Explaining Atrios

I really can’t believe I’m about to do this. This post was about two seconds shy of being entitled “Armando: Still a Dumbass,” but out of the interests of decency, I abstained. It begins with Atrios post which, given his brevity, I provide in its entirety:

Let me make it a bit more clear. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the reality of race and politics, and there’s nothing wrong with politicians targeting their campaigns and messaging towards various subgroups. What the Clinton campaign is doing is saying that Obama has electability problems, and using their support from white voters as evidence of that. That’s a wee bit problematic, and not just because it doesn’t follow logically any more than the other electability arguments such as Obama can’t win the election because he can’t win the primary in big states.

To which Armando retorts with how it’s a great “sin” among lefty blogs to talk about the problems that Obama has attracting white voters. Now, I almost gave this whole thing a pass based on two things; the first being that Atrios didn’t really do a great job of explaining himself, and the second is that Armando talked about providing solutions or, in his words:

The Problem remains unresolved and a deep concern for November. Discussing that concern is a mortal sin according to the Left blogs. I for one will not play the ostrich. I will consider the problem and ways Obama can solve it.

Good, that’s I think where these two are kind of missing each other, but it all fell apart when Armando failed to actually discuss ways of solving it, or, for that matter, do anything besides complain about the perceived taboo of talking about Obama’s failure to appeal to White Voters, thus murdering the one saving grace of his post.

As anyone who has read my work over the past two months at this point should know, my chief frustration has been Democrats focusing attacks on each other when, as a party, we should be working together to build defenses against these same attacks that will be doubled down upon by Republicans in the fall.

While I would not deign to speak on Atrios’ behalf, I believe that that is what he is at least in part getting at when he discusses the woes of watching Democrats attack Obama based upon his struggles with white voters.

The problem does not lie with addressing these concerns, but instead using them as an attack as opposed to addressing them constructively. This is especially true now that Obama is likely to be the nominee, but should have been true regarding both sexism and racism from the beginning.

It falls to that question, “Is America ready for a black man, or a woman to be president?” That question has transformed from one of academic interest to one of electability arguments, but if the Democratic party is one of the “big tent” (ahem), the question should never have been, “is America ready?” but instead “How do we make it ready?”

Thus, in a competitive campaign between members of the same party, I don’t expect one candidate and his or her supporters to actively help another candidate with demographics that he or she may struggle with, but at the same time I don’t think you make the problem worse by turning that into a key argument against the candidate’s viability.

Put another way, there has been much talk about the historic relevance of this year’s presidential campaign. For the first time in our history, the nominee of one of the major parties for the President will either be black or female. But for as historic as this has been, it has also been disappointing because you don’t get the sense that any doors are truly being opened. You don’t get the sense that now that these glass ceilings and racial barriers are being broken through that we will continue to see from now on other minorities and other women making serious bids for the White House.

And it is because we are dealing with this historic moment in a very unhistoric, and frankly petty manner.

It isn’t a sin to discuss Obama’s problems with white voters, but it is highly damaging not only to his candidacy, but to the party on a greater scope to do is in any way that is not constructive. We should discuss it, and we should point out that Armando seems oblivious to the fact that Obama seems quite adept at winning the white vote in areas where only white voters actually exist.

You know, states like Wyoming, and North Dakota, and pretty much everywhere in the upper Midwest. He does have a point that Wright hurt him, but despite Wright’s effect in the race, this hasn’t seemed to have a significant impact on the expectations of other nearly homogenously white states such as Montana and South Dakota to go significantly in Obama’s favor.

Thus, what makes Armando’s post ill conceived (Given that I know he’s an Obama supporter, I’m not going to accuse him of malice, just gross incompetence), is that he, I believe, is assessing the situation poorly.

What have we learned from these primaries? Obama struggles with the white vote in very specific situations, and he does well with the white vote in others. In regions that are almost completely void of a minority populace, Obama tends to do very well, and it’s not difficult to understand why. In the upper Midwest, due to the lack of minorities, what I think we see is a lack of racial tension due to the lack of racial mixing.

Anecdotal evidence time (note: I hate anecdotal evidence, and am not using it to prove my point, but illustrate my point). I have a co-worker who comes from Wisconsin. In the entirety of his youth, he’s seen in person maybe one or two black people… briefly. Then he joined the Navy.

From his world view, his knowledge of black people was completely based not on personal experience, but upon the world views of other people; stereotypes, media exposure, that kind of thing. Now this could create a generally poor or slanted view of black people as his experience with black people was not one forged first hand. And when he got to the Navy, he discovered that much of what he perceived about black people in general was inherently unfair and wrong.

Now, in 2008, he plans on voting for Obama. In 2000 and 2004, he voted for Bush.

The point that I’m illustrating is that the people in these homogenous communities may not necessarily have the most favorable view about black people, but that view is not cemented by persistent racial tension with historical roots and lopsided animosity, and is easily overcome as we have seen countless times in states with a very low black population, and a relatively low level of rampant racism.

Where we have seen Obama suffer the greatest in the White Vote are in two regions in particular. The first is best represented by the Rust Belt where there is a modest but established population of African Americans. Here we see the Archie Bunker demographic prove to be a significant problem. Interestingly, when you think of rampant racism in America, you think Deep South, but what we see here is a milder form that some would hesitate to characterize as blatant racism, but nonetheless racial tensions do exist.

There are many theories that one could go through to explain why this is, but suffice it to say that we are talking about a ratio of African Americans to white people that seems to create this societal racial animosity that under normal circumstances at least seems to remain below the surface.

And then of course you have the Deep South, and just as Armando thinks it’s a great big old sin to discuss the problems that Obama has with White Voters, one thing I have not seen much of is a lot of people talking about how racist the South is.

Let’s make no mistake, I’m not condemning the people of a wide swath of this country, but to ignore the fact that racism runs rampant below the Mason Dixon line is pure naivete. But because of high African American populations, Obama has easily been able to counter the hit that he may have taken from the white demographic by appealing to younger voters, increased African American populations, etc.

Of course, the real situation is scads more complex than this, but I really don’t have the time to write a book right now. What I am saying is that there are far more complexities than simply saying, “Obama can’t win white people.” And if you are going to be a responsible Democrat discussing problems, you must discuss solutions.

For one, I think you have to change the electoral map. It is a very real possibility that Obama will not be able to win Pennsylvania or Ohio, or even Florida, but the old way of thinking is to simply take a look at those states and throw up one’s hands in the air in despair, apparently. But we’re not looking to lose, we’re looking to win, right?

So how do you go off of a model where you may have to cede states of the Archie Bunker Demographic? That’s simple, you win other states to account for it. OR, in other words, you employ a fifty state strategy. I think, and some may call me foolish, but I think that Obama can sweep the Midwest, and really take just about everything sans maybe Arizona and Utah, West of Texas. There’s an awful lot of red there, true, but let’s also not forget that a lot of these states are traditionally ignored, and if a candidate of either party were to campaign heavily there, they may get the vote by virtue of giving them more attention than they’ve had in decades on the presidential level.

Of course, it goes without saying that you hold on to Democratic strongholds like New York and California, but also work lower on the Eastern seaboard as well. At this point we’re talking about Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, all three of which I think will go blue if they have enough attention lavished upon them (For what it’s worth, I think Virginia will go blue if Obama’s the nominee mainly because he has close ties to a very effective and strong Democratic organization that has made great inroads over the past decade in what has been a historically Republican state).

And, of course, playing all fifty states heavily will have a detrimental effect on McCain. In the initial model Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida may be out of play, but if we play all fifty states hard, there are going to be Republican strongholds that McCain is going to have to struggle to hold onto, which will open up traditional swing states for Obama to be more competitive in. If McCain is going to have to spend resources and time in the Midwest to keep Obama from walking away with traditionally red territory, for instance, that is going to reduce his ability to make a play for Pennsylvania and Ohio which would be amenable to Obama’s economic message.

And this is merely the electoral game that you have to play. The other thing that you have to do if you are having issues with a demographic is, simply, find new voters. The fifty state strategy will change the game one way, but we can change the game another way if we bring in millions of new voters as the primaries this year have suggested that we are already doing. If old, blue collar white voters won’t vote for Obama, go find other voters that will, and find a lot of them.

In the past this may have been an issue, but when we look at the energizing of the youth vote, and the effectiveness of Obama’s ability to drive grass roots organization, I think that opens up a new path to battle old demographics.

Of course, this still leaves the problem of the low income, low education, blue collar white vote, and that too will have to be addressed. In this regard, we have to come to the realization that some of these people are racist and we aren’t going to get their votes. But outside of them, there are ways to garner their votes. Ensuring that the campaign’s message speaks to their concerns is of course the highest one.

Rust Belt voters are going to be primarily concerned with the economy, and John McCain is going to be a panderholic with lowering taxes. The counter punch for these folks, of course, is to lay out in simple terms (as opposed to sounding like a college professor), the dangers of McCain’s take on the economy, and how an alternative approach to a fair trades and markets, lower taxes on working class Americans etc. will help them out more than McCain’s “on your own” approach.

Finally, the last point that I wanted to address was the combined implication that Armando makes that A) because a white person voted for Hillary, and b) Obama can’t win without winning the white vote. The first is silly even with the shocking numbers that we are seeing of promises to defect or stay home in November. There is trouble there, true, but I don’t think it will be nearly as bad as things are now assuming this primary ends amicably and soon enough. The second is pretty effectively countered by Steve M. over at No More Mister Nice Blog.

unnily enough, this post went on much longer than I intended it to go, and I still haven’t even really scratched the surface on this topic. For Armando, no one’s telling you not to bring up race, but when you talk about solutions, actually talk about solutions, don’t just talk about talking about them.

Otherwise you’re just making things worse.

2 Responses to “Explaining Atrios”

  1. DrGail says:

    Very interesting Kyle, especially your thoughts about the difficulty Obama has attracting white voters only in certain areas of the country. I wonder, though, whether what distinguishes these areas from the country from, say, the west, is the Mason-Dixon line or rather one of socioeconomic status?

    Perhaps Hillary’s use of the term “blue collar” is not just a subtle way of saying “white”, but instead is a dog whistle to people you have felt bypassed and disenfranchised not just during the Bush Administration but during Bill Clinton’s administration as well, and perhaps even back through GWBush and Reagan. Those folks would be the people in the Rust Belt as well as the South, and most particularly through the Appalachian regions (western VA, WV, KY, TN, southeastern OH).

    People who are suffering and feel like practically the whole world is stepping on them always look for someone to see as being subordinate, hence the racial tensions. Being distrustful and disdainful of the “other”, whoever the “other” may be, is a profoundly human reaction to being in a shitty situation.

    I think you’re right, too, about not having much shot of lining up the Archie Bunker vote behind Obama. There are certainly things that can be done, like increasing Obama’s exposure to them. While it may not make much in the line of inroads into their racism, you may be able to move them as far as thinking “He’s not much like a black guy, in fact he’s half white, so he’s okay I guess”.

    But further, if these Archie Bunker types are traditional Democratic voters but can’t bring themselves to vote for a black man, then I would suggest they’d be likely to just stay home from the polls (perhaps in protest, perhaps in grudging support) rather than vote for McCain. I hesitate to go any further on this, because I fear I’m trending dangerously close to vote suppression, and I really don’t want to go there.

    Perhaps there really was a point to the Atrios and Armando tete-a-tete (which I didn’t read, BTW) — it got you and everyone else back talking about racial issues in a thoughtful way. Your multicultural experiences in your everyday life give you a unique perspective on these issues and (at the risk of sounding like a suckup here) you are at your very best when exploring issues of race.

  2. Thank you very much, Gail, as I keep saying, it’s an important issue to me.

    I really don’t have much to disagree with you upon other than I do wonder about the Archie Bunker Demographic staying home. John McCain can be right up at least some of their alleys. I think the key is to make sure that not a single person in this country misunderstands the proximity between Bush and McCain on the economy.


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