Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Harry Targ

Social Construction of the 2010 Election

It is fashionable but true to refer to the “social construction” of reality. What this means is that while certain things happen, and certain realities are determined by our senses to be correct, how we interpret their meanings varies based on some combination of our interests, outlook, and ideology. When talking about the elections different people may interpret the results in different ways. For political activists the social constructions we use should have some value in helping us understand and change the reality we believe to be true.

Some of the “data”

From data reported in the media between November 3rd and 10th, 2010 the new United States Senate will be comprised of 51 Democratic Senators and 2 Independents and 47 Republicans. The Republicans experienced their biggest gains in the House of Representatives winning 239 seats to 189 for the Democrats (as of November 3). The 2011 distribution of the governorships will include at least 29 Republicans and 18 Democrats. In sum, the elections brought Republican control to the House of Representatives and significant shifts in gubernatorial contests which will impact on the redistricting of House of Representative districts for the next decade.

At the state level, Republican candidates won 650 seats in legislative assemblies, taking control of 19 legislative bodies from Democrats. For example, Republicans gained both state houses in Alabama, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. They won an additional house to take control of both houses in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Through gubernatorial and legislative victories at the state level Republicans will control the designation of 170 congressional districts while Democrats will control 70. The rest, about 200, will be determined by bipartisan bodies. Republicans won three state legislatures in the Northeast, eight in the South, nine in the Midwest, and five in the West. Looking at a USA map of red and blue states, 27 states will be red in the next period http://www.usastoday.com/news/politics/2010-11-04 .

USA Today quoted a North Carolina Republican who succinctly summarized the situation in his state. “‘The ability to reshape political boundaries gives this election a lasting impact that extends far beyond last night and today,’ says Tom Fetzer, North Carolina's Republican Party chairman.” According to USA Today one party control had not existed in that state since 1888.

What Can Exit Polls Tell Us?

Pollsters often are interested, as we are, in discovering who voted and why. For years polling organizations have done exit polling; asking people who they were, how they voted, and why. While these data are subject to all the weaknesses of polling in general, they can shed some light on questions relevant to pundits and activists. Looking at CNN Politics http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2010/results/polls/ the following findings are noteworthy:

-Males voted Republican (55 to 42%), Females Democratic (49 to 48%)
-60% of whites voted Republican, which was 78% of turnout
-90% of African-Americans voted Democratic, 10% of turnout
-65% of Latinos voted Democratic, 8% of turnout
-56% of Asian-Americans voted Democratic, 2% of turnout

By gender and race, 35% of white men voted Democratic; 40% of white women; 85% of Black men; 93% of Black women; 61% of Latino men; 69% of Latinas

By age, 56% of the 18-29 cohort voted for Democrats (11% of voters);47% of 30-44 year olds (22% of voters); 46% of 45-64 (44% of voters); and over 65 years old 40% voted Democratic (23% of voters).

By income those making under $30,000 and between $30,000 and $50,000 voted Democratic by 57 and 51 %. Those earning more that $50,000 (making up 66% of voters) were more likely to vote for Republicans. Only 35% of those earning more than $200,000 voted Democratic.

As to education and voter preference, only those with no high school degrees (60%) and post graduate degrees (52%) voted more for Democrats.

Finally I include the breakdown of voting by ideology: 90% of liberals voted Democrat and 14% of conservatives but 56% of moderates voted Democrat.

What to Make of All This?

1) I don’t know. Media pundits of course have been making up many different narratives to explain the voting outcome. Some began constructing the Republican wave scenario many months ago. But in the end, the outcome is unclear.

2) While the exit polls cited here say little about issues that mattered, it seems clear that the economy is the number one issue shaping voter decisions. Pollsters have long argued that economic issues trump virtually everything else when issues matter.

3) Exit poll data confirms once again that race, class, and gender remain the big determinants of voting choices. What Tim Wise recently suggested about race applies very well. Tea Party activists have proclaimed they want “to take back their country.” That clearly is about race.

4) As some have suggested, aside from some progressive leaders such as Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson, the Democrats most likely to have lost were the “blue dog” Democrats who in fact had won in 2008 in traditionally mixed or Republican districts. Progressive Democrats tended to do better in the House races.

5) The biggest disaster for progressives may turn out to be the state races. Republican and Tea Party victories at the governors’ and legislative levels will lead to damaging Congressional redistricting and a host of reactionary policies that the right wing has been eager to reestablish.

In Indiana what probably will be on the agenda in a state legislature that has gone Republican (with a Republican governor) along with redistricting will be Right to Work legislation, new laws limiting the rights of public employees to be in unions, new laws allowing school districts to fire teachers (without their pensions) when their students do not perform to test standards, caps on taxes, a draconian anti-immigration law, and perhaps even a state so-called “student bill of rights” which will allow legislators to interfere with what is taught at public universities.

6)However, looking at the electoral system longitudinally, say from 1980, may suggest that not as much has changed as the apocalyptic among us might believe. We need to look at election results, both presidential and off-year to see the extent to which trends and magnitudes differ or not from the results of 2010. My suspicion at this point is that the changes at the level of the federal government have not been that different over the years and the state results in 2010 constitute a return to state political life before 2008.

If there is some truth and usefulness to my social construction, what does it mean for building the progressive majority? Well, it means we need to continue to do what we have been doing only do more of it and do it better. We need to continue an “inside/outside” strategy that targets critical legislation, giving support to the handful of progressives who survive, and perhaps most centrally to mobilize to stop the brutal shifts in policy planned by Republicans (with Democratic complicity) in state houses across America, as well as at the national level.

Perhaps with the election over, we can brainstorm about how to best increase the militancy of our outside strategy. We need to support alternative institutions: coops, alternative print and electronic media, and build third parties where possible. We need to get out in the street more: not so much national mobilizations but regional and local ones. We need to concentrate our messages such as “education not war,” “health care not warfare,” or “build a Green jobs program.” And we should figure out ways to link up more effectively with our brothers and sisters around the world. After all, the right wing shift in political life is not unique to the United States.

Finally, perhaps now is a good time to raise our voices about “21st Century Socialism.” If they can call President Obama and Nancy Pelosi Socialists, we need to articulate what real Socialism is about.