So I'm reading John Kenneth White's Barack Obama's America and it is worth the time. I've rarely read a book whose virtues and vices are so well illustrated by its back cover blurbs. The praise of pollsters Stan Greenberg and Richard Wirthlin gives some idea of the book's power in explaining demographic trends. White demonstrates how quickly many communities have changed and the consequences of so many new voters who have little or no personal experience of the 1970s and 1980s. This puts some perspective to Mike Pence's question to Obama in which he compared Obama's job creation tax credits to failed Carter-era policies. How many Americans, because of recent arrival or youth (or both) had no clue what Pence was talking about?
White does a good job explaining the consequences of the Republican party's failure to win over new constituencies and how California is a preview. The Orange County based California -47 district didn't just send a conservative Republican to Congress. It sent the cartoonish Robert Dornan. Now it is a reliably Democratic district represented by the liberal Loretta Sanchez. He also highlights the expansion of Latino populations in places like Geogia and Virginia. White is correctly relentless in explaining the consequences of a Republican party that loses nonwhites by huge margins. One of my worries is that the rhetoric and institutions of the American Right (conservative talk radio, Fox News, the tea parties, even the Scott Brown campaign) are having trouble connecting or even talking to large segments of the American public and missing out on making many converts and allies. White lays out gives some sense of the scale of the challenge.
The endorsement of the foolish and shallow Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gives an idea of the distorted liberal mythologizing that mars the book. White just can't bring himself to describe why people ever voted for conservative candidates without smugly writing off their concerns and principles and substituting 1980s vintage liberal rationalizations. The reader will be enriched to learn that Americans voted for conservatives because the New Deal made them wealthy, selfish, anti-tax skinflints, and that Reagan "spellbound" them with nostalgic appeals to an idealized past. This was the same whiny nonsense you could have gotten from a bitter and not-too-bright Mondale staffer after three drinks. Its good to know that people had no valid concerns about staglation, unemployment, bracket creep, crime, or the structure of the welfare system. Otherwise, White might have had to rethink his prejudices. White isn't as bad as Paul Krugman when it comes to mythologizing away liberal defeats, but it gets bad enough that he can't produce a clear picture of Reagan (and late 1900s conservatism's) appeal. It is just a fairytale for liberal interested in self-congratulation.
White's judgement is off in other ways. While he mentions the Iraq War,White attributes Rick Santorum's defeat to chaning opinions about gender roles and cultural liberalism generally. You won't learn the Democrats knocked Santorum off when they nominated a pro-lifer. He attributes Arlen Specter switching parties due to evidence that a Republican could not win satewide in Pennsylvania. I seem to remember it had more to do with polls showing that Pat Toomey was crushing him in the race for the Republican nomination. Its not like Specter was reticent about why he switched parties.
I came away from White's book wondering how much the challenges for conservatives in post-Reagan era America resembled the challenges of pre-Reagan era America. In 1964, we had just been taught that if the parties were ever ideologically polarized, liberal Democrats would always win and conservative Republicans would always lose. Conservatives faced the difficult task of making inroads among constituencies that revered liberal icons and were suspicious-to-hosile to conservatives. We did it before and we can do it again.