Democrats hark back to the politics of race

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Rep. Steve Israel
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Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the DCCC, speaks at the National Press Club's Newsmaker series on how Rep. Paul Ryan's, R-Wis., budget will effect the midterm elections. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

So now it's out there. After five years of studied reticence (unless they were talking privately to one another or their supporters), Democratic leaders in Washington finally went public last week with what they really think is motivating Republican opposition to Barack Obama. As Steve Israel, one of the top Democrats in Congress, told CNN's Candy Crowley, the Republican base, "to a significant extent," is "animated by racism."

Just to make himself clear, Israel did allow that not all Republicans were the ideological descendants of Bull Connor. To which I'm sure his colleagues across the aisle responded, "Oh, OK. Cool then."

But it's not the reaction of Republicans that Democrats should probably have some concern about. It's the way American voters, and a lot of younger voters in particular, may view a return to the polarizing racial debate that existed before Obama was ever elected.

Coming in an election year, and in the wake of sporadic campaigns to solidify support among women and gay voters, the sudden Democratic focus on race felt like an orchestrated talking point. Israel's comments came just a few days after Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, suggested that racism was keeping Republicans from voting on an immigration bill. And Pelosi was reacting to a speech by the attorney general, Eric Holder, who complained to a civil rights gathering in Washington of "ugly and divisive" attacks against the administration.

"What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?" Holder, who is African-American, pointedly asked. "What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?"

As far as I can tell, though, this eruption on race actually wasn't born in the kind of strategy session where consultants lay out which issues will move which voters. What seems to have happened was something rarer: Washington Democrats, unable to suppress their frustration for a minute longer, simply blurted out what they have always believed to be true but had been reluctant to say. One catharsis emboldened the next.

As a unifying explanation for the abject dysfunction of our political system, latent racism seems unsatisfying, at least by itself. Is there a lingering prejudice lurking among some older, rural, white conservatives in the country? It would be ignorant of history to argue otherwise. Is this "birther" business, for instance, a reflection of racism? Without a doubt.

But conservatives do have profound and principled disagreements with Obama's view of expansive government. And it's worth noting that racial resentment has been a part of the partisan divide for at least 50 years now; it's doubtful that "birther" types hate Obama any more than they did Bill Clinton (whom they accused of serial murder, among other things). What's happened over that time is that the presidency has become increasingly personality-based, and the country more culturally cleft, so that each successive president becomes subject to an ever more irrational kind of attack on his very legitimacy as a leader.

Embracing the rallying cry in the Daily Beast this week, Michael Tomasky, a sharp and reasoned political observer on the left, pointed out that not a single Republican had shown the courage to stand up and declare racial bigotry intolerable in his party. A good point – except that I don't recall Pelosi or Israel making a version of that same speech when the highly educated liberals who despised George W. Bush circulated emails, after their defeat in 2004, depicting a red map of the "United States of Jesusland" and blaring, "F--- the South." Bigotry in our politics now takes myriad forms.

Still, a lot of Americans who voted for Obama probably find the racism argument at least somewhat persuasive. And how persuasive you find it probably depends not just on your ideology and where in America you live, but at least as much on when you were born.

We're living in a strange moment, after all, where generations who inhabit the same neighborhoods and social networks nonetheless draw on wildly different experiences of growing up American. For the purposes of race and politics, let's assume that voters who sympathize with Obama break down, more or less, into three cohorts.

The first group, to which Holder, Pelosi and Israel belong, might be called the civil rights generation. For this group, which came of age politically in the 1960s and '70s and helped bring about a revolution in social justice, race is the essential, underlying fissure that runs through all our political debates. This group believed, by and large, that a black man probably couldn't be elected president (that's the main reason that a lot of older African-American leaders supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in 2008), and it continued to whisper, even after his election, that Obama would never be allowed to govern.

For this segment of liberals, the suggestion that racism is the principal motive for Republican obstruction is both intuitive and exculpatory. They knew there was darkness and loathing in the heart of the country (or at least in the parts that don't have Apple stores and artisan coffee), and the ugliness of Obama's opposition has proven it.

The second generational contingent, which includes Obama himself, grew up in what you might call a moment of racial reconstruction. The actual war was over by the time we came along, but there remained a minefield of racial tensions to be explored and negotiated – stubborn prejudices, lingering stereotypes, the new and inviolable lexicon of political correctness.

These Democrats and independents hoped Obama's election, whatever else it might portend politically, would at last turn the page on all of the age-old animosities that seemed to underlie every stalemated debate. They've been disappointed by Republican intransigence during the Obama years, and by the president's own ineffectiveness at transcending that dynamic. Chances are last week's allegations from Democratic leaders struck a lot of them as depressingly familiar.

The third and probably least predictable group is the so-called millennials, who have grown up in a vastly different, more racially complex country. The racial recrimination that felt inescapable 30 years ago is as far removed from their experience as the Red Scare was to Obama's and mine. It's telling to hear today's college students campaign against the hurtful slights (or biased compliments) they call "microaggressions." Even the terminology suggests that all the larger racial battles have already been fought.

While these voters are more progressive than older Americans, they are in fact less affiliated with political parties than any previous generation. According to an exhaustive survey conducted recently by the Pew Research Center, about half of all millennials (now ages 18 to 33) call themselves independents. They overwhelmingly supported Obama, as a personality rather than as a party leader, because they thought he might be young and dynamic enough to revitalize and modernize Washington, to somehow make government as relevant to their lives as Twitter.

Their passion for Obama has now cooled (his approval rating among millennials, while still higher than it is among other cohorts, has fallen below 50 percent in recent surveys, according to Pew), and certainly nothing that's happened in the years since his election has made the very idea of a political party seem to them like any less of a relic. Far from being lifelong Democrats in the New Deal mode, these voters are largely up for grabs by any candidate or cause that feels transformative.

And so you can imagine that the sudden outburst from party leaders about racism did little to advance their cause with these voters, who are, just by the way, crucial to the Democrats' electoral math for years to come. The politics of racial grievance and identity feels about as contemporary to millennials as a floppy disk. (Look it up on Wikipedia.) They're still wondering what kind of politics comes next.

Calling out Republicans as racists probably felt familiar to Israel and the others, like returning to a place where all the landmarks are known. But the terrain of American politics is shifting fast, and there's not much to be gained by turning back.

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