From Reagan Democrats to Obama Republicans

by Ram Manikkalingam

Obama_time_cover_102306Barack Obama is the new Ronald Reagan. He can do for the Democrats what Reagan did for the Republicans. His election can set the stage for fashioning a new coalition of those who are left leaning on either economic or cultural issues, with those who have been traditionally left leaning on both economic and cultural issues. The Democrats (ever since Reagan) have struggled to expand their base beyond this group. Obama’s winning coalition gives them a real opportunity to do so. This could have a profound impact on US domestic politics – allowing for both redistribution (yes spreading the wealth around) and greater freedom domestically – and even on US international politics – permitting US engagement abroad (yes even to help build democracies) relying on diplomacy rather than arms, alone.

Over the past weeks, trolling through the web and watching the political shows on TV, I have been dissatisfied with the political explanations for Obama’s success. There have been many. He has run a great campaign by raising a lot of money, setting up a solid ground operation, and staying on message. His opponents have been in disarray – zig zagging from one message to another or looking erratic. The economy has slid and national security has slipped off the agenda, resulting in more support for Democrats who are traditionally stronger in the former. But even if all these explanations were true, it does not really explain whom he is winning over and why? Obama’s victory on Tuesday November 4th will be the result of Republicans – Obama Republicans.

ReaganmanoftheyearWe have heard a lot about Reagan Democrats. These are working class (they like to say middle class in the US) mostly White Americans who felt the government ought to do more for them economically (without taxing the rich) and interfere less with their freedoms (while banning Gay marriage and abortion). This is not the most stable of positions, and the Republicans held onto this group by emphasising religious belief (if you believe Gay marriage is evil in the eyes of God, then how can you let politicians decide), and counting on Democratic weakness (if you believe that everyone has to agree with you before they vote for you how can you ever win). This group has been with Republicans from 1980, when Reagan pulled them together, until 2008, when George Bush lost them. But those whom Obama gains, in the electorate from Republicans, is not the same group lost by the Democrats to Reagan in 1980 – it is a newer and different group – Obama Republicans not Reagan Democrats. Who exactly are they?

One way of identifying this group is the classic red state-blue state divide. But this is not helpful. It anthropomorphises states, and assumes that the states are monolithic favouring one party over another as a whole, when the reality is different. In most states, one party defeats the other usually by less than ten points and occasionally by 10-20 points. It does not tell us who they are and more importantly what they think about the world.

A simple way to identify Obama Republicans is to use the common division of “economic” and “cultural” issues. If Reagan democrats leaned left on economic issues and right on cultural issues, Obama Republicans lean left on either cultural or economic issues, not necessarily both. This has the potential for being an even larger group than Reagan Democrats.

Consider economic issues. Here we have the US version of the traditional left-right divide. The left-leaning are those who favour greater government assistance to get out of economic difficulty – and a belief that markets do not provide all the answers to social problems created by economic ones. In the US of course you have the peculiar twist of this same group “rejecting higher taxes to help the poor” while calling for programs that require them. But this simply requires re-describing redistribution – “getting government to lend a helping hand to those who are struggling”. The right leaning are those who believe – steadfastly – that the poor are poor because they ought to be, or government interference with the market always makes things worse – irrespective of why you think people are poor.

“Cultural” issues also have its peculiarly US variant. In most parts of the world cultural issues would usually refer to high culture (symphonies, orchestras and ballets) or nationalism, ethnicity, multiculturalism. But in the US it refers to values and views – among other things on fundamental beliefs about god, guns and gays. The right-leaning believe in more god, more guns and fewer rights for gays. The left-leaning believe in less god, fewer guns and more rights for gays. Of course there are other issues that come into identifying US values, such as hostility to government interference or individualism or “small town” values. But these cultural markers are “American” and cut across the US version of the left-right divide.

So if Reagan managed to win over those who were left-leaning economically, but leaning right culturally, Obama has pulled off a bigger coup with these elections. He has managed to win over those who are culturally left and economically right, as well as those who are culturally right and economically left. It is the combination of these two groups who are Obama Republicans. In part Obama won this by appearing to be all things to all people (most successful politicians have an element of this). But he also won it by being Reaganesque.

Ronald Reagan may have had many faults, but he had a remarkable strength. He did not come across as mean, personally. Even if you did not agree with him, and even if his policies may have been wrong or wrong headed, you never felt that he wanted to be mean. And this was partly because he exuded a sunny personality and optimism about the world. This is in stark contrast to the approach and image of the Bush-Cheney administration. Their divergent approaches to the main enemies they were fighting – Reagan’s towards the Soviet Union and Bush’s towards the “Muslim World” illustrates this.

While Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire, accelerated the nuclear arms race and attacked the Soviets in many fora, he never asked the question “why do they hate us?” Instead his approach was “they want to become like us and we must help them do so.” His winning smile and his smooth tongue, made it really hard to dislike him, even if you felt that he was avoiding difficult questions, taking the country towards a right turn and representing a politics that was different from yours. Obama’s successful pulling together of a coalition beyond the traditional left of centre culturally and economically – to include those who are only left culturally or economically – shows this same skill at papering over differences in order to bring people together into a winning campaign.

Whether this will be simply a flash in the pan or long-term part of US politics will on depend on political governance. And those of us who live in the rest of the world – where we have no vote, but are heavily affected by US politics – hope that good governance will follow a good campaign, and lead to redistribution at home and peace abroad.