It All Comes Down to Race
Your opinions on health care reform, taxes, and even the president’s dog come down to racial bias.
By Sasha Issenberg|Posted Friday, June 1, 2012, at 11:03 AM ET
The wishful scenario many Republicans envisioned after Barack Obama’s change of heart this month on gay marriage—the president’s African-American base, far less supportive of expanding marriage than other parts of his coalition, becomes demobilized or even defects as a result of Obama’s stance—already seems unlikely to be realized. Last Thursday, Public Policy Polling revealed a 36-point swing in black support for gay marriage among Maryland voters, who will have the chance to legalize the practice in a November referendum, since PPP’s last poll on the subject in March. Then, 56 percent had been opposed to the new marriage law and 39 percent supported it. In May, PPP found the numbers nearly reversed: 55 percent supported, and 36 opposed. By all indications, black voters weren’t abandoning Obama over an issue on which they disagreed, but adjusting their opinions to match his.
If Tesler was surprised by this, it was only because he believed views on gay marriage would be some of the most stable in politics, deeply anchored in moral values. Since 2009, Tesler has been chronicling what he calls the “racialization” of issues in the Obama era—the extent to which public opinion on topics unrelated to race have taken on a racial cast as Obama has staked out positions on them. Tesler has used polling experiments to identify a series of issues that have become enmeshed in complicated racial attitudes by dint of Obama’s association with them: health care reform, taxes, the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
... Tesler’s body of research suggests that instead of delivering what many suggested would be a post-racial presidency, Obama will have polarized corners of American politics previously untouched by race. Not only have racial considerations affected whether voters will support Obama, but they are beginning to renovate the entire architecture of public opinion.
Tesler’s mentor, UCLA psychologist David Sears, introduced the idea that it did not take policies with overtly racial content—like the Civil Rights Act or affirmative action—for racial attitudes to spill over into political views. In 1987, Sears, along with Jack Citrin and Rick Kosterman, published a chapter in the book Blacks in Southern Politics arguing that the mere fact of Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy three years earlier (the first competitive one waged by an African-American) had accelerated the polarization of southern politics. Using National Election Study survey data, Sears demonstrated that Southern whites who harbored racial animus (as measured by their evaluations of blacks and views on welfare and school busing) thought less of the Democratic Party after Jackson ran for president. Race was still shaping their views of the contest between two white men, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
And, why shouldn't Jackson's demonstration in the 1984 primaries of the appeal of his kind of racial spoils system to a large fraction of Democrats impact voters' decisions in the 1984 General Election about which party should be in charge of the spoils?
By the time Obama announced his candidacy two decades later, the country appeared to have changed. The overtly racial issues like affirmative action and busing had largely receded from political debates, and what Tesler and Sears called “old-fashioned racism” of the Jim Crow era had all but disappeared from public life. Yet when Tesler and Sears looked at poll data from 2008, they found what much anecdotal reporting from that campaign had suggested: people’s decisions to vote for Obama were linked to their posture on race. Tesler measured this through a “racial-resentment battery” of questions he could add to any political survey—asking respondents if blacks suffered discrimination and whether the country has gone too far pushing for equal rights.
Of course, this is just a one way survey of whites' skepticism toward blacks — when blacks express racial resentment they are marked as being low on racial resentment. It's Who? Whom? all the way down...
In the past, black candidates had been elected to lesser posts, especially big-city mayoralties, and had seen racially motivated resistance soften over the course of their time in office. Racial animus had been significant predictors of opposition when these candidates first sought office, but as voters saw pioneers like Los Angeles’s Tom Bradley fulfilling their executive duties, they appeared to replace their race-based expectations with personalized judgments rooted in a politician’s performance.
In cases, such as Tom Bradley in L.A., where the black mayor did his fulfill his duties in a racially fair manner. Bradley, first elected in 1973, went on to win four more terms.
In contrast, in cases where the black mayors ruled like racial chieftains, such as Coleman Young in Detroit, whites fled. Or, in the case of Marion Barry in D.C., got the feds to stage a municipal coup. Or, whites regrouped and stopped electing Democrats, as in the last five mayoral elections in New York City.
In general, the poor performance of black mayors, and, especially, black voters in choosing Marion Barrys (who was re-elected mayor after he got out of jail) has hurt the black brand. How many black governors and U.S. Senators are there at present?
Eight months after the inauguration, Tesler stumbled upon a serendipitous opportunity to see how those racial attitudes were affecting other issues on Obama’s docket. In August 2009, CNN conducted a poll about Sonia Sotomayor’s pending Supreme Court nomination, curiously splitting their sample between two different ways of wording the question. One version mentioned that she had been nominated by Obama, and one didn’t make reference to the president at all. By chance, because the Skip Gates “beer summit” was in the news, in the same survey CNN also asked how common police discrimination was against African-Americans. A respondent’s views on discrimination (on a spectrum of “very common” to “very rare”) was three times more influential on his support for Sotomayor among those who heard Obama’s name compared to those who didn’t.
Politics is about Whose Side Are You On? Supreme Court nominees clam up tight about how they'll vote on issues, so the main ways to assess them are either a deeply technical analyses of their writings or an analysis of who nominated them. The farcical Beer Summit incident was an unscripted look into Obama's basic affiliation: to rich black people, like Henry Louis Gates.
Tesler started looking for “issues that people don’t have strong feelings about, and issues that weren’t already folded into the current partisan alignment,” as he put it. Obama started feeding plenty of them—the stimulus, health care reform, cap-and-trade, all relatively new issues without firmly established loyalties. Tesler began working with the polling outfit YouGov to match how voters’ changing views on them matched up to their answers to the racial-resentment questions. He found a “spillover of racialization” into health care reform: Voters who heard descriptions of the contrasting components of the 1993 Clinton and 2009 Obama proposals were more likely to grow disapproving of Obama’s when they heard the presidents’ names—as long as they demonstrated racial resentment elsewhere in the survey.
The problem here is that whites are the only bloc that aren't allowed to be represented like other blocs, so they are vulnerable to highjacking by well-funded special interests claiming to represent anti-racial ideological principles.
For example, the events of 2009 showed that white voters care a lot about preserving Medicare. Whites tend to be getting on in years, they've paid a lot of Medicare taxes over the decades, and they want the bargain to be upheld when it's their turn to receive.
But, you aren't allowed to discuss what's in the interests of white people, so the Republicans like Paul Ryan go around arguing for big cuts in Medicare. What would Ayn Rand do?