What’s the deal with Obama-Trump voters?
It appears that the Supreme Court has finally put to bed the absurd claims of Trump and his supporters that Joe Biden did not win the election. Thank Goodness for that. Settling the legal questions does not unfortunately reduce the anger of Trump’s most die-hard supporters, who engaged in violent confrontations over the weekend. So much for Antifa being the problem.
Certainly, the people who continue to openly fight Biden’s inevitable ascension to the presidency are the nuttiest of MAGAers. It is shocking to realize how much of the Republican establishment was afraid of this small but vocal group, backed up as they are by Trump’s Twitter feed. Indeed, 120 Republican members of Congress, a solid majority of their conference, signed on to an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the votes of millions of people in four states, including my home state of Michigan. As far as I’m concerned, Republicans have now lost all claims on patriotism and moral superiority. They are the modern day equivalent of Confederates.
Arguably, the same tensions that led to the rise of the Confederacy and the Civil War are being expressed by the Trump movement. Research has shown that racism is central to Trump’s appeal, and the debate over whether Trump was elected due to racial hostility or economic disenfranchisement has largely been settled in favor of the racism argument.
There is one big problem with this analysis, however. Research has shown that about 9 percent of people who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. Of the more than 650 counties that chose Mr. Obama twice, about a third flipped to Mr. Trump. Many were in states critical to Mr. Trump’s win, like Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Among white voters who never went to college, 22 percent of those who voted for Obama switched sides to Trump.
To be sure, Obama was the beneficiary of extremely high Black turnout, historic indeed, and he might have lost the 2012 election without that support. Nevertheless, these party switchers were essential to Trump’s narrow 2016 victory.
So how do we reconcile the fact that racism was central to Trump’s appeal, and yet a significant percentage of his vote came from white people who voted for the first Black man elected President? The answer has to do with the interplay of race and economics.
Remember that when Obama was first elected in 2008, the United States had just collapsed into a historic recession, more serious than any other since the Great Depression. Not only had people lost faith in the Republicans’ ability to respond to this crisis, but they were inspired by Obama’s message of hope and change. Time magazine even compared Obama to FDR.
The result was a smashing Democratic victory, with Obama winning 365 electoral votes, 52.9 percent of the popular vote, and the Democrats winning a veto-proof majority in the Senate. At the time, people were talking about the emergence of a realignment that would result in a permanent Democratic majority. This conventional wisdom helped doom Hillary Clinton’s campaign as she counted unreasonably on the support of Obama’s “blue wall” states.
Obviously, we’re still waiting for the realignment. Biden’s meager victory provides little support to those who believe we are establishing a permanent Democratic majority.
So what happened to these Obama voters? At the time he was elected in 2008, the racially-based coalition of rich people with lower-income whites seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The crisis that the Recession represented drove working people to each other, no matter what their race, repelled by the greed and irresponsibility of the economic elite.
But once Obama came into office, that promise seemed to fade. Yes, he did succeed in passing Obamacare, whose benefits ultimately became obvious to working people who strongly opposed its repeal. But at the time, those benefits were not apparent. What people at the time knew about was the immediate economic pain they were feeling, and it is here that Obama failed.
While working people of all races were facing foreclosures, Obama bailed out the bankers and did little to help the average homeowner (See the book 13 Bankers by Simon Johnson and James Kwak for a detailed explanation of this outrage). While Americans of all stripes were facing chronic unemployment, Obama allowed the Republicans to limit his unemployment extensions. And all the while, Obama did nothing to hold the bankers responsible for this economic catastrophe accountable, and he provided relief to the airlines who served Congressmen in Washington D.C. from budget sequestration. The resulting impression left with many working class voters was that he abandoned their needs in favor of the needs of the rich.
Barack Obama and the breakdown of the American Center
Call it a tale of two presidents. When Barack Obama was first elected President, the nation was truly in crisis, mired…
This impression created an opening for the economic powers that be to once again pull white working class people over to their side with racism. Many puzzle over the fact that white working people often throw in their lots with the rich who have very different interests from theirs. How do the rich get working class people to support tax cuts to the rich and benefit cuts to the working people? By appealing to racism.
Obama’s election in 2008, then was a unique, and unfortunately missed, opportunity. As a result of the recession, white people who might otherwise be swayed by racism were open to aligning themselves with working class people of other races who share their economic interests. The fact that Obama then seemed to turn his back on the working class in favor of the wealthy destroyed that opportunity.
Now, unfortunately, that missed opportunity is water under the bridge. We can only deal with the here and now. As a result, Biden must learn the lesson from Obama’s mistake, one Obama himself likely regrets now, and instead chart a different path. Biden must show the white working class once and for all that their interests are better served by aligning themselves with others who share their economic status rather than their racial status. To do so, he must deliver clear justice by taxing the rich, stimulating the economy, and providing relief to working families of all races. If Biden does that, then he will have an argument to deliver to working class whites that they have something to lose by voting based upon their race rather than their wallets.
Fortunately, Biden might be the right person to accomplish this mission. With his working class roots and his ability to speak directly to working class whites, he can show them his commitment to their needs. Furthermore, taking these steps will also help Biden with his other key constituencies, people of color, who will also benefit from these steps, as well as white liberals, who demand justice against the rich.
The appeal of the elites is strong, however. I witnessed with my own eyes how Washington corrupts idealistic political activists committed to the people into advocates for the rich and powerful. Hopefully, Biden can resist this siren song. If he doesn’t, than any hope we have of building a lasting Democratic majority will certainly come to naught.