The Spirits of ’76

On the morning after Election Day 1976, my mother recalled having dozed off as the country waited for results, and having awakened to see a jubilant Jimmy Carter announce “There’s plenty of booze, so let’s everybody get drunk.”  Not being insane, or at least not that kind of insane, she recognized that this was a dream-modified version of Carter’s victory speech.

Carter had won by a margin similar to President Obama’s 2012 margin, though Obama’s margin is now larger and keeps growing every day as the West Coast gradually counts its ballots (are they written in cuneiform on clay tablets?  Why the hell does it take people weeks and weeks to count ballots in the 21st Century?).  This makes it relatively easy to compare electoral maps, but a glance at the 1976 map shows how our political world has been transformed:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ElectoralCollege1976.svg

(You can compare 2012 and get more detailed info here:

http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/index.html

But notte the color reversal.)

In today’s terms this map is incomprehensible: the Republican won solid-blue states like California, Washington, Illinois, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and others almost as improbable as Oregon and New Jersey…and still managed to lose the election.  The Democrat swept the South and Appalachia, from West Virginia through the Carolinas and Alabama (!!!) to Texas, and came close in battlegrounds like Oklahoma and South Dakota.  Surreal.  I understand that Carter was from Georgia, but a Georgia Democrat running today (assuming there is one) would do as well in the South as Mitt Romney did in New England.

Almost as striking as the re-coloring of the map is the indreasing polarization of the states.  You probably noticed that the camplaign in 2012 was largely restricted to 8 or 9 states (with PA replacing NC as the 9th in the final weeks), and some of those didn’t turn out very close (Obama won WI and NV by about 7 points); in 1976, the concept of battleground state was barely even useful.  I mentioned the close contests in improbable places like South Dakota and Oklahoma, and you could add others such as Maine and Louisiana, but the main point is that all the big states were in play: Texas, California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio…really, the only largish states that could be considered safe were the candidates’ home states of Georgia and Michigan, and even the latter wasn’t a blowout.

I believe this is part of a larger trend towards party segregation in our country.I’m afraid I don’t have links handy, but I have seen surveys indicating that people are less likely than they were 20 or 30 years ago to have neighbors who belong to the other party, to go to church with people of opposing political views, or to accept the idea of their child marrying someone from the other end of the spectrum.  This is in some ways a disturbing trend, but I can’t say I am longing to live in a neighborhood full of Michele Bachmann lawn signs or to have Todd Akin at family parties.

The transformation of American politics is not primarily about Barack Obama.  If Al Gore had been a bit less of a dud, and had won the popular vote by 4 points or so, his electoral map would be nearly identical to Obama’s in 2012, with Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, and of course Florida in his column.  And it’s not mainly about minorities; African-Americans have been loyal Democrats since FDR, and you don’t win Washington state and Vermont based on the Latino vote.  For that matter, Latino voters can’t help us understand why Texas has gone deep red at the same time that California votes for Obama by the largest margins that any state has ever given to any candidate.

I certainly hope that the Democrats stick to the communitarian and pluralist principles that will keep most Latinos on our side, but the biggest story of the last few decades is the reversal among white voters, and the engine driving that reversal has been the culture war.  The GOP has scored a stunning success in winning the allegiance of uneducated white men and their wives, from West Virginia to Oklahoma.  It has also paid a price for its increasingly fervid stance against newfangled  intrusions like science, contraception, and the existence of gay people, culminating in this year’s “Barefoot and Pregnant” Senate campaign.

At first I was upset when I heard that Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly were saying that single women, college types, and minorities were all voting Democratic because they wanted stuff from politicians.  Then I realized that it’s true…and the name of the stuff we want is respect, not to have our values or our identity or our intelligence insulted every time we hear a politician speak.

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