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Ghost Story

Realignment was just an illusion.

The victory of Scott Brown in the fight for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat shines a light on a trend in American politics that ought to deeply trouble progressives.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he decisively demonstrated that he was not bound by Democratic orthodoxy. He called for merit pay, expanding charter schools, and firing incompetent teachers. He supported President Bush’s faith-based initiatives providing federal money to religious charities.  He endorsed the Supreme Court's decision overturning a handgun ban in the nation’s capital, while faulting the Court’s opposition to the death penalty for child rape. (Click here to read Jonathan Cohn's open letter to nervous and frustrated House Democrats.)

Once in office, however, Obama failed to sustain his carefully calibrated positioning. And then he compounded this failing. White, middle-class voters ceased to think of him as a protector of their interests. There was the bank bailout and his concessions to Wall Street on financial reform. While expanding his political capital on health care reform, he failed to make a dent in unemployment. 

But of all these political miscalculations (and unfortunate circumstances), his push for health care reform stands above the rest. He simply failed to anticipate the animosity that his proposal to cover the uninsured and to subsidize health care for the poor would generate.

The harsh reality is many voters consider the health care bill a multibillion-dollar transfer of taxpayer money to the uninsured, a population disproportionately, although by no means exclusively, made up of the poor, African Americans, Latinos, single parents, and the long-term unemployed. Providing medical care to this population is an explicit goal of the legislation, and a worthy goal, but political suicide in the current environment.

As everyone knows, the United States is undergoing a profound demographic transformation. Non-Hispanic whites are likely to become a minority by the year 2042. This shift underlies the theory of a Democratic realignment: Pro-Democratic groups are growing while the pro-Republican white population is declining.

There is evidence, however, that trends that have recently boosted Democratic prospects may also be a key factor in undermining the capacity of the population for empathy, and, thus, its receptivity to programs like health care reform.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist and author of the influential 2000 book, Bowling Alone, offers an interpretation of what is going on. In 2007, Putnam published “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” a study that reaches conclusions painful to those committed to diversity and equality: “New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to 'hunker down.' Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

He continues: “[I]nhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television. Note that this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

Putnam’s findings offer critical insight into the explosive growth of the Tea Party movement and the strikingly sudden collapse of support for the Democratic Party. They suggest that the populace, especially the white populace, is on a psychic hair trigger. The demographic transformation of the country and the birth of multicultural America have made this group extremely status anxious—an anxiety that the recession obviously heightens. They are in a mood, to borrow Putnam’s phrase, to “hunker down.” 

And it is precisely this anxiety that is such an impediment to empathy. They view themselves as only marginally better off than those they perceive as the recipients of new government benefits. They look at health care reform and worry that they have little or nothing to gain and much to lose. In the end, Democrats failed to tailor their salesmanship of health care reform to allay the qualms of these voters, of the white working class.

What this suggests is that many analyses of the elections of 2006 and 2008 only saw part of the picture. To many Democrats (and even some Republicans), the country appeared to be on the verge of a realignment driven by demography. This view was most persuasively articulated by Ruy Teixeira last March in a report for the Center for American Progress.

From 1988 to 2008, Teixeira wrote, the importance of moderate and low-income white voters had steadily diminished: “The minority share of voters in presidential elections has risen by 11 percentage points, while the share of increasingly progressive white college graduate voters has risen by four points. But the share of white-working class voters, who have remained conservative in their orientation, has plummeted by 15 points.” It was the dawn of an enlightened political era, he explained: “A new progressive America is on the rise.”

Since those heady days, however, the Democratic realignment has stalled. By every polling measure the party is losing ground. Obama’s favorability ratings continue a steady downward trend. These movements are not the result of restored public esteem for the Republican Party. The stature of the GOP remains low, with its favorability ratings still 11 points behind those of the Democratic Party. 

In practice, the decline of Democratic fortunes coincides with the growing perception that Obama’s three primary legislative initiatives--health care reform, cap-and-trade, and increased regulation of the financial sector--have failed to improve the daily lives of most voters, voters who are impacted by the worst economy in 70 years. At a time when many voters are frightened by unprecedented deficits, the threat of escalating health care costs and the likelihood of tax increases to pay for all this--Obama is being perceived as governing like a “tax and spend liberal.”

The Pew Center has been tracking key public attitudes toward Obama and found that over the year the percentage of voters saying he listens to liberals in his party more than moderates grew by 9 points, from 34 percent to 43 percent, while the percentage saying he listens more to the moderate wing fell by 13 points, from 44 percent to 31 percent.

And, so now a Democratic Party that seemed poised for electoral greatness has reverted back to the debilitating political condition that ailed it during the 1970s and 1980s. It is increasingly perceived as too liberal. It must convince the white working class that it will protect its interests—not just those of the very rich and very poor. Electoral success blinded the party to these nagging problems. Festering old perceptions have come back with a fury. That’s why Scott Brown and his pickup truck managed to drive such a large hole through the very center of the president’s agenda.

Thomas B. Edsall is the political editor of the Huffington Post. 

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