What an Election Year

I’m posting this for all my friends who say, “How can anyone vote for Burnie Sanders “ or “How does anyone even think of voting for Donald Trump?”

What I’ve learned from watching voters for fifty years is that it’s not as much of a mystery as you would think.

Sometime in the 1970s, when I was President of the Panel of American Women, a women’s organization, functioning in about sixty cities across the country and dedicated to furthering racial and religious understanding, Father Geno Baroni said something to us at a conference I have never forgotten, “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.”

But the present situation started back in the early sixties. My first full-time campaign was Senator Fred Harris’s 1964 race for the Senate. I was one of the managers of his Oklahoma County campaign headquarters. That was the last race I participated in where the electorate behaved in a way you would expect. The voters rejected both the ideology of the John Birch Society and Goldwater, who was admittedly much more sane than anyone running today on the Republican ticket. We were coming off the emotional blast of Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson was seen as a strong leader. A lot of that emotion provided the landslide. That was also the year the Voting Rights Act was passed.

In 1966 Fred had to run again, since his original election was for Senator Robert S. “Bob” Kerr’s unexpired term. It was extremely close. The same team ran Oklahoma County and we noticed what we thought was a shift in voting patterns. My cohort, John Robert Kennedy, got out his slide rule, and he and I took a precinct map of Oklahoma County and colored it in, measuring turnout and performance; dark blue for where Fred had done well to dark red where his opponent had won. What emerged was a definite pattern. We were losing the union’s–the Southside precincts. We took the map to Washington to show then Senator Mike Monroney, who had to run in 1968. His unspoken response to what we had to say was disbelief. He could not imagine that the workers surrounding the FAA facility he had brought to Oklahoma City would vote against him. At the same time Henry Bellmon was building the Republican Party in the state. Mike lost the Senate race and Henry won with critical help from those precincts.

So what had changed? The Democrats championing of the Civil Rights Acts began to set up a perception that the Dems were for “them” and not “us” among working class Americans. This is not to say the Civil Rights Movement should not have taken place. It was long overdue. But I never thought the motivation of white working America was simply racism, although that exists in all levels of American society. It was more as if they felt abandoned. The workers of America had been the focus and the backbone of the Democratic Party all through the thirties and forties. It was sort of a feeling of “Mama always loved you more than me,” toward minorities.

The effects of racism in America are too well known to list here but there was one action that Liberal Democrats insisted on that cemented the impression. It took until the 1970s to be clearly felt, but the Democrats ran a big yellow school bus over their affiliation with working class America. I was astounded to see in looking back at some of the things that happened that Hubert Humphrey had actually fought to keep bussing out of the ’64 legislation. Mainly he thought it was unconstitutional. If that little social experiment hadn’t been tried, I think the same shift in perception would have happened, but more slowly.

I remember telling Bill Carmack, one of the designers of the bussing strategy in Oklahoma City that he had violated every cultural norm in the city. The people in the Northwest quadrant looked down on everyone, the folks in the Northeast quadrant resented it because they had learned to live with the Black community and all the folks south of the river thought the folks north of there were either arrogant snobs who had more money than they deserved or were colored folk. The plan managed to bus people back and forth and resulted in massive white flight to independent schools.

I also remember that my Black friends on the Panel, who were professionals, hated the bussing. They had just managed to establish themselves in section of the city and had a really good school going which was to be “bussed.” Ironically the OU Medical School decided at that same time to tear down much of “Nigger Town” and they had to buy the citizens out of their property. No one in that community could get a bank loan, so people who owned their home, owned them outright. They took the settlement money and moved wherever they pleased in the city!

When we moved to Virginia in 1967, I took two years off then got back into the campaign business. Fairfax County was much more multicultural and much less stratified at that time by class. There were poor people, but most folks were professionals working for the government. Mobil and Tyson’s had not yet brought in the high rollers. I settled into working in a much more evenly competitive political scene. And, unlike Oklahomans’ who are uniformed and determined to stay that way, Virginians were highly politicized. It was lots more fun.

Then in 1972, after managing an unsuccessful race for Fairfax County Board, I went to Milwaukee to do get out the vote for Ed Muskie. Wow. What a wake up! The campaign had a highly sophisticated phone bank operation. What it showed was we were losing our derrieres and not just to George McGovern. You couldn’t look out the window without seeing WALLACE plastered on the side of every (what?) Bus, of course. It wasn’t long before South Boston blew up. That was the Northern canary in the coal mine.

By the time Nixon talked about the Silent Majority, working class America had thoroughly internalized that Democrats were not the party for them as it had been under FDR or even Johnson.

The one change that I did track was women voters. I did it for some DC group I have forgotten the name of, maybe the Women’s Political Caucus. What I discovered is now well known. 1972 was the turning point for women. They began to vote more Democratic that year. But remember, they (we, me) are an “out “ group. None of this was reassuring to working class men.

So, when you tell working class folks, especially men that they are voting against their own economic interest they can’t see it. All they see is welfare for somebody else. Thus the “Reagan Democrats.” At this point the Republicans also discovered the “culture wars” solidified their votes. Read, anti-woman, anti-gay. At least the gays have prevailed in changing the narrative, but, I will point out, not all of this is monolithic.  In addition to shoring up an ultra-conservative base, it gave them an excuse to forget about any legislation to help Middle Class America with wage stagnation and the rolling Rust Belt recession of the early 1980s.

One final thought about Hillary Clinton’s challenge getting past the “not reasoned into” part. I think we will find that sexism is as serious a handicap or more so than racism in an election. As one woman put it to me, “When she talks, it’s like listening to my mother.” You can bet a lot of men feel that way too.

What a fascinating year it is for political junkies.