V. Airlie;3615284]I'm glad you idolize him elf. Most assuredly, he considers him a deity as well as you. Too bad I don't trust him at all.[/QUOTE]
I was tempted to simply quote the last of these and not reveal that 'elf' refers to Emily's initials or that Arlie is Jamie's schooner, (he's no relation, by the way, to the Jamie who posts on this blog) and ask which Tolkien knockoff the readers thought the quote came from.

The bit about idolization and deity appears as a non-sequitur. It's even more curious when you know that this particular Jamie supported George W. Bush, a man who claimed God had chosen him to lead the country through a difficult time (thanks a lot, George, way to undermine the kids' faith in God's judgement and benevolence.)

But this insistence that anyone who approves of the president of the United States must mindlessly worship him speaks of a deep fear that Obama might actually be transformative, not because he is The Chosen, but because in choosing to vote for him, the American people have rejected the coalition Nixon forged from resentment, hatred, and greed.

Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, argued that prejudice and tradition are the distilled wisdom of a civilization. This is the best light I can see to put American conservatism in. But the American Revolution was not based on this. It was based on the values of the Enlightenment, the notion that sweet reason could lead us to a better way of living. The cultural battle over Barak Obama is a battle for America's soul, and in light of Burke's views, we should not be surprised that it is fought between appeals to reason on the one hand and the sort of appeals to...well, let Lee Attwater tell us (vid not safe for work)

As Attwater pointed out, things that don't even sound like they are about race can, in a political context, be about race.

And the Republican Party is more about race now than ever before. When George W. Bush first ran for president, he got about 70% of the non-black Muslim vote. Mitt  Romney got 4%. Bush got 40% of the Latino vote and sought to turn them more in favor of his party by pushing for immigration reform. His own party rebelled against the idea, and Romney got only 27% of the Latino vote.

Pat Buchanan once thought a black Democratic presidential candidate would scare white voters into the Republican Party. Now, a black candidate makes the Republican Party act so scary, they push all non-white groups out of the Republican Party.

And the demographics of the country have changed enough that diverse America and whites comfortable with diverse America can form a majority in some, if not most, elections.

That's transformative, not in the way that S/V Airlie ridicules, but in the way he apparently fears. It is transformative because a politics not built on fear and resentment will more likely be able to focus on solving problems, rather than focusing on who gets the spoils.

I've thought in the past that one thing that held back the South after the Civil War was its focus on denying opportunity, education, and political representation to blacks. It represented a deliberate waste of human capital. Just as more freedom and opportunity have benefited the South in recent years, they can benefit society as a whole.

A transformation from a country dominated by the sort of coalition Nixon and Lee Attwater concocted to one dominated by a coalition that looks like America can only produce a broader sense of community, and if Republicans are forced to find a strategy other than Buchanan's of cutting the country in half, hoping for the bigger half, the country will be richer for it.