Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln and Walker: Why they do—and don't—belong in the same headline

By Barbara J. Miner

Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln deserve its many accolades. It powerfully reminds us that race is central to both our history and our future, and that our democracy is a work in formation.
Watching the movie it’s hard to imagine — and yet impossible to forget — that 150 years after a bitter civil war that left 618,000-750,000 men dead, and after more than a century of Jim Crow laws eviscerating the Black vote, a Black man was elected and then re-elected President of the United States. All Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, can be proud of that.
Lincoln is also a reminder of what has not changed. Then, as now, one political party catered to the views of white males. Then, as now, the other party was identified with ending white supremacist views, but had an equivocal record on doing so. Then, as now, politics was blood sport.
Change the names — the movie’s Democrats are this era’s Republicans, and vice versa — and it’s clear that our political divides have not significantly changed.
Political personalities aside, Lincoln underscores how the civil war and the end of slavery were seminal events in our nation’s history. Likewise, Black labor before, during and after slavery has been essential to our country’s economic development.
Add that all up and it’s clear: there is no way to understand the United States without acknowledging both the role of African Americans and of racialized politics in shaping our country. Yes, our views of race have evolved and are undeniably complicated, but race is still an ever-present subtext.
Which brings us to today’s Republican Party and our very own Scott Walker.
One of the strongest post-election messages from Republicans who realize they are living in the 21st Century is that the GOP must move beyond its obsessive focus on a dwindling base of white males.
In post-election pronouncements, forward-minded Republicans have been tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to appeal to new constituencies, in particular Latinos and women. Their top solutions thus far: help reform immigration and cool-it on the anti-contraception, pro-rape messages.
But there’s been a stunning lack of GOP comments about reaching out to African Americans. Which is telling.
First, it shows that, above all else, the GOP is still fixated on partisan politics of figuring out how to defeat Democrats. Forget leadership. Forget doing what’s right. Forget the fate of this country’s 41 million African Americans.
The post-election silence about African Americans joining the GOP is deafening, notes writer, blogger and radio/TV host Elon James White. “Why are us Negroes not even in the thought processes of many of the Republican leaders? Women? Hispanics? Asians? Sure. Blacks? Eh ...”
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune on a “Facing Race” conference offered several interesting perspectives on the challenges not just for Republicans but also for Democrats.
Michael Omi, a scholar on U.S. racial politics at the University of California, Berkeley, “said it was still unclear if Asian-Americans and Latinos would be increasingly accepted as ‘honorary whites,’ which could align them more closely with the Republican party while perpetuating a black-white divide, or if the country would move toward a new, more multi-faceted view of race,” the Tribune noted.
The “honorary white” possibility is a provocative but not entirely implausible perspective on the future. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the apartheid regime in South Africa granted “honorary whites” status to immigrants from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Or, as the children’s rhyme goes, “If you’re white you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, get back!”

At the “Facing Race” conference, writer Junot Diaz noted the historic yet fragile nature of the multiracial coalition that helped propel Obama to re-election.
"People of color have for the first time in the history of the United States attained a strategic plurality that, when coordinated, allowed us to decisively alter the outcome of the presidential campaign in Obama's favor," noted Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But, the Tribune writes in paraphrasing Diaz, maintaining the new alliances “could be tough given long-standing tensions among various groups, deeply internalized images of white supremacy among minorities and vast economic disparities still in place 50 years after the civil rights movement.”
“Who knows,” Diaz is quoted as saying, “if the coalition will hold, splinter, collapse or mutate.”
Amid such uncertainties, Republican politicians are already positioning themselves for the 2016 election. Including our very own Scott Walker.
Gov. Walker has distanced himself — and least publicly — from the Romney/Ryan ticket’s nostalgia for the past.
The Associated Press is one of many news outlets which has Walker on the short list of possible GOP contenders for 2016. “I think it’s not that our beliefs are wrong,” Walker is quoted as saying. “I don’t think we do an effective enough job of articulating those beliefs and what it means in people’s lives.”

But there are glaring problems with Walker’s view. First, it puts him out on a shaky limb of saying that the GOP’s problems are not based on its politics but on its messaging. 

Second, Walker has shown little ability to win over voters now coveted by the GOP: young people and women, in particular. And he’s got a horrific record with African Americans.

In the recall race Walker is so proud of winning, he relied on the Romney/Ryan base that didn’t cut it on a national level. Last June, Walker won only 5% of the African American vote, only 47% of women, only 47% of those aged 18-29, and only 43% of those earning less than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. (Figures for Latinos and Asians were not available because of their small voting numbers statewide.) His strongest base, 62%, was with white men.

As far as Latinos, Walker has had the luxury of sidestepping immigration issues. But his 2011 budget mean-spiritedly eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented students at public universities. 

Not to be forgotten, Walker signed into law one of the most restrictive Voter ID bills in the country, a measure that is now before the courts. Nationally, voter suppression attempts have been recognized as an anti-democratic embarrassment and a low point of the presidential election. Walker’s Voter ID stance will not be forgotten.

Most significantly, Walker apparently has no intention of straying from the GOP agenda. He waited less than two weeks after the election to move forward with the Republican dream of suppressing the vote by those deemed Democratic Party sympathizers. Knowing he has right-wing Republican leadership at the state legislature that will back such efforts, Walker said last Friday that he would like to end Wisconsin’s same-day voter registration law. 

Not coincidentally, such a change would significantly impact Milwaukee, where the Obama/Biden ticket won 79.27% of the vote. Overall, about 17% of those who voted in Milwaukee registered on the day of the vote, propelling the city’s 87% voter turnout. 

As for women, the Walker agenda is a disaster. As governor, Walker has signed legislation that prohibits local legislation on paid sick days, repealed an employment discrimination law, mandated “abstinence-only” sex education that does not call for teaching about the proper use of contraceptives, and banned almost all abortion coverage in any policies set up as part of Obamacare. 

And does Walker really think that his education record — he cut education funding more than any governor in state history and is decimating the budget of one of the best public university systems in the country — will earn him national accolades?

And what about climate chaos and Walker’s love-affair with cars and his hatred of mass transit? How many votes will that win him four years from now? 

One of the lessons of the 2012 election is that demographics and one’s political vision matter. Yes, Wisconsin’s Republicans control state-level politics, in large part due to the Republican’s redistricting maps. But nationally, Walker’s demographic base and political vision are not a winning combination.
Will Walker change his stripes in order to woo a national audience? He certainly may try. But can he deny his record?
In the long run, Walker’s attack on public sector unions may be the least of his problems.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

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