Fri, Sep 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Race is the unmentioned divider in US politics

Recent reserch into voting patterns in the US ignores the elephant in the room as well as the wealth divide

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

n a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because its position is the same as mine," says Ignatius J. Reilly, the hopeless protagonist of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. "We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I cannot imagine why. I must admit that this desire on their part leads me to question their value judgments. However if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business. They may seal their own doom."

As any neocon will tell you, there is nothing quite so frustrating as trying to liberate people who just do not appreciate the freedom you have in store for them. Nor is there much joy in expressing solidarity with people who want nothing to do with you. The "historic" alliances that have been announced between workers, peasants, students, women and gays would indeed have changed history. Sadly, the vast majority were never truly forged.

Nowhere does this contradiction seem more acute than in the fortunes of the Democratic party, which has stood with the professed aim of representing the economic interests of poorer Americans over the past 40 years.

According to recent US census figures, since President George W. Bush assumed power in 2000, poverty has risen by 7 percent, the proportion of those without health care has risen by 9 percent and median household income has fallen by 3 percent.

But where the poor are most numerous, it seems the Democrats are weakest. The 10 states with the lowest household median income -- where people are least likely to have healthcare and most likely to live in poverty -- all voted Republican in 2004. Not only are they poor, but they're getting poorer. The five states with the steepest falls in income backed Bush.

Indeed, if anything the Democrats' base seems to be among the wealthy. The same census figures showed that seven of the 10 states with the highest median incomes voted Democrat, and citizens who lived in Democrat states were less likely to live in poverty and more likely to have health insurance. And these states are getting wealthier. The five with the sharpest increase in income all voted Democrat in 2004.

Former president Bill Clinton won in 1992 with the dictum "It's the economy, stupid." But what to make of a political culture where poor states elect the party that represents the interests of the rich and vice versa?

This is not a new question but a perennially pertinent one, because it has shaped an understanding of US politics since the late 1960s. It underpins the assumptions that send Bush clearing brush for the cameras and the reason why accusations that Democratic Senator John Kerry "looked French" resonate.

In his book What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank described the tendency of working-class people to vote Republican as a form of derangement. He said that the working class had been hoodwinked into voting against its economic interests by "values" issues such as abortion and gay rights.

There were two main problems with this argument. First, it suggested that poor people are incapable of working out their best interests. Second, it gave undue emphasis to economic interests, as if they should always take primacy at the ballot box.

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