Dealing with the counter-Bradley effect

Once again: It’s the economy, stupid.

As we have seen before and as we were reminded again last week, it’s nearly impossible for an incumbent party to stay in office during an economic meltdown. While it would be nice to read the election as a repudiation of the gut-based moral politics that have taken up residency at the White House, it’s more than likely that the outcome was simply a reflection of the obvious — in the face of crisis and looming depression, people took the radical step of voting according to their economic interests rather than their social values. In the parlance of Thomas Frank, it appears that the problem with Kansas can be most effectively addressed through a market crash. Among the many lessons learned in the aftermath of last October, one political truism gained renewed relevance: When it becomes impossible to sustain a traditional middle-class lifestyle, alternate lifestyles and ideologies suddenly seem a lot less threatening. Abortion becomes less urgent than paying a mortgage, and gas prices take precedent over the gay couple next door who want to get married. Mutatis mutandis, and the electoral map fades to blue. But I’m brutally oversimplifying. After all, Kansas did go to McCain by 53%.

In any event, the role of the economy in the election can’t be overstated, and not just in ways related to finances. If Obama’s victory can be attributed to factors outside of his control — economic depression, a standing president with approval ratings lower than Ahmadinejad’s — then how are the logistics of his win going to square with the expectations of his presidency? In other words, if the election was swung by people who didn’t buy into Obamamania and the rhetoric of progress, then to what extent will he truly be able to legislate over social issues? While we’ve all grown accustomed to the current administration’s tendency to legislate by imaginary moral mandate, Obama’s election raises a new question — is it possible for him to be everybody’s president when some of his supporters represent positions antithetical to his?

In the days leading up to the election, one of the hot topics in political analysis was the potential threat of the Bradley effect, the phenomenon in which voters declare themselves favorable to a candidate they ultimately vote against in order to not appear racist to pollsters. The effect is named after California gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, who earned his place in history after losing the governorship in spite of exit polls indicating he would win by a landslide. While Obama largely escaped the mythical consequences of the Bradley effect, as Judith Butler observes in an essay on Indybay, his victory summoned something different and equally unnerving: the counter Bradley-effect.

According to Butler, the counter Bradley-effect came about through voters who “could and did explicitly own up to their own racism, but said they would vote for Obama anyway. Anecdotes from the field include claims like the following: ‘I know that Obama is a Muslim and a Terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway; he is probably better for the economy.’ Such voters got to keep their racism and vote for Obama, sheltering their split beliefs without having to resolve them.” In other words, precisely by being the “post-racial candidate” Obama got voters to look past their prejudices without addressing them, and in doing so, harmonized a voter base that included ACLU members, Cato supporters, union activists and Klansmen. Democracy, as we are continually reminded, is rarely a pretty thing.

So what are the implications of Obama’s unholy alliances? The first major byproduct was the passage of California’s Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage, which Slate speculates may have occurred as a result of increased black and Latino voter turnout:

Obama brought a huge number of strongly anti-gay-marriage voters to the polls. In 2004, African-American voters made up 6 percent of the California electorate—about 700,000, according to the ’04 exit poll. On Tuesday, 10 percent of voters were African-American; all of the state’s ballots have yet to be counted, but if total turnout matched or exceeded the level of 2004, it would mean that at least 1.2 million African-Americans turned out to vote. According to the ’08 exit poll, blacks favored Proposition 8 by a margin of 70 to 30. (All other ethnic groups were about evenly split on the measure, with white voters leaning slightly against it.) Given these numbers, we can imagine an alternative history: Had 500,000 African-American voters stayed home Tuesday, Proposition 8 would have received 350,000 fewer yes votes and 150,000 fewer no votes.

Since Obama has never explicitly come out in favor of gay marriage, this is not the best example, but nevertheless the point still stands — the difficulty with being the “post” candidate is that political transcendence comes with the baggage of embracing splinter issues. The danger here is that the next four years could very well turn into an exercise in measuring the distance between consensus and concession. So as voters with radically different belief systems come to identify with Obama, we encounter a problem more familiar to the Spanish Civil War than to the recent Bush years: are we comfortable with occupying the same political space as those we fundamentally disagree with? In spite of whatever this may mean, the answer must be yes. This must be the radical shift in both our foreign policy and domestic mindset. Obama may not be as left as some people want or as white as others want, but regardless, the terms of his election mean accepting the conditions of bipartisanship. This doesn’t mean abandoning issues or values, but it does mean governing diplomatically. We may not want to hear what people have to say, but at the very least, we have to listen.

Finally, here’s your moment of irony, courtesy of the Harper’s Weekly Review: “Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the destruction of parts of an ancient Muslim cemetery, where some of Saladin’s warriors are buried, to make way for a new Frank Gehry-designed $250 million Museum of Tolerance.”

~ by Jessica on November 11, 2008.

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