Obama: Debunking the Latte-Liberal Myth

Kidd
Photo: Getty Images


“[Barack] Obama has won the small caucus states with the latte-sipping crowd,” an anonymous aide to Hillary Clinton told the Times of London over the weekend. “They don’t need a president, they need a feeling.” —Times Online

If there’s one piece of partisan analysis that has hardened into conventional wisdom about the 2008 Democratic campaign, it’s that Obama is an uptown guy compared to Clinton’s downtown gal. The argument has been made elegantly, as when Rutgers historian David Greenberg wrote in Slate that Obama’s “real precursors … are the educated, middle-class reformers of the Gilded Age known as the Mugwumps … liberal professionals and gentlemen of the late 19th century who tried to transform both the economic arrangements of the industrial age … and the machine-dominated political system … forebears of the Progressives … but also elitist.” And it’s been made crassly, as when machinists-union chief Tom Buffenbarger called Obama supporters “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies.” The meme is out there, and it’s sticking: To paraphrase Archie Bunker on Harry Belafonte, Barack Obama’s just a good-looking Adlai Stevenson dipped in caramel.

So here’s a question for Professor Greenberg and Mr. Buffenbarger and all the talking heads who sagely quote Ron Brownstein’s division of Democrats into “beer-track” Hillary supporters and “wine-track” Obama voters: Of all the self-styled “progressive” reformers, self-actualizing Prius drivers, Birkenstock-stomping lefty libs and bathrobe-wearing bloggers you know, how many are black? Surely there are many African-Americans who enjoy a tasty latte. But according to our back-of-the-envelope calculations, about 40 percent of Obama supporters happen to be non-wealthy blacks. And those voters seem to drop right out of this year’s breakdowns and equations.

Yes, Obama really is heir to a capital-P Progressive tradition that sees cleaning up politics and runaway capitalism as key to repairing societal breaches. Clinton, having failed to win a critical mass of Democratic voters either through the policy triangulations that worked for her husband or by campaigning as a semi-incumbent, really has fallen back on the virtues of machine politics. She now claims that she’ll fight and she’ll deliver the goods.

But simply to repeat that this divide exists is to miss the very specific way it is cleaving Democrats in 2008. White-collar liberalism puts forth a serious candidate nearly every presidential primary cycle: Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Morris Udall, Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley. Said contender is always an anti-politics politician
who typically comes across as ennoblingly idealistic to supporters, annoyingly holier-than-thou to opponents, and interestingly ironic or witty to the press. He then loses. And in going down to defeat, he gains hardly any black votes. Indeed, the Democratic regulars and Southerners who have been the party’s nominees since desegregation have, time and again, relied on overwhelming African-American support to beat back insurgencies, from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to (most crucially) Walter Mondale in 1984 to Al Gore in 2000.

That’s why what Obama has been pulling off is historically unique. Obama versus Clinton is what you would get if you reran “Clean Gene” vs. RFK in 1968 — if you took African-Americans away from the Kennedy side of the ledger and added them to the McCarthy side. If reform liberalism, in other words, is what turned out to unite Democrats across racial lines, not interest-group liberalism.

That’s why when Bill Clinton says the states voting for Obama this time around “disproportionately favor upper-income voters who don't really need a president but feel like they need a change," he can’t seriously be talking about blacks. It’s not just that if the presidency matters to any one readily identifiable group of Americans, for better or worse it’s African-Americans, who are disproportionately lower-income, disproportionately affected by macroeconomic dislocations, and disproportionately reliant on the government to enforce laws against job and housing discrimination. It’s also that blacks have been among the most regular Democrats, putting party above “feelings” or “change,” for decades. Their break with the Establishment is a huge deal.

But the Clintons know they can rely on the media to miss African-Americans among working Americans. When Chris Matthews rhapsodizes about “working people,” he synonymizes that phrase with “ethnic people” and “regular guys,” meaning white Catholic males. When Joe Klein worries that Obama’s rhetoric won’t connect with “working-class voters,” he means white working-class voters. When Katie Couric visits with “blue-collar” voters, it’s with white restaurant owners and white Honda employees. Like sportswriters glorifying Brett Favre, the political press gets a chance to go authentic by rubbing elbows with honest-to-goodness hardhats during presidential campaigns. And lo and behold, all the faces under the helmets they interview turn out to be white.

Republicans have been claiming a monopoly on those “real” Americans for a few years now. Their primary weapon has been feminizing Democratic candidates: if you’re not a hypermasculine war hawk, somehow you really don’t count. Thus the 2004 GOP convention gave us John Kerry as a hand-wringing peacenik, John Edwards as “the Breck Girl,” and workers concerned about losing their jobs as “economic girlie-men,” and things have only gotten worse since.

Until the Obama-Clinton battle, however, this tactic of defining the opposition as worthless, as opposed to wrong, had been relatively rare within intra–Democratic Party battles. In constantly rewriting various groups and states out of votes that “matter,” Clinton and her surrogates are fulfilling a Republican double fantasy: labeling white Obama supporters as effete snobs and rendering black voters invisible altogether. —Peter Keating

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.