Race, gender and culture in the election: a Q&A with faculty expert Andrea Abrams
Andrea Abrams is one of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11. To see other faculty experts, click here.
Q: What role has race played in the campaigns of both the Democrats and Republicans, both historically and in this election cycle?
Andrea Abrams, Assistant Professor of Anthropology: Historically, race has played a complicated role in American presidential campaigns, both as a catalyst for political change and as a demographic force shaping the composition of the electorate. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln centered in no small part on the role of slavery in the geographic and economic expansion of the U.S. Following his assassination and the election of Andrew Johnson, President Johnson’s strong opposition to the gains made by African-American freedmen during Reconstruction precipitated a devastating reversal of political and social gains made by blacks during the period. Race influenced significant changes to federal policy under various presidents, significant among which are the integration of the military under President Harry S. Truman, integration of schools under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
The role of race as both political and demographic influences on the body politic reached a first pinnacle under the twentieth-century President Johnson, with reverberations through today. With the Voting Rights Act of 1964, coupled with subsequent Supreme Court actions, race has moved to central space in how elections are conducted by presidential candidates. For African-Americans, the historical candidacy of President Barack Obama led to record voting levels in 2008. The emergence of the Latino vote as a significant voting bloc has challenged presidential discussions on immigration in 2012. The effect of race dictates where candidates campaign, how they shape policy proposals and, ultimately, who wins the White House.
Q: Obviously, with President Obama as the first African-American to be elected, race plays a huge part in his campaign. How do Democrats talk about race, and how does it differ from the ways Republicans talk about race?
Abrams: Race has never been far from our political discourse in the 2012 election—for the major parties, it has been a means to generate political engagement, in starkly different terms. For Democrats, race has been a demographic tool to increase its voter shares, but it has also been embedded in its policy prescriptions. Because non-whites tend to vote for Democrats, the deferment action for young Latinos, challenges to voter identification laws in several states and targeted challenges to redistricting have all been part of the Democratic plans to engage and energize people of color. For Republicans, the discussions of race have been geared towards a parallel strategy of opposition to policies favored by Latinos and African-Americans, like the Dream Act and stopping voter I.D. laws, and simultaneously an attempt to cultivate pockets of voters. Governor Romney’s softening position on immigration and his discussions of unemployment in the black community have signaled a recognition of the importance of these voting communities, but a tepid interest in full engagement. Democrats tend to discuss race in ways to incentivize voter turnout and support, where Republicans highlight the failures of Democratic policies to improve the lives of people of color.
Q: Do you think there are any particular issues in relation to race and/or gender that might come up in either the presidential or vice presidential debates?
Abrams: Both parties have navigated the election without directly confronting race and its implications on President Obama’s first four years of governance. Beyond President Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008, race has rarely been a core discussion; however, the impact of voter suppression, immigration reform and, more subtly, the approach taken in economic policy discussions have significant political ramifications based on race. To the extent the discussions of economic reform focus on a top-down economic strategy, both blacks and Latinos stand to suffer longer in the recovery. Both demographics have greater chance of gaining jobs through direct action by the government in restoration of public sector jobs and growth in infrastructure investment as proposed by Democrats. The Republican strategy of cutting top tax rates and spurring growth through the creation of new businesses is less likely to impact people of color because they are less likely to be in the upper economic brackets who will feel these effects first. More than likely, neither party will discuss the effects of their plans on these communities, but the differences are stark.
The discussion of women’s issues are more prominent in this election. Reproductive choice and women’s health care have been pivotal in the national presidential race. Look for Vice President Biden and Congressman Ryan both to raise these issues, as they were absent from the first presidential debate. With polls showing a tightening of the gap between President Obama and Governor Romney with women, both the vice presidential debate and the next presidential debate will highlight the disparate policies of Democrats and Republicans on these core women’s issues. A less-discussed issue is the Republican position on equal pay, which was President Obama’s first legislative victory. Republicans have generally opposed equal pay legislation, but Democrats have not focused on this issue in recent discussions.
Q: It seems to be more important now than ever for candidates to have a presence in popular culture—why do you think that is, and who does that appeal to most in the electorate?
Abrams: President Bill Clinton’s appeal to popular culture had its most famous moments on the Arsenio Hall sofa and in the MTV/Rock the Vote conversation in 1992. President Clinton’s departure from the more rarefied approach to popular campaigning presaged a shift in how Americans understood the presidency and emphasized a generational change in expectations. President Obama has been more apt to utilize the evolving role of popular culture in our electoral decisions, as evidenced by his appearances on “Saturday Night Live” in 2008 to his repeated visits to shows as varied as “The Daily Show” and “The View.” He has been criticized for diminishing the office of the presidency by visiting these programs; however, this expansion of his “brand” into popular domains may be credited with buoying his prospects in this election despite difficult economic numbers. Governor Romney has been less visible on these shows, focusing more on the traditional venues of Sunday morning talk shows and “60 Minutes,” although he, too, has become more present in the colloquial television space with appearances on “Live with Kelly” and “The View.” Both candidates recognize the potential inherent in these appearances: appeal to women voters and to younger voters, both of which groups will have a substantial effect on voting levels in the 2012 election.
Q: Gender issues have been very important to this election—how have the candidates spoken about gender, and have their efforts been to their hindrance or their benefit?
Abrams: President Obama began his presidency by signing the Lily Ledbetter Act, which gave women the ability to sue for disparate pay treatment in the workplace. Since his election, the president has steadily courted women and highlighted his policies to their benefit. Democrats have traditionally spoken about women in terms of equality and choice, with focuses on reproductive rights, women’s healthcare and their economic role in the family. The Affordable Care Act eliminates co-pays on birth control and on key women’s preventative measures such as mammograms and PAP smears, a signature legislative accomplishment claimed by President Obama.
In contrast, Governor Romney has been more conservative in his discussions of gender and his policy prescriptions. He opposes abortion rights and his belief in exceptions has been unclear. He also opposed the Obama edict requiring provision of birth control by all employers, including religious organizations. He has promised repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, but has not articulated if this will maintain the women’s healthcare provisions currently embedded in the law. On economic issues, Governor Romney has not offered specific legislative approaches for women’s economic development, targeting instead a larger thematic premise of economic growth benefitting all sectors of the economy.
Until recent polls, this distinction between the two approaches has created a gender gap that benefited President Obama; however, his lackluster debate performance has led to a closure of that gap in national polls this week, giving Governor Romney a clear opening to press his case with women.