The Election Reveals the “New” Establishment

By | November 13, 2012

The Shark Week-worthy feeding frenzy of post-Election analysis has covered a lot of ground (how could the right wing be so delusional? What will Obama do? Especially frequently: What do the results mean for the next election? Rarely: What do the results say about the public policies the electorate cares about?). What follows is my riff on what the election means for the power status quo, through the lens of a Bill O’Reilly comment.

Bill O’Reilly said some remarkable things as he processed President Obama’s re-election. I’m going to focus on one: “The white establishment is now a minority.”

Careless listeners hear “The white establishment is now a minority” and think “black and brown voters outnumber white ones”, which is obviously false. In an embarrassing clip on the Nov. 7 Daily Show, Dick Morris laments that Latino voters rose to 11% of the electorate while black voters rose to 13%. That is, people of color were just about a quarter of the electorate, and not all of them voted for President Obama. (According to Fox News exit polling, Obama was chosen by 93% of black voters and 71% of Latino ones.) Since President Obama won just barely more than half of all the votes casts (51%), more white people voted for Obama than non-whites.

To see how many more, imagine 100 people voted. Using the percentages above, about 19 non-whites chose Obama.  Since Obama got 51 votes, that means 32 white people voted for him. See, white people didn’t reject Obama; only the white people Republicans have traditionally catered to–the wealthy elite and the God, guns and gays voters–did.

But O’Reilly didn’t mean that non-whites outnumber whites in the voting booth, or even the popular variation on the theme, that minorities are now politically dominant.

(If minority voters were politically dominant, black unemployment wouldn’t be so much higher, immigration reform including legalization would happen swiftly in a bipartisan way, and various other demonstrations of political muscle would follow.)

O’Reilly said the white “establishment” is now a minority. And he’s right–his white establishment can no longer win a Presidential election by itself.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “the establishment”, bold mine:

The Establishment is a term used to refer to a visible dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization. The term suggests a closed social group which selects its own members (as opposed to selection by inheritance, merit or election). The term can be used to describe specific entrenched elite structures in specific institutions, but is usually informal in application and is more likely used by the media than by scholars.

What O’Reilly meant is that the elite, who were supremely confident they could motivate enough white people to vote for their candidate, suddenly discovered they can’t. The ‘white establishment’ used all its tricks to get one of their own elected: massive spending, Fox ‘News’, and voter suppression (id laws, voter roll purges, curtailed early voting, forcing people to endure long lines). And the white establishment’s tactics failed.  Now the wannabe kingmakers are trying to come to grips with the new limits on their power.

Don’t over-estimate the new limits. What happened is that power so vast it mistook itself for omnipotent ran into a limit. That humbling–the humiliation of clay feet–is really upsetting the white establishment in a very public way. But objectively, the white establishment has not yet experienced a material limitation on its power to set policy.  It still has the power to encode its policy preferences in statute, regulation or common law almost all the time. And that’s despite the massive, socially devastating externalization of cost and internalization of profit their policies create. Remember, the white establishment is armed essentially unlimited campaign contributions, lobbyists, and post-elected office/staffer/regulator gravy train jobs.

Nonetheless the election results reflect a real limit on the white establishment’s power. How long the limit will remain in place depends on when the Republican Party gets serious (as in fact-facing) about winning national elections. Until then we have a “new” political establishment in the country, one that has the kind of advantages the old establishment used to enjoy when it came to electing presidents.

New Boss Same as the Old Boss (Almost)

But let’s not kid ourselves. President Obama is no FDR. He’s no LBJ. He’s (at best) a modest reformer, not a real threat to the establishment’s power. At most President Obama will modestly curtail the old establishment’s prerogatives.

On no policy has President Obama ever staked out a transformational position, much less fought for one. Don’t tell me health care reform was transformational. Medicare for all would have been transformational. Health Care Reform was just that–reform. Much worse, Obama has been the bankers’ president, not homeowners’ or consumers’.

Wall Street’s rejection of President Obama this cycle is a measure of its arrogance, not President Obama’s threat to its power.  Income is more unequal now, and poverty greater, than under President Bush. President Obama’s even more drone-happy than President Bush, and just as 4th Amendment destroying. Rather than lead the charge his base fantasizes about, Obama has repeatedly blown off them off.

Sure, Obama’s establishment is different than Romney’s/the white establishment’s, but not by much.

So many on the left are hoping that President Obama, now freed from the need to run for office again, will finally lead us to the kind of economic and social justice we need. I’m willing to grant the possibility exists. Hey I’ll buy one–just one–MegaMillions or Powerball ticket when the jackpot exceeds $100 million. The possibility of winning exists, and the fantasy is just so nice to enjoy. Just one ticket, though, because the odds of the fantasy coming true are incomprehensibly small. That’s how I see dreaming of a President Obama who not only defeats the white establishment at the ballot box, but also breaks its grip on public policy.

Much higher odds? President Obama helps orchestrate and proudly signs reductions in the basic economic security our country has long believed every American was entitled to in exchange for modest changes in the tax code. Gentle reforms that don’t threaten the feudal power structure embedded in the code.

Let’s see–does the “Grand Bargain” (er, Sellout Deal) involve taxing investment income like wages? Does the Sellout Deal involve eliminating the cap on Social Security and Medicare taxes? Does the Sellout Deal involve closing the loopholes that let enormously profitable corporations dodge paying income tax? How about traditional wartime tax rates on the wealthiest until we’ve paid for Afghanistan and Iraq–you know, 70%+ for the top bracket? I could go on and on, there’s so much wrong with our tax code and the related premise that we must have a ‘Grand Bargain’ that reduces the economic security of the masses to preserve the unspendable wealth of the few.

What kind of terms do you expect President Obama to agree to?

I suppose there’s a possibility, in the Powerball sense, that that the coming Sellout Deal will be a Grand Bargain involving the creation of a fundamentally just tax code. In life there’s always a Powerball chance.

note, I updated the percentage popular vote win for Obama from 50.4% to 51% to reflect the current count, and tweaked the 100 person example accordingly.


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