Cliven Bundy Neatly Encapsulates a Potent Crossroads of Opposition to Obama

There were already a lot of lessons about the modern political landscape to be drawn from the standoff of rancher Cliven Bundy and federal agents in Nevada, but Bundy's comments looping in race and the welfare state reveal one of the most important: President Obama embodies a number of the things that his opponents dislike most.

Bundy, as you are no doubt aware by now, was joined by hundreds of activists — many armed — to protest the seizure of his livestock by the federal government. The standoff was portrayed by conservatives as one earnest businessman standing up to the ruthless bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.; it was portrayed by liberals as an alarming and unconstitutional act of rebellion against authority. Then, as you are also no doubt aware, Bundy tipped the scales of sympathy against himself, in an interview with The New York Times.

"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," he told the Times' Adam Nagourney. That thing was that Bundy had driven past public housing and seen poor black people with "nothing to do." "And because they were basically on government subsidy … [t]hey abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?" Should you need a rebuttal for that last argument, I will leave it to The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates who points out, in short, that slavery was inherently cruel and unconscionably repressive.

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But Bundy's argument is a common one, mixing in race and government programs and government overreach. There's a Venn diagram to be made, so I made it. These are overlapping complaints, which are represented here with circles of the same size for clarity but in which the anti-government sentiment circle is far, far larger than the racism circle in reality. Is Bundy at the center of the diagram? Probably; he's certainly in the overlap at upper right. (Update: He says he isn't.) But the larger point is this: the presidency of Barack Obama fits neatly into that little center triangle.

There is another relevant story in Thursday's Times — an analysis of voting patterns and race in 2012. Nate Cohn explains that, under Obama, Republicans have greatly strengthened their support in the South.

While white Southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the hugeness of the gap was new. Mr. Obama often lost more than 40 percent of Al Gore’s support among white voters south of the historically significant line of the Missouri Compromise. … It is no exaggeration to suggest that in these states the Democrats have become the party of African Americans and that the Republicans are the party of whites.

That shift was obscured by the strength of support for Obama among black Southerners, Cohn writes, but "the white shift is nearly as important to contemporary electoral politics as the Obama coalition. It represents an end, at least temporarily, to the South’s assimilation into the American political and cultural mainstream." It's hard not to read that "at least temporarily" as being another way of saying "once the president is no longer black."

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Cohn wonders how much race actually plays a role. It is immediately clear that race is not the only factor. The modern Republican Party is motivated strongly in opposition to government spending and, while the budget deficit continues to drop under Obama, the government's debt continues to grow, providing fodder for his opponents to make that argument. Similarly, the increase in food stamp enrollment and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act angered people opposed to government social programs. The Venn diagram above is drawn with neat lines; in reality the borders between those circles is very blurry and hard to articulate. Is opposition to food stamp usage completely separate from racist attitudes? Not always; not never.

Whoever becomes president on January 20, 2017, Democrat or Republican, will face opposition over the size of government and over the existence of social safety net programs. A Republican president may try to reduce both; a Democrat probably won't. It's unlikely, though, that the next president will be black, and so it's unlikely that the next president will face the same sort of opposition that Barack Obama has seen. Will that mean that Cliven Bundy will decide that the government isn't the oppressive force that he depicts to his followers? Probably not; Bundy's casual racism and thoughts about the superiority of slavery to welfare aren't his main motivations. Will the new president mean that Democratic support in the South rebounds? We'll see.

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