In the past week there’s been a weird narrative in the media about the Alabama Senate race between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican (and alleged serial mall predator) Roy Moore. The story goes something like this: the bad white southerners were willing to vote for the scummy pedophile theocrat, but then black people showed up and saved America from Roy Moore. It’s built on two key facts–most white Alabamans voted for Moore and the overwhelming majority of black Alabamans voted for Jones:
But this seems like a bizarre and misleading way to interpret the result of this election. Here’s why.
Firstly, it’s odd to me to give groups of people blame or credit for the results of elections–when the Democrats don’t win, we shouldn’t say it’s because African-Americans (or other demographic groups) “failed” the Democratic Party. We should say it’s because the Democratic Party failed to win them over–it’s the job of campaigns and parties to win votes, not the job of the people to give their votes over on a platter. This is a basic mistake about the relationship between the political class and the people. Political parties must demonstrate their value and argue for themselves. They are not entitled to allegiance by default, or merely by the fact that their opponents are repugnant.
But perhaps more importantly, this result clearly indicates something deeply troubling–people of color cannot reliably deliver victories for the Democratic Party if the Democrats fail to win significant numbers of white voters, even when the Republican in question is an alleged mall predator. This is what’s so befuddling about the headlines. Is it really shocking that a Republican accused of having molested a 14 year old could lose in Alabama by a point? Which is the part that should really shock us–the fact that he lost, or the fact that the margin was so tiny? I say the latter.
A Republican like Moore has no business being competitive for a statewide election in any state. This was true even before the molestation allegations came out–the guy has claimed that the Judeo-Christian God is “the sovereign source of our law”. Like many southern Republican candidates, he uses reactionary social issue positions to win support for an economic agenda which screws over the very same values voters he wins over. Democrats allow candidates like Moore to make the whole thing about social issues. They let Republicans set the political agenda instead of forcing them to defend their hurtful economic positions. Indeed, lately there’s a tendency in the Democratic Party to dismiss any effort to reach out to white voters on economic lines as some kind of abandonment of social justice–as if even to acknowledge that some white voters are disadvantaged and exploited by our economic system is to betray people of color in some way.
This kind of approach doesn’t treat white American voters’ interests with respect. It treats our politics like some kind of racial zero sum game–in which either we are working to help people of color or white people. But of course history teaches us that we can help both at once–Lyndon Johnson (a southern Democrat from Texas) passed civil rights legislation and Great Society legislation at the same time. When Democrats make a point to help every kind of American, it’s easier to persuade every kind of American that the party cares about them.
In the Alabama Senate race, Doug Jones won by the slimmest of margins even with over 90% of the African-American vote, even with an opponent who is an alleged pedophile. Why is the Democrat only getting 30% of the white vote? Why are we okay with millions of white Americans in the middle of the country feeling so thoroughly alienated from the Democratic Party that they would vote for a Republican who, again, and let me underline this, is an alleged child molester?
The American left seems content to answer this question by blaming and shaming white Alabamans. If only they were more virtuous. If only they were smarter. If only they would educate themselves. Do we really expect this condescending, patronising stuff to work? How do we think we make the 30% of white Alabamans who did vote for the Democrat feel when we give all the credit for the Jones victory to African-Americans? How do we expect them to feel when we’re prepared to give white southerners all the blame for every Democratic defeat, but we deny them their share of the credit when the Democrats do win?
Alabama has gotten a bad deal from our government for a long time. It’s much poorer than rich coastal blue states like New York–its median household income is more than a fifth lower:
There’s no way around it–Alabama is poorer, and it’s poorer in part because even its white people are poorer. We can talk about that–and how to address the historical injustices embedded in it (including the mutilation of the south by the north during the civil war and reconstruction)–without in any way reducing our concern for people of color both in the south and around the country. Imagine if Democrats routinely got even 40% of the white vote in places like Alabama. Imagine what we could do. Why shouldn’t that be possible? It starts with making a point to demonstrate that we actually care about these people and take their interests seriously. That cause is undermined when we strip white Americans of their share of the credit for Democratic successes, when we mock them and blame them for everything wrong in the country. It’s time we outgrew this intellectually and politically lazy tendency to ridicule and bully white southerners. Every person who is marginalized or exploited in America deserves our respect, our concern, and most importantly, our help–no matter their race or what part of the country they come from.