Tuesday’s elections should remind liberals of the limits of identity politics. Nationally, Joe Biden received a record number of votes, and California went Democratic by more than 20 points. At the same time, however, Proposition 16, a referendum on the Golden State ballot that sought to restore state-sanctioned race-based affirmative action went down to resounding defeat.
Continued Republican control of the Senate and the erosion of Nancy Pelosi’s margin in the House of Representatives appear likely. Meanwhile, Republican support among Blacks and Hispanics increased from four years ago. Against that backdrop, a Biden administration should think twice before it includes “equality of outcome” or racial preferences as part of its governing agenda.
In California, support for reintroducing state-sponsored affirmative action was an upstairs-downstairs affair led by Silicon Valley and the activist community. In other words, it lacked the support of the vital center.
By the numbers, backers of Proposition 16 spent more than $31 million to garner around 44 percent support. Opponents of the measure raised a meager $1.6 million and yet they prevailed, with 56 percent. Think David vs. Goliath and you get the picture.
Yet, that should come as no surprise. The electorate has repeatedly rejected government’s attempts to put its finger on the scales, particularly where race is concerned. Going back in time, voters in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Washington state have expressed their disapproval for government entities making race a factor in the decision-making process.
If the past two presidential cycles teach us anything it is that politicians who worship at the altar of identity politics wind up as spectators to presidential inaugurals. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but her embrace of multiculturalism coupled with her perceived disdain for beer-track voters helped cost her the Rust Belt. The fact that she finished with more votes than Trump did not change the fact that she had lost.
Biden, by contrast, placed greater emphasis on lunch bucket issues and eschewed cultural hot-buttons; from the looks of things, his strategy paid off. Biden spoke of law and order and racial justice without skipping a beat. He saw the two as entwined.
More to the point, he restored Michigan and Wisconsin, two formerly reliable bricks of the Democrats’ blue wall, should win Arizona, a state that last went Democratic in 1996, and may have even recaptured Pennsylvania. That’s called winning.
While Donald Trump was busy upping his share of minority voters, Biden notched a double-digit gain among white men. In the end, that pick-up appears to have been critical in boosting the Democrats’ chances, and possibly rendering Trump a one-term president.
Economic liberalism has a far better chance of succeeding when it is melded with cultural centrism. Even in the middle of a lethal pandemic, culture still counts: 235,000 Covid-related deaths did not produce a blue wave. The much vaunted Green New Deal and the specter of socialism scared people.
So where does that leave a Biden administration? First and foremost, it should keep repeating that it is an administration for all Americans regardless of party. National unity will matter in the days, weeks, and months that lie ahead.
A Biden administration’s civil rights agenda should focus on increased enforcement of voting rights laws, and ensuring that the U.S. Postal Service supports the government’s efforts to remove impediments to voting – instead of being part of the problem. On that score, a Biden Department of Justice should take the position that voting is a fundamental right and not a mere privilege. In case anyone forgot, the Constitution mentions the “right to vote” five separate times.
With Republicans running the Senate, new voting rights legislation is off the table. But the Justice Department can publicize measures embraced by states and localities that restrict voting rights. If you can’t stop it, you can at least shame it. Beyond that, federal grants may help serve as financial inducements for doing the right thing.
Formal equality may sound boring. But it lies at the heart of the American Experiment.