Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Democratic Race and Political Culture

A post on the blog 11D suggests that Barack Obama's difficulty with white voters who make under $50,000 a year is less about white racism or retrospective economic voting more about a state's political culture. In the 1960's Daniel Elazar laid out three main political traditions in American politics. A moralistic tradition of high civic ideas and good government, an individualistic tradition of white ethnic inter-group competition where government and politics is seen as a means for personal and group advancement, and a traditionalistic tradition developed out of the Southern plantation lifestyle where government and politics serves to reinforce existing class and racial heirarchies.

While Elazar's three political cultures are a vast oversimplification (which even he admits to), there is something to a political culture approach. For one thing, it might explain why Obama won in Maine today, a moralistic state, despite there being a large number of downscale whites. Yes, it was a caucus and not a primary, but having lived in Maine for two years, I get the sense that the real reason for the Maine victory is that Mainers are more likely to resonate with Obama's message of civic engagement over Clinton's message of "fighting for you."

Obama's message is the classic Democratic insurgent pitch to the better angels of our nature. His Super Tuesday speech where he claims that "the person you've been waiting for is you" is an eloquent appeal for citizens to engage directly in political life. This resonates well in moralistic places where citizen engagement and participation is part of the fabric of the culture. In individualistic places, it is seen as pollyana and in traditionalistic places, it seems uppity, to put it politely.

The question going forward it seems is whether the large chunks of delegates are in moralistic, traditionalistic or individualistic places. I say places and not states because the truth is that states have multiple political cultures. You could say that in California, the Bay Area is moralistic and Southern California has both traditionalistic (Orange County) and individualistic (Los Angeles County) strains. Rodney Hero claims that all of this is really about the racial and ethnic composition of places, what he calls "social diversity." He claims places that are homogeneous are moralistic, places with whites and one other racial/ethnic group are traditionalistic (Black/White or Latino/White), and places that have multiple racial and ethnic groups vying for resources are individualistic.

The question going forward is whether pockets of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas will resonate with a moralistic message. I think Obama will win Wisconsin because it is generally moralistic, but I'm not so sure about the rest. After Wisconsin and Obama's home state of Hawaii, the question becomes whether voters want someone who is going to inspire them to engage in the political process or do they want and advocate who is going to defend their interets? If they want the first, then it's Obama v. McCain. If they want the second, it's Clinton v. McCain. My sympathies lie with the first, my hunch as a political scientist lies with the second.

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