John Kenneth White , professor, politics, wrote a Sept. 6 San Francisco Chronicle article on the changing face of America and how that change impacts politics. See the story below.
From: San Francisco Chronicle Date: Sept. 6, 2009 Author: John Kenneth WhiteA revealing moment occurred in the health care debate this summer when a woman attending an Arkansas town meeting stood weeping and declared, "At this point in my life, I have never seen my America turned into what it has turned into, and I want my America back."
This simple declarative statement dispelled any illusion that reforming health care is only about reducing premiums, establishing universal coverage, creating a government-run option or changing the tax laws.
What gives the debate its emotional wallop is a sense held by many that their image of what America is and who Americans are is passing and, with it, their ability to exercise decisive political power.
In many ways, the white woman from Arkansas was right when she observed that her America had turned into something unfamiliar. The Census Bureau has estimated that by 2042, whites will become a minority of all Americans. In 1970, two prominent political writers, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg , declared that the "real majority" of Americans were "un-young, un-poor, and un-black." Put another way, most Americans were white and middle-age, possessed middle incomes, had families that consisted of a mom, dad and kids, resided in the suburbs and attended a church regularly.
These voters experienced a Great Depression, benefited from Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and applauded President Lyndon Johnson when Medicare became law in 1965. Indeed, Medicare became the last big government entitlement program until George W. Bush enacted a prescription drug benefit in 2003. In both cases, members of this real majority liked what they saw because these were their programs.
But soon after LBJ signed the Medicare bill, the long-standing Republican criticism concerning big government gained traction, largely because Democrats were so successful in transforming the "have-not" generation of the 1930s into the "have-more" generation of the 1960s and '70s.
Suddenly, Americans saw themselves as taxpayers, not recipients of government services. And too many government programs were viewed by the real majority as helping them - i.e., the young, the poor, those living in urban areas, families headed by single moms, minorities. Republicans exploited the feeling that too many disadvantaged Americans were getting something for nothing - recall Ronald Reagan's vivid depiction of a mythical Cadillac-driving "welfare queen." Add to this a growing culture war in which conservative values held by the "real majority" were being challenged by greater sexual freedom, legalization of abortion, greater equality between men and women, a slow but inexorable acceptance of homosexuality and more racial tolerance. As a result, Richard Nixon and Reagan created such a powerful Republican lock on the White House that Democrats were able to pick it only three times: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.
These long-standing Republican-inspired arguments against big government programs sponsored by Democrats have echoes in today's health care debate. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent of Americans believe that President Obama's plan will provide health insurance to illegal immigrants; 54 percent believe it will lead to a government takeover of the entire health care system; and 50 percent say it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions on demand.
The first and third statements are false: Health care for illegal immigrants is not part of any proposal before Congress, and the Hyde Amendment still prohibits federal dollars from being used to finance abortions.
As for a government takeover, the proposed public option would create an opportunity for people to buy into a government-run insurance plan, but even this idea would leave the existing insurance companies intact. And passage of a so-called public option remains doubtful.
The fact that a majority of Americans believes these statements to be true says much about our time. For the old "real majority" of yesteryear, the passions surrounding health care are eerily familiar as it has been angry at excessive government spending and resentful of changes in our cultural values for decades.
But something new has been added: a sense that their ability to wield political power is ebbing. The "my America" to which the white woman in Arkansas referred does not include having an African American president.
It does not envision a country where English is often a second language (despite Arkansas and 27 other states adopting English-only laws).
It does not envision a country where Hispanics will approach 29 percent of the total population in 2050. It does not include a world in which race is not so clearly defined in 1960s-era black-and-white terms. It does not envision a country where only one-third of Americans describe their own families as consisting of a mom, a dad and kids.
The old real majority of 1970 could only muster 48 percent and 51 percent of the total votes cast for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and 46 percent of the total votes cast for John McCain in 2008. Its presence is still keenly felt among older Americans who best fit the old description of being un-young, un-poor, and un-black. Given their high rate of voter participation, seniors matter and their voices undoubtedly will be heard in 2010. But an old political axiom still holds true: Demography is destiny.
The passing of the political torch in 2008 from that old real majority to one that is less white, more racially diverse and boasting a wider variety of family backgrounds was unmistakable. This new 21st century demography made Barack Obama president.
As today's health care debate demonstrates, the passing of the torch from one majority to another is not without tension and anxiety. Nonetheless, the "my America" of which the Arkansas town hall participant spoke and whose restoration she longed for is not coming back any time soon.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of "Barack Obama's America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era" (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .