For years there was a constant refrain in American politics which would speak of two electorates, even two elections: election results among white people and then the results when you counted the votes of black people. There were more denigrating and racist versions of this talk. But the most revealing were the versions that weren’t consciously racist at all. They were at their peak of popularity in the 80s and 90s and went something like this: “Democrats haven’t won the white vote in decades. Without blacks, they’d barely be holding on as a national party.”
There were various permutations of this refrain. But, as I’ve discussed before, all carried with them the tacit assumption that black votes, while legal, were somehow a second-rate product in the grand economy of voting. In purely numerical terms, the logic is preposterous. After all, if Democrats won overwhelming majorities of African-American voters and won a majority of white voters, they’d win crushing victories in almost every election they contested. The only rational way to think about voting coalitions is whether they are stable over time and whether they get you over 50% of the vote.
Paradoxically, this mindset – or at least a certain expression of it – has diminished even as our politics have become increasingly racially polarized. That is probably because the rise of Hispanic voters and a growing Asian-American community, which has tipped heavily toward Democrats in recent years, have combined with African-American voters to make the Democratic party roughly half white and half non-white. So the multiracial composition of the party is too evident for this kind of critique to make sense even on its own terms.
I raise this history because we seem to be seeing a similar trend in attacks upon or diminishment of single women. Last week long-shot New Jersey Senate candidate Jeff Bell noted that he’d actually be ahead if not for single women. He then went on to blame his opponent’s double digit margin on single women and single mothers who vote Democratic because they are “wed” to the social safety net and “need benefits to survive.”
The endlessly married Rush Limbaugh made a similar point in a different way when he suggested (half jokingly, half not) a GOP dating service to get single women properly married and thus moved from the Democratic column and into the GOP voting column. Of course, this was mainly a joke. But it’s a joke that exposes and expresses a set of assumptions which are not a joke.
There is a big demographic reality underlying these statements. The so-called gender gap is heavily driven by marital status and race. Women lean Democratic. Single women lean strongly Democratic. And single women who are not white lean overwhelmingly Democratic.
It is similar to the thinking underlying the 47% meme that so roiled the 2012 presidential election: almost half the electorate is close to off-limits to the GOP because they are dependent on government and thus not truly able to make free and independent political judgments. And now the same for single women, and especially single mothers. In each case we see the same underlying thought pattern and process of splicing up the electorate in ways to suggest that among the core group you’re actually doing pretty well. It’s only among these outsider groups that there’s a problem.
In some ways, the joke’s on them because – voter suppression efforts notwithstanding – these voters do count. So even if a failed Republican candidate makes him or herself feel better by winning the good people, they still lose when they don’t get 50% of the vote. But these judgments are not irrelevant. And in some cases – as with voter suppression tactics – they lay the groundwork for efforts to restrict voting.
In any case, here’s my request. I’ve seen more and more of these. But I’m sure there’s a lot I’m not seeing. So if you see more examples of this kind of rhetoric, please shoot me a line. It’s not the big driving factor in this election. But it’s an important undercurrent in this and recent cycles. And I believe it is growing.