The 2004 presidential contest was a warning shot across the bow of all progressives. While the president and the Republican pundits vastly overstate their “mandate,” progressives need to become clear on the motion of racial politics if we are to get ourselves in shape for the coming battles.
Many spin doctors would have us believe that the story of the 2004 election turns on evangelicals and moral values, the better to advance their rightwing agenda in both the Democratic and Republican parties, not to speak of the halls of power.
But an examination of the exit polls shows something very different (though not at all new): the centrality of race in U.S. politics. The bad news is that the Republicans, trumpeting their program of aggressive war and racism, swung the election by increasing their share of the white vote to 58 percent. This represents a four-point gain over 2000; a 12-point gain over 1996 and a grim18-point gain over 1992.
The good news is that people of color—African Americans, Latinos, Native peoples, Asian Americans and Arab Americans—surged to the polls in unprecedented numbers and voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the Bush agenda despite an unprecedented Republican attempt to intimidate them. People of color constituted about 35 percent of new voters and, despite their dazzling diversity, showed uncommon political unity.
A key lesson of this election is that progressives and Democrats need to stop chasing the Republicans to the right and instead adopt a clear vision that mobilizes our main social constituencies and wins new allies. Only a long term strategy that draws deeply and skillfully from the high moral ground of peace, jobs and equality and refuses to cede the South and Southwest to the right can enable us to staunch the country’s longstanding movement to the right. Otherwise what Lani Guinier calls the “tyranny of the (white) majority” will continue to lead us into authoritarianism and empire.