What Oregon Says About America

As we all know, the dominant explanation coming out of Oregon and Kentucky's differing Democratic primary results will go like this: Oregonians are wealthier, better-educated and racially homogeneous, and therefore free of the kind of racial politics we have seen in other states recently. Hence their support for Obama. Kentuckians, by contrast, are poorer, less well-educated and are in a state with legacies of racial difference. Hence their support for Clinton. But before this story congeals into the inevitable conclusion that white working class folks simply won't support Obama, It is worth remembering two things. First, as Sam Stein pointed out in a post two days ago, Oregon is indeed a working class state. Second, it is a mistake to imagine that Oregon is somehow free of the racial history that formed the nation more generally. Oregon's lack of diversity is not an accident -- it is itself a legacy of white supremacy. The territorial constitution of the 1850s barred the settlement of both slaves and free blacks, and patterns of racial exclusion continued at least through the mid 20th century. Even in liberal Eugene, the entire African American community dwelt in a shanty town at the edge of the city up into the 1940s, as housing covenants and racist renting practices kept black families out of the city proper. People of color routinely experience racism in Oregon today, be it personal anti-black sleights at the grocery store or on the street, or English-only political campaigns, as is the case in many states. But true as that fact is, the Oregon primary shows that even where racism is a personal or social phenomenon, it is not necessarily the case that race always triumphs politically. Indeed, Oregon voters are clearly not driven by racial animus. Perhaps that is more true than we might think elsewhere as well.

If we trace back the evolution of the so-called "lunch-pail" Democrat (as if working people of color don't also eat lunch) we come first to the Reagan Democrat, a species first discovered outside Detroit by pollster Stanley Greenberg in 1984. Go further still and you find Nixon's Silent Majority -- the first modern attempt to peel working class voters away from the Democratic party on the basis of race. But Nixon strategists knew that there was no Silent Majority out there to be found; it was a political concept in search of a constituency -- something Nixon strategists such as Kevin Phillips were quite clear about at the time. The result has kept us in the long shadow of Nixon and Reagan.

Clinton, with her southern, conservative Democratic Leadership Council background knows this strategy well. By talking about "hardworking Americans, white Americans" she claimed simply to be saying what pollsters were already showing. But by invoking a relationship between hard work and race, she helps conjure up resentments that may be mobilized politically under the right conditions. Racial political identifications start with appeals first, and become settled assumptions afterwards. Journalists and scholars should be wary of falling into the trap of confusing political strategy for demographic realities when analyzing this election. As Oregon shows, white working class people -- just like anyone else -- have the capacity to vote their concerns, interests and beliefs in terms other than race. Indeed, if Obama seriously addresses the problems of economically marginalized people, he may help find a way out of the racial machinations of the modern right.