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People Vote Their Pocketbooks... And Their Bigotry

Racism-- Still A Factor?


In a blog post yesterday, It's The Culture, Stupid, Joe Klein started with a fallacy: “Clinton won the presidency because he convinced voters that, unlike the past 20 years of Democrats, he was tough on crime (including a rather disgusting execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man of limited intelligence) and that he wanted to reform welfare (which badly needed it). He also presented himself as a McDonald’s supersizer and regular guy with a Southern accent, who could talk the birds from the trees. He was fortunate in his opponent, George H. W. Bush— a thoroughly decent man and a very good President but an indifferent campaigner who had broken an essential promise (Read my lips: no new taxes) and had been seriously weakened by Pat Buchanan’s rebel campaign, which portrayed him as something of an effete wimp. (The death of Bush’s campaign monster Lee Atwater, who had made culture a centerpiece of the 1988 campaign— remember the black murderer, Willie Horton?— debilitated his ability to ding Clinton.) It was culture that mattered in 1992: Bubba beat the elite. It will be culture that matters in 2024.”


Clinton was certainly a wily, triangulating conservative by the time he ran for president. But that isn’t why he won. Here’s why he won:

  • Bill Clinton- 44,909,889 (43.0%)— 370 electoral votes

  • George HW Bush- 39,104,550 (37.5%)— 168 electoral votes

  • Ross Perot- 19,743,821 (18.9%)

Perot threw Nevada, Georgia, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, Colorado, Louisiana and Ohio to Clinton (70 electoral votes) and probably Maine, New Jersey (which had been particularly hard hit by the recession, with high unemployment and a struggling manufacturing sector), Iowa, Tennessee, Connecticut and Missouri as well (56 electoral votes). Had Perot not been in the race taking votes from Bush and had Bush won these 14 states, Bush would have been reelected with 294 electoral votes to Clinton’s 144. Clinton won in 1992 because of Ross Perot, not because he was a right-wing culture warrior, even though he was. Furthermore, I was being generous to Clinton and many scholars think that Bush would have won California had Perot not been in the race!


California was not a blue bastion back then. No Democrat had carried the state since the anti-Goldwater LBJ landslide in 1964. After that, Nixon won California twice, Ford beat Carter there, Reagan won it both times and George HW Bush had beaten Michael Dukakis 51.13% to 47.56%. 1992 was by no means in the bag for Clinton. In the end it came out like this:

  • Bill Clinton- 5,121,325 (46.01%)

  • George HW Bush- 3,630,574 (32.61%)

  • Ross Perot- 2,296,006 (20.63%)

Klein’s point was that it isn’t necessarily “the economy, stupid,” that wins elections so much as culture wars-- the opposite of what Bernie would say— and his post was nearly wasted on a discussion of vice presidential candidate Nikki Haley. He agrees that she’s hardly worth the time the media is spending on her campaign. “Nothing much else is going on. There is a hunger in America for political entertainment. It’s a lot more fun than the debt ceiling... Haley is a fat target. Ann Coulter, whose blond hair, black cocktail dress, pearls and nasty mouth created a cult-following, has been off the best-seller lists in recent years. She’s been overtaken by daily barbarians like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. So she makes a fabulously ugly nativist splash: Haley should 'go back to your own country.' Haley’s family is from India; she was born in back country South Carolina. But Coulter’s been working the “America is for white people” game for years. Immigration will be one of the top two or three issues in 2024. Coulter— a very smart cookie in real life, by the way— is sending the message that Haley won’t be able to exploit nativism as well as some of the paler Republican populists.”


He wrote that Haley’s “‘America is not a racist nation’ trope needs to be unpacked before we head into 2024. It is crucial to the whole Critical Race Theory debate, which— sorry Dems— is a real issue. Those who believe that America is ‘racist’ are arguing that the fundamental structure of American society is stacked against blacks. It is immutable. Nothing ever changes. All whites are guilty of it, especially those who claim not to be. Blacks are oppressed, forever and always.” Klein’s inner conservative is going a little far here, as he tends to love doing when something hits a nerve. He called that “arrant, destructive nonsense” and then generously acknowledges that “Racism certainly exists here in abundance. The right-wing campaign against ‘wokeism’ is all too often a beard for flat-out anti-black and anti-gay bigotry. Structural racism was the law of the land until the 1960s, especially in the segregationist South and the redlined housing market of the North. But those who believe racism has defined America are living in bizarro world— which is to say, too often, leftist academia. Democracy has defined America, with all its flaws and glories. Diversity— e pluribus unum—has defined America. The past 50 years, in particular, have seen unprecedented human rights progress— the growth of a substantial black middle and professional class (as well as historic progress for women, the gay community and Latinos). Those who do not acknowledge this progress— I’m looking at you, Ta-Nehisi Coates— are playing a cynical racialist game. And they are sending a dreadful, hopeless message to young black people.” He warns that "All too many Democrats buy this guilt trip."



Here’s another formulation that needs to be unpacked before 2024: the difference between “equity” and “equality.” Joe Biden talks about “equity” far too often— by which he, or his speechwriters, mean government programs which take race and “diversity” into account, in order to repair past bigotry. Equality is less fraught: it means the same rules and opportunities for everybody. Equity v. Equality will, I suspect, the most important debate of 2024, especially if the Supreme Court takes down affirmative action.
The equity side of the argument is a much tougher road. It is also terrible politics. It is next of kin to the idea of “structural” racism— again, the notion that white people and the institutions of American society are fundamentally racist— which is not just carelessly wrong and insulting, but a certain loser at the polls. Tell a divorced woman in West Virginia, working three jobs and trying to put several kids through school, about “white privilege.”
The reaction to Nikki Haley’s candidacy is an omen. In the absence of a war or an economic cataclysm, race will be— as it almost always has been— the central (if often underlying) issue in American politics. It is not a phony issue. It is a difficult one, easily demagogued by the racist right and racialist left. But it’s what will matter in 2024 and even James Carville thinks so: “It used to be that [Republicans] were kind of free traders and anti-Russia and pro-military and for entitlement reform,” he told the Washington Post today. “Well, that’s all out the window. The only thing they have that unifies them is cultural resentment.”

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'It is next of kin to the idea of “structural” racism— again, the notion that white people and the institutions of American society are fundamentally racist— which is not just carelessly wrong and insulting, but a certain loser at the polls' Did I misunderstand structural racism? I thought it meant that there is racism built into the institutions of American life that is additional to any personal racism in people. i.e. even if we can't force people not to harbor racism in their hearts and minds, if we've reached the point where society is ready to tackle it, we can root out the racism in institutions. From this it does not follow that white people are fundamentally racist, (though many may b…

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