YES THEY DID: Supporters of President Barack Obama celebrated his election night victory at the McCormick Place rally in Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012. Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney to win a second term in the White House. (Photo: Zhang Jun/Newscom)
Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office for a second term sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the white male in America is over.
The long drive for broader social participation by all Americans reached a turning point in the 2012 election, which is likely to go down as a watershed in the nation’s social and political evolution, and not just because in some states voters approved of same-sex marriage for the first time.
On Tuesday, Obama received the votes of barely one in three white males. That, too, was historic. It almost certainly was an all-time low for the winner of a presidential election that did not include a major third-party candidate.
“We’re not in the ’50s any more,” said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. “This election makes it clear that a single focus directed at white males, or at the white population in general, is not going to do it. And it’s not going to do it when the other party is focusing on energizing everybody else.”
How Obama Won
Exit-poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was four percentage points lower than 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was two percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.
The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young, undocumented immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign.
The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian-American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly three-to-one. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Although a far smaller group, gay voters went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)
“Obama lost a lot of votes among whites,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. “It was only because of high black turnout and the highest Latino turnout ever for a Democratic president that he won.”
Obama planted his base in an America that is inexorably becoming more diverse. Unchecked by Republicans, these demographic trends would give the Democrats a significant edge in future presidential elections.
But, despite opposition from conservative religious movements, President Obama captured the votes of 30 percent of white evangelicals. What’s more, he once again won the Catholic vote — which some attribute to his strong support among Hispanic Catholics.
The Latino Effect
GOP SAVIOR: The Republican Party is counting on emerging superstars like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to broaden its base. Rubio is a Latino conservative who supports immigration reform.
Latinos were an essential element of Obama’s victories in the battlegrounds of Nevada and Colorado. States once considered reliably Republican in presidential elections will likely become highly competitive because of burgeoning Latino populations, sometimes in combination with large black populations. North Carolina, where Obama won narrowly in 2008 and came close this time, is one. The Deep South state of Georgia is another. Texas and Arizona in the Southwest are future swing states, by 2020, if not sooner.
Besides demography, Obama had another edge: the superiority of the voter-tracking operation that his campaign built over the last six years, which generated increased turnout on Tuesday among young people and unmarried women.
“That was pure machinery. Hats off to them,” said Republican strategist Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political aide. “Our party has a lot to learn and needs to invest very serious resources in improving our own machinery.”
But Democrats Have a White Problem
The election was not an unblemished success for Democrats, who face a potentially serious threat from the loss of white votes. “I don’t think you can be a major party and get down to support approaching only a third of the white population,” said demographer Frey. “In some ways, maybe, Obama dodged a bullet here. If the Republicans had made a little bit of an effort toward minorities and kept their focus on whites, they might have won.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster, said that with Obama having run his last race, “we’ll have demographics working for us, but it is not going to be so easy to keep it patched tight. It’s going to fray.”
Without Obama on the ticket, socially conservative black voters might have been more inclined to follow the urgings of their ministers, who asked them to stay home to protest the Democrats’ endorsement of gay marriage.
But the Republican Party’s problems are more immediate, and much tougher to solve. Some GOP strategists have been warning for years about the risks of hitching the party’s fortunes to a shrinking share of the electorate.
What Should Republicans Do?
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who combines a tea-party pedigree with Latino heritage, said in a post-election statement that “the conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Al Cardenas, a leading Republican fundraiser, said his party is “out of step with the demographic challenges of today.” Like Rubio, the Cuban-born Cardenas is close to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has long sought to broaden the party’s appeal to Latino voters and will be a prominent voice in the debate over the party’s future.
Romney’s chances ultimately depended on his ability to turn out a bigger white vote against Obama than Republican nominees received in earlier races. Eight years ago, Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, defeated Democrat John Kerry by 17 percentage points among white voters and won re-election. Romney took the white vote by 20 percentage points and lost.
The difference: despite an aggressive voter-mobilization effort, the white share of the electorate has fallen to 72 percent, from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004.
What It Means
Viewed narrowly, this week’s election essentially left Washington untouched. A Democratic president will continue to battle a divided Congress. Within the halls of the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate, the balance of partisan power scarcely budged at all.
But pull back and a very different picture emerges. The civil rights, women’s and gay rights movements, designed to allow others to reach for power previously grasped only by white men, have made a real difference, and the outlines of 21st century America have emerged.
For more on how shifting demographics are changing the church, check out “The Culture Clasher,” our earlier interview with author Soong-Chan Rah, and “The Future Is Mestizo” by Duke Divinity School scholar Chris Rice.
RECONCILER IN CHIEF: Barack Obama stands on stage at Chicago’s McCormick Place after being re-elected president of the United States during his election night watch party on November 6, 2012. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.com/Newscom)
In his victory speech at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, President Barack Obama echoed many of the themes that inspired his supporters when he first arrived on the national scene — themes of hope, empathy, and reconciliation. In the wake of a bruising campaign that time and again revealed America’s deep ideological, cultural, and racial divides, President Obama sought to begin the process of healing and unifying the nation for the challenges ahead. Below is the transcript of his speech.
BARACK OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.
It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.
Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.
I want to thank every American who participated in this election … whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.
By the way, we have to fix that.
Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.
I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign.
We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.
In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.
I want to thank my friend and partner of the last four years, America’s happy warrior, the best vice president anybody could ever hope for, Joe Biden.
And I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the woman who agreed to marry me 20 years ago.
Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.
Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes you’re growing up to become two strong, smart beautiful young women, just like your mom.
And I’m so proud of you guys. But I will say that for now one dog’s probably enough.
To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics. The best. The best ever. Some of you were new this time around, and some of you have been at my side since the very beginning.
But all of you are family. No matter what you do or where you go from here, you will carry the memory of the history we made together and you will have the life-long appreciation of a grateful president. Thank you for believing all the way, through every hill, through every valley.
You lifted me up the whole way and I will always be grateful for everything that you’ve done and all the incredible work that you put in.
I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests. But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym, or saw folks working late in a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you’ll discover something else.
You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity.
You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift.
You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse whose working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job or a roof over their head when they come home.
That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.
That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.
But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future. We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers.
A country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all the good jobs and new businesses that follow.
We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.
We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this — this world has ever known.
But also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being. We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag.
To the young boy on the South Side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner.
To the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president — that’s the future we hope for. That’s the vision we share. That’s where we need to go — forward.
That’s where we need to go.
Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path.
By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin. Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over.
And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president. And with your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do and the future that lies ahead.
Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual.
You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.
But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.
The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
I am hopeful tonight because I’ve seen the spirit at work in America. I’ve seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors, and in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job.
I’ve seen it in the soldiers who reenlist after losing a limb and in those SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back.
I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm.
And I saw just the other day, in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter, whose long battle with leukemia nearly cost their family everything had it not been for health care reform passing just a few months before the insurance company was about to stop paying for her care.
I had an opportunity to not just talk to the father, but meet this incredible daughter of his. And when he spoke to the crowd listening to that father’s story, every parent in that room had tears in their eyes, because we knew that little girl could be our own.
And I know that every American wants her future to be just as bright. That’s who we are. That’s the country I’m so proud to lead as your president.
And tonight, despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future.
I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.
I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.
America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
And together with your help and God’s grace we will continue our journey forward and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.
Thank you, America. God bless you. God bless these United States.
MR. CONFIDENT VS. MR. SNIPPY: After last night’s first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, many of President Obama’s most ardent supporters are wondering why he allowed Gov. Mitt Romney to administer such an unequivocal beat down. (Photo: Newscom)
It’s been interesting today, reading and listening to all the post-debate analysis. Following what most are agreeing was an unequivocal beat down of President Obama by Mitt Romney, many are wondering, What just happened? With all of the polls leading up to the debate favoring the Obama campaign, one would think the president would’ve ridden that momentum and brought the fight to Gov. Romney.
But President Obama apparently neglected to take his urgency pills before taking the stage in Denver last night. Romney, say most pundits, was the more confident, aggressive, and prepared candidate. He won the evening.
And President Obama?
Well, let’s just say the only “hope and change” his supporters are feeling after last night’s performance is the hope that he will change his approach for the final two debates.
As you might expect, there’s a ton of postmortem chatter spilling out across the Web and blogosphere. One report at Politico, titled “How Obama’s Debate Strategy Bombed,” dissects the possible reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance:
Multiple party strategists privately attributed Obama’s demeanor to an ailment that frequently affects incumbents: a fear of appearing too aggressive and risking a larger-scale misstep that could transform the campaign. Projecting a calm, reasonable — some said “presidential” — demeanor was the strategy during Obama’s debate-prep sessions outside of Las Vegas.
But as a result, Obama allowed Romney to set the terms for much of their Wednesday night faceoff at the University of Denver. Startling his supporters, Obama did not deliver almost any of the sharpest attacks that have defined his campaign against Romney, dwelling instead on missing details from Romney’s policy proposals. The former Massachusetts governor’s private-equity background, controversial personal finances, views on social issues and recently reported comments, disparaging Americans who do not pay income taxes, went entirely unmentioned.
Obama did what anybody paying close attention would have known he would do. He played it safe. And he stuck to a rather dull rhetorical style because — he has a rather dull rhetorical style. Also because that’s what you do when you’re the frontrunner. You don’t say or do anything wild and crazy. You let your opponent jump up and down and make excitable noises. Which is precisely what Romney did. Some have read Romney’s stance as aggressive, others as pushy, but there’s one word that you’re unlikely to hear: “presidential.” Makes for good theatrics. But it won’t win you the White House.
Obama people, stop pretending. Stop trying to find the silver lining. Drop the crap about how Mitt Romney was a condescending jerk and vague on everything. Yeah, Romney was all that. And you know what? He still spanked Barack Obama in Wednesday night’s debate. Romney was smooth, easy going, clear, ended his sentences on actual periods and just kept jabbing at the president all night long.
Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta doesn’t let Obama off the hook for his “snippy,” “downbeat” performance, but she goes deeper in diagnosing the root cause for the president’s poor showing. She writes, “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.” She goes on to add that folks expecting a late-hour reemergence of the dynamic Obama of 2008 needs to awake from their denial. This Obama, she says, is no longer the new and shiny model from 2008, nor will he ever be again. She says:
Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.
His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.
As for the president, earlier today at a Denver rally he explained the previous evening’s less-than-triumphant proceedings by suggesting Romney caught him off guard. “When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. [But] the man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions … from the last year.” Mocking Romney’s smiling declaration that he would cut funding to PBS, Obama added, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”
I’m sure Obama’s supporters are glad that he’s able to find humor in last night’s ugly affair, but one wonders why he didn’t bring some of that snark last night.
After sifting through these and other commentaries, I got into a brief email chat with UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist, who also was puzzled by the president’s flat performance. Here’s a bit of our discussion:
ED: What the heck happened last night?
WIL: President Obama was so flat with his style points during the debate, that I’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s a plan. He’s either: 1) Working a “rope-a-dope” strategy where he’ll knock Romney out later when it really counts, or 2) He was thinking too much about candlelight dinner with Michelle for their 20th wedding anniversary.
ED: My wife said the same thing about the Obamas’ anniversary, but c’mon. The president’s whole life is spent multitasking — balancing the running of the country with the mundane tasks of telling the kids to do their homework and making sure he remembers the card and flowers for the anniversary. So, I can’t buy that one. But the rope-a-dope idea has merit. I’ve got to believe he was intentionally pulling punches last night. He seems to be working some sort of strategy, but did it possibly backfire? It’s awfully close to Election Day to be taking those types of calculated risks.
WIL: If Obama’s doing the rope-a-dope strategy, his aim is to strike fear in his Democratic base so that they’ll realize this election won’t be a cakewalk by any means. Democrats became lax in the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party-led GOP dominated. So the implicit message to the base is probably “Wake up, stand up, and get out the vote, like you did in 2008! Romney-Ryan is a stronger ticket than McCain-Palin. I need your help!”
ED: So, do you see him rebounding in round two, or is this the Obama we get now?
WIL: I think Obama will drop all of the obvious power punches (47 percent, flip-flopper, etc.) on Romney in the next two debates, but he will still need a strong voter turnout to win. On the other hand, if the Prez was distracted last night and thinking about Michele … well, as a married guy I can’t blame him. However, Michelle will always be his first lady. If he’s not careful, she won’t be ours much longer.
Much more will be said about last night between now and the next debate. And once the new round of poll numbers starts appearing, the pundits will have even more fodder with which to fill their cable news segments. But, if nothing else, last night’s debate should remind us of one thing: nothing is decided until the polls close on the evening of Nov. 6.
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.
As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.
Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.
But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.
What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?
One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.
It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.
Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.
Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.
Injecting Race Into the Race
In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”
Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”
What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.
It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.
It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?
Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.
What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.
A Troubled History at the Polls
Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.
Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.
The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.
What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.
The Truth About Voter Fraud
As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.
While some of the newlegislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.
What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.