Reflections on the 2012 Presidential Election

December, 2012

Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been keeping up on political developments perhaps a bit too much, while simultaneously giving lectures to my bored freshmen students about the rise of political parties in Jacksonian America: the expansion of the franchise to most white males; the buildup of both Whig and Democratic voting blocks from the 1820s to the 1850s; the resulting social and political revolutions concerning federalism, regionalism, and slavery, which led to the breakup of both parties, the rise of another, and ultimately a war that claimed the lives of over a half a million Americans.

I’m not going to get too much into comparative history here, or a comprehensive overview of how political parties have “packaged” different factions, planks, and interest groups into their platforms, but here’s my observation (which plenty of other bloggers have noted as well):  this election, more than 2008, or 2006, signaled the breakup of the old Nixon-Reagan coalition, the “Silent Majority” (Sarah Palin’s “Real America”), which has been the backbone of the Republican party for past forty years or so.

What do I mean by the Nixon-Reagan coalition?  Brief history: in the late 1960s,  American politics was messy, messier than usual.  Vietnam, counterculture, New Left, LBJ’s rapid fall, etc.  Socially and culturally, there was an opening and pluralization of American society on all fronts: more racial empowerment, more open sexuality (hetero and homo), more open recreational drug use, more calls for gender equality.  This opening was evident not just in overt political protest movements, but in pop culture and media: cinema, art, music, and just the general abstract social conversation.  Ok, most of us are aware of this.  Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll, we got it.

Up until about this point, the Republican party had been a bit fractured.  It was mostly a consensus of Rockefeller/Eisenhower types, operating under New Deal-inspired liberal government, but drawing legislation slightly to the right in terms of deregulation, lower taxes, etc.  There were extremists: aggressive anti-communists, war hawks, John Birchers; but for the most part they were peripheralized as a result of mass backlash against 1950s McCarthyism.  White southerners, working class, and rural Americans were not a reliable block for the party; many still voted as New Deal Democrats.  Social conservatives, evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians, and “values voters” were not on the radar for either party (See Allan Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation for a fascinating history of the conservative movement from 1920 onward).

This changed in the early 1970s, as Nixon strategists such as Kevin Phillips speculated that the aforementioned demographics were essentially “up for grabs”– disillusioned with the Democratic party for its ineptitude in Vietnam, its embrace of Civil Rights, and with American society’s pluralization and opening in general.  Beginning with Nixon, and reaching its crest with Reagan, Republican politicians began speaking in language that catered to this demographic of white, working class, religious, and rural or suburban voters– the “Silent Majority.”  It shaped our modern political discourse.

The 1970s saw the republican party associate itself with a pro-gun agenda, and saw the NRA move from being an apolitical hunting club to its current incarnation as a protector of gun rights for self defense.  As Jill Lepore showed in a recent New Yorker article, 1960s Black Panthers were some of the first to advocate for gun rights as a means of self-defense, but by the 1970s, white American had seized this.  On a related note, Nixon aggressively touted being “tough on crime.”  In a pluralized, post-Civil Rights Act America, overtly racist language by most was dead.  But, if “tough on crime” politicians could drop hints about normal, decent Americans being afraid of crime and violence in the cities, the racial overtones could not be missed.  The new, self-defense-inspired drive for 2nd Amendment Rights played into this, for whites, and not Black Panthers.

Increasingly draconian drug laws were also a key part of this new tough stance on crime.  Marijuana, after being outlawed federally immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, was aggressively prosecuted during the McCarthy era (communists are corrupting our youth with drugs!), but under JFK and LBJ, had been essentially decriminalized.  With Nixon, and even more with Reagan-era “War on Drugs,” mandatory minimum sentences, Nancy’s “Just Say No” movement, and the DARE program, drugs (and particularly marijuana) became a moral and legal issue more than ever before.  And, once again, drug laws affected minorities disproportionately, enough so that coded language of “being tough on crime” could very much appeal to older opponents of Civil Rights, who could no longer overtly speak their racist views in public.  (see Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness).

The new coalition’s backlash against the sexual revolution was perhaps the most profound.  After the passage of Roe v. Wade, Republicans realized that, more than any other social issue, opposition to abortion could unite and galvanize devout Protestants and Catholics under a single cause as never before.  While the institutional Catholic Church had obviously long forbade abortion (as well as “unnatural” birth control), Protestant denominations had not.  As Leslie Reagan (no relation to The Gipper) has shown in When Abortion was a Crime, it was not unheard of for Protestant pastors in the mid-1900s to refer girls “in trouble” to friendly doctors to “get them back to normal.”  Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement also overtly stated that increased access to birth control could further what we would call today a “Pro-Life” agenda, by preventing abortions.  This changed in the 1970s.  The anti-choice language of Nixon, and even more notably Reagan and George W. Bush was intended to punish women who engaged in pre-marital sex under the sexual revolution’s new paradigm (no major Pro-Life organizations today support increasing women’s access to birth control).  Roe v. Wade became the modern evangelical movement’s (which Tom Wolfe in the 1970s coined the “Third Great Awakening”) Alamo, and arguably the most primary single issue cause for conservative Christian voters for the final third of the 20th century.

This new coalition of voters also was strongly regionalized in the South and West.  Phillips coined the term “Sun Belt,” referring to the Southern half of the United States, a region whose population had been gradually rising since the invention of central air conditioning and the later decline of northeastern “Rust Belt” manufacturing industries.  Western conservative libertarians of the Goldwater tradition, family and business-oriented Mormons in the intermountain West, combined with white southerners, all formed this new block; it essentially marginalized a formerly dominant northeast, which was now labeled as overly elitist, “pinheadedly” intellectual, and “out of touch.”  (see Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason)  It is significant that, between JFK and Obama, no president was elected who identified strongly with the quadrant of the United States east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line.


 All of this is largely domestic in scope; I’m not going to get into issues of international relations, or fiscal matters (although Reagan surely racialized fiscal conservatism whenever he railed against out-of-control government spending by invoking “welfare queens” in the inner city).  But here’s what began changing a few days ago:

Washington, Maryland, and Maine approved same-sex marriage, not through judicial action, but by popular vote.  Washington and Colorado legalized the recreational use of cannabis.  Two senate candidates who had adopted hard-line stances opposing abortion even in cases of rape, Todd Akin (“the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”) of Missouri, and Richard Mourdoch (“rape is a gift from God”) of Indiana, were both resoundingly defeated.  The formerly reliable coalition is falling apart.

The republican party has officially adopted a stance that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” as a plank.  George W. Bush even pushed for a constitutional amendment (going against the “small government” faction’s philosophy within his party) declaring this on a federal level.  But by this point in American society, it is clear that equal rights for all consenting adults has been gaining momentum exponentially.  In the age of “Glee,”  “Modern Family,” and the “It Gets Better” project, the burden has shifted upon opponents of marriage equality to explain their stance, rather than the other way around.  Tolerance is no longer anomalous as it was during my undergrad years., and as more Americans have friends and family who come out of the closet, acceptance will increase.  There is no conceivable way that the republican party will continue to be relevant until it supports marriage equality.  I predict that, by the next presidential election, they will have dropped the “one man and one woman” plank.

The cannabis issue is also a reaction against Nixon and Reagan-era drug laws and a failed War on Drugs that has resulted in record incarceration rates for non-violent offenders in the US, and contributed to a bloody failing state in Northern Mexico.  Furthermore, this may be seen as a “states rights” issue as well, traditionally a bastion for small government republicanism.  The stigma of the 1960s hippie era has held for decades, and Eric Schlosser has pointed out that, during the 1990s, the few politicians who supported decriminalization of cannabis were republicans, precisely because most democrats (“I didn’t inhale”) felt too closely tainted by the “hippie” label.  But this stigma has passed; just as “Modern family” and “Glee” have mainstreamed acceptance of gay life to America, “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad” have shown the ridiculousness of the war on drugs’ neo-Prohibition.  Today, even conservative friends and family of mine consider the criminalization of cannabis to be contradictory and unjust.  The War on Drugs faction of the old coalition is becoming irrelevant ( at least for marijuana).

This brings us to the “rape” gaffes of Akin and Mourdoch.  The abortion debate is not going away, and there is not a large-scale societal shift to a pro-choice stance in the same way that we are becoming more tolerant of cannabis or same-sex couples.  There are serious ethical concerns in playing off the constitutional rights of the unborn against the constitutional rights of women who have long been peripheralized and subservient in American life and politics.  But the debate has changed; it changed from the right.


Historical parallel:

During the sectional crisis of the 1850s, as the Whig and later the Democrat parties imploded over the slavery debate, Southern slavery supporters gradually became more blatant, unapologetic, and up-front for their peculiar institution.  This was something new.  In 1776 the Continental Congress removed a reference to slavery that Jefferson had wanted to include in the original Declaration of Independence.  The 1787 US Constitution could not mention slavery by name.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 tried to sweep it under the table, and Manifest Destiny’s 1840s myths of a unified citizenry marching westward ignored slavery completely.  This fundamental contradiction of Americanness COULD NOT BE NAMED.  However, as our nation carried on its collision course to secession, and as abolition gained ground, slavery supporters became more aggressive, radical, and outspoken, until by the late 1850s and early 1860s, the Supreme Court had overtly declared that blacks (not slaves) had no rights that a white was “bound to respect,” and the Vice President of the Confederacy stated that “Our new government is founded upon the opposite idea of ‘All Men Created Equal… the negro is not equal to the white man… slavery is his natural and normal condition.’”

We saw have seen a similar, albeit smaller-scale, parallel with the abortion debate.  Throughout the 1990s, pro-life forces for the most part operated on the consensus of opposing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to a woman’s life.  This changed during the Bush administration, as the entire anti-abortion movement moved towards a more fundamentalist, black-and-white intolerance of all abortions, until eventually some opponents such as Akin and Mourdoch (with Mitt Romney’s implicit support) reached the breaking point, arguing for its prohibition even in the case of rape, and alienating female voters.

This growing extremism was mirrored in the right’s entire reaction to the Obama presidency, as the most vocal and extremist republicans dug their heels in, and moderates mostly stayed silent.  The subtle, coded racialization of the Nixon/Reagan coalition reacted to a black president irrationally.  Tea Partiers attacked debt and spending that had been ignored during the Bush years, they attacked a compromised health care bill that originally had been a conservative (Heritage Foundation) creation, and since the election they have filibustered obstructed Obama nominees at unprecedented levels.  Historian James McPherson wrote that the Confederate South had  “attempted a political revolution in order to stave off the inevitable social revolution” (paraphrase).  I think we can see that the Tea party movement of 2010, as well as the recent hatred that pundits such as Bill O’Reilly are directing towards non-white populations who may have swayed this election, is a similar tactic.

In retrospect, the Nixon-Reagan coalition has been crumbling for several years.  We’ve seen this with the social issues mentioned previously, but in many ways, it was evident even by the geography of this election’s presidential candidates.  The South and West have dominated the White House for a generation; in 2008 McCain and especially Palin were both exemplars of the romanticized Western individualism that formed part of the coalition.  But this election, there were no westerners in the running for president or Vice President (though one could make the case for Romney being a cultural westerner).  No southerners.  And no evangelicals (Ryan and Biden are both working-class background Catholics, and the only Protestant was Obama).  The Rust Belt had risen once again over the Sun Belt.

Romney was not a bad candidate.  He could not have run the gauntlet of the primaries, and then appealed to the general vote without “flip-flopping” and changing his stances as he did.  Rather, the Republican party itself for the past four years has been a terrible political party.  It painted itself into a corner by appealing mostly to a shrinking population of older, white males (and the females to whom they are married), who retained the phobias to pluralism, promiscuity, and disorder that defined Nixon’s Silent Majority for the past 40 years.  This baby-boomer demographic was very much a product of their time and politics, as much so as the New Deal coalition “Greatest Generation” that preceded them.  The Greatest Generation was born in economic turmoil, and shaped by a war of essentiality, in which nearly everyone volunteered (the average age of a WWII soldier was 26), and which united us.  Baby Boomers were born in affluence, grew up during the greatest period of real economic growth the United States has ever seen, and were shaped by an unnecessary war, fought by coerced soldiers drawn from society’s peripheries (the average age of a Vietnam soldier was 19), and which divided us politically and socially.  I think that these contrasts perhaps tell the story of the rise and fall of this coalition most cogently.

We need a two party system.  As our nation gradually falls from the economic dominance of the post-WWII period, a dominance and affluence that we built our entire economic structure around, we need rational, fact-driven debates.  We even need fiscal conservatism.  But we do not need the red herring issues, the anti-pragmatism, and the ideological ignorance that cynical political strategists pushed into the mainstream in the early 1970s.


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