By Manning Marable
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The four legged stool that won the US presidential election

This article is over 15 years, 4 months old
What are Barack Obama's political roots? Manning Marable considers his historic election and argues that he is part of a new generation of post-racial black politicians.
Issue 331

My initial reaction to Barack Obama’s victory is that of a historian – race has been the fundamental chasm in US democracy for 400 years. Blacks arrived here as slaves in 1619, about 150 years before the American Revolution and 170 years before the US constitution was ratified founding the nation state. All of that rested on slavery and the exploitation of black labour. So in 1790, in the very first law passed by the incoming administration of George Washington, the definition of a US citizen was a free white person, preferably with property.

African Americans did not become US citizens until 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the constitution. And the majority of blacks did not vote in a presidential election until 1968, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Considering the majority of blacks only cast votes for the first time 40 years ago, to have a black chief executive is truly amazing.

On many levels, Obama represents symbolically what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. Mandela’s role was to serve as a human bridge across the pain and suffering of apartheid. That allowed well-meaning whites to expiate their guilt and shame at complicity in an evil system and it permitted whites who had been in favour of apartheid to have a role in the new state in a multiracial society. In similar fashion, Obama personifies the coming together of black and white and the transformation of the country.

He represents a bi-racial bridge across the racial divide. This reaches out to young white people under the age of 35 who have no memories of Jim Crow segregation and to whites who are over 60 and were complicit in the Jim Crow laws or benefited from them. It allows people to distance themselves from their own histories on the basis of shared hope and multiracialism.

You can think about Obama’s winning coalition like a four-legged stool. The first leg was African Americans who voted for him at a rate of around 96 percent. More significant, the percentage of black votes within a national electorate of 130.5 million was 13 percent, up from 11 percent in 2004.
The second leg was Hispanic. The Latino vote varied from state to state, but nationwide it averaged 67 percent for Obama versus 31 percent for McCain. In 2004, George Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote and Kerry 53 percent. In Florida, Obama won 57 percent of the Latino vote, which means more than 40 percent of Cubans voted for him. That is astonishing. In a state like New Mexico where 41 percent of the electorate is Mexican American, Obama won 69 percent to McCain’s 30 percent.


The third constituency was young Americans. I would classify them as 35 or younger, but the statistics on those aged 18-29 are spectacular. There are 44 million in that group, voting at a rate of about 63 percent. Of those who turned out, 67 percent voted for Obama. Among those aged up to 35, Obama won 60-61 percent. The fourth constituency was women – 58 percent of whom voted for Obama.
There were also smaller groups that delivered votes in landslide proportions. For example, 78 percent of Jewish votes went to Obama. This is better than Kerry or Clinton achieved despite the attempts to depict the president-elect as a secret Muslim or label him Barack Hussein Obama.

His victory represents a profound shift among whites in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Southern Ohio, where delivery firm DHL just shut down their facility in the tiny town of Wilmington with the loss of 9,500 jobs. Over a quarter of a million jobs disappeared in the US in October alone. There are 10,000 foreclosures on family homes each day. It is in that environment that white working class people – so-called Reagan Democrats – shifted.

Many white people, especially in rural areas where there are long histories of Ku Klux Klan and white-vigilante activity – in rural North Carolina and Virginia, for example – said: “I was raised to be prejudiced against blacks, but I can’t vote against my own interests and I have to support Obama.” So Barack carried North Carolina and Virginia.

The population of white-European descendants, the non-Hispanic whites, will peak in 2016 and then fall. The number of blacks, Latinos and Asians will pass the total of European descendants by 2042, according to the US Census Bureau. So Obama was inevitable in terms of winning the presidency – it just came sooner than anticipated. Unlike most people, who said “I never thought I’d live to see it”, I did think I would see it – but maybe when I was 70, not at 58.

In the US, “middle class” is a euphemism for people who are not wealthy. If we had a broad social democratic party that acted like a social democratic party they would call themselves working class. Here in New York we have a Working Families Party and a tradition of independent parties that fuse with the major candidates at elections. So I voted for Obama, but not as a Democrat. I voted on the Working Families ticket. I am a member of that party, and we run independent candidates for office – for the state legislature or city council. At the presidential level, and frequently the governor level, they fuse with the Democrats. Why vote for Obama on a Working Families ticket? You are counted independently of the Democrats and it shows there is a left constituency in the state of New York. It gives us some leverage on decision-making and policy and we run our own candidates at local level.

People like me have been pushing for electoral innovations for many years, trying to get rid of the electoral college system and have instant run-off votes, where you have a third party and if your candidate is not elected your vote switches to your second choice.

Some people are saying ridiculous things, suggesting the US is now a post-racial society. It is ridiculous for several reasons. Obama represents a generation of what might be called post-racial black politicians – by which I mean they espouse a politics that minimises matters of race. They do not like to talk about race and subsume it under the rubric of poverty and class. So they are generally left of centre, or liberal, on social and economic policy. Obama is a progressive liberal.

What makes Obama different is that he has also been a community organiser. He has read left literature, including my works, and he understands what socialism is. A lot of the people working with him are, indeed, socialists with backgrounds in the Communist Party or as independent Marxists. There are a lot of people like that in Chicago who have worked with him for years. But to differentiate, this new generation of elected black officials are unlike the older group who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s whose constituencies were entirely black.

The number of blacks in Congress has increased from five in 1964 to 10 in 1970, 16 in 1980 and 43 today – out of 435 in the House of Representatives, or 535 including the 100 in the Senate. The people who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s were elected by constituencies that were almost entirely black. But there has been a change in white electoral behaviour that began in the late 1990s. Prior to that time about two-thirds of whites said they would never vote for a black presidential candidate or for a black governor of their state. However, many of the old farts – there is no other name for them – began to die off. Younger whites have been socialised not under racial segregation but in a racially integrated social and cultural environment where hip-hop is the music of urban America for whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians.

There has been a change in white political culture. There are now about 650 blacks elected to state legislatures throughout the US and one third of black state legislators represent majority white districts. That is significant. In Congress the numbers are smaller, but I estimate that of the 43 perhaps one quarter represent majority white districts. You no longer need to run in a minority district in order to be elected if you are a member of a minority.
Among the post-racial black leadership, Deval Patrick is the governor of Massachusetts, David Paterson is the governor of New York, Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and Harold Ford Jr is head of the Democratic Leadership Council – the right wing of the Democratic Party. Obama is a part of that cohort. He is more liberal than most of that group, but he is in it. The group is pragmatic and centrist. It cooperates with Republicans and tries to present a non-partisan or post-partisan appeal, the way Obama does. So you will see Republicans in some key positions in Obama’s administration.

Obama regularly sends text messages to millions of people. He just sent a message saying, “Don’t go away, now I need you to help govern.” There is a debate right now within the Obama campaign about whether to move fast or go more slowly. The argument is that there have been 10 elections for president between 1968 and 2004 and Republicans have won seven of them. Obama is looking at the history and so are progressives who worked with him or critically endorsed him, like myself.

My argument is simple. The left must force him to carry out the agenda he promised, and that includes a national healthcare system – which is not to my liking, but would be far better than what we have. That is the number-three priority. The main priority is ending the war in Iraq. The second is the economic crisis. We need a robust Keynesian approach to employment and investment in infrastructure – a lot of the bridges built by the works projects administration of Franklin D Roosevelt 75 years ago need to be rebuilt and the roads are crumbling.

We also need a solution to the foreclosures, to keep families in their homes. The fourth issue is green energy – a national challenge to be independent of foreign oil in 10 years. And a fifth priority is immigration – essential to Latinos. There are 12-14 million undocumented Americans living in this country as so-called illegal aliens and there has to be a pathway to citizenship for them.

Obama is not a Marxist or a socialist – he is a progressive liberal with a kind of centre-left strategy. He will be Keynesian on economic policy. He is an astute politician who is trying to construct a coalition that has striking parallels to the New Deal, built on these core constituencies I have identified – working women, Hispanics and blacks, who are overwhelmingly working class. But he is going to put forward policy that is centrist or “moderate”.

In some ways he is a reverse of Reagan, in that Reagan ran a hardline right campaign but appealed to moderates through certain initiatives. He unified people – the so-called Reagan Democrats – around positions that transcended the Republican Party. Barack is doing the same in reverse. He is anchored to the progressives in the Democratic Party, but reaching to the centre on policy and through certain values, for example on faith-based initiatives.

Most of us on the left have taken a position of critical support toward Obama. We have to press him to carry out his own agenda.

The analogy of FDR is appropriate. But someone has to play the role of A Philip Randolph, the black socialist leader who attacked FDR from the left and in 1941 forced him to sign an executive order outlawing racial discrimination in factories producing for the war effort that refused to hire black people. Randolph threatened to bring 100,000 black workers to surround the White House. Roosevelt capitulated and signed an order that was the foundation of affirmative action.

We need a network that can do it. That is the challenge for socialists in the US.

Manning Marable is professor and founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.

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