THE GREAT OBAMA FREAKOUT
During his 2012 campaign for Congress, Ted Yoho appeared before a friendly Tea Party group at a church in northern Florida. A licensed veterinarian and conservative Republican, Yoho hit all the high notes of the modern right. He warned that the United States was approaching a “European--style socialism, or worse—maybe a fascism.” He fulminated against foreign aid and said the United Nations “needs to go.” He complained that his taxes went to support people like the young men he’d recently seen using food stamps to buy chips and Arizona Iced Tea.
Then, as things were winding down, a man at the back spoke up to lament the state’s recent trend toward absentee and early voting, which, he warned, raised the threat of fraud and stolen elections. Yoho, standing at the pulpit, a large American flag pinned to the wall behind him, agreed. But the real problem with making voting easier, he ventured, wasn’t the opportunity for fraud. It was something more pernicious: ignorant voters. “I can’t remember which Founding Father said it,” Yoho mused, “but he said the ability to vote, but vote uninformed, is as tragic or as dangerous as having a loaded gun and not knowing how to use it.” He praised Republican governor Rick Scott for shortening the state’s early voting period from two weeks to one and added that it should be cut further.
“It’s a privilege to vote,” Yoho went on, warming to his theme. “Yeah, it may be inconvenient, but you know, it’s like I told people when I was growing up: to be successful is inconvenient. If not, everybody would be successful.”
“I’ve had some radical ideas about voting, and it’s probably not a good time to tell you about them,” Yoho added a few moments later. “But you used to have to be a property owner to vote.” The crowd applauded loudly.
Voting was certainly inconvenient for many Floridians that year, just as Yoho had hoped. With those cuts to early voting causing longer lines at the polls, some waited as long as seven hours to cast a ballot, and an estimated 200,000 gave up in frustration. Twelve years after the Florida recount fiasco, the state was again the poster child for electoral chaos.*
Of course, Yoho’s overwhelmingly white, middle--class supporters didn’t seem to have trouble getting to the polls. And his nostalgia for a time when those without means were blocked from voting didn’t hurt him in his conservative district. He beat a twelve--term incumbent in the Republican primary, then easily won the general election. He now sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and in 2015 he briefly put himself forward as a challenger to then–House Speaker John Boehner.
FEW IN POSITIONS of real power are quite as candid as Yoho was that day. But the notion that certain groups of Americans should be discouraged or even barred from voting—an idea thought to have long been consigned to the trash heap of history—has quietly been making a comeback. Everywhere you turn, conservatives from Republican politicians to Fox News hosts to respected newspaper columnists are lamenting the consequences of universal suffrage, and in some cases suggesting ways around it.
Yoho’s notion that uninformed voters pose a mortal danger to the republic has been an article of faith on the right at least since Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Just a few weeks after that contest, the conservative journalist John Ziegler posted a video on YouTube titled “How Obama Got Elected.” It featured interviews with a handful of Obama voters, in which they admitted they didn’t know who people like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barney Frank were. It’s been viewed more than three million times.
A 2012 Howard Stern segment that went viral on the right played on a similar idea. Obama voters were asked if they approved of the president’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, or whether they expected the United States to succeed in getting Osama bin Laden—who in fact had been killed the previous year. Then the hosts chuckled over voters’ ignorance in not correcting them. Both productions reflected a sentiment that’s become widespread among conservatives: that Obama’s backers aren’t informed enough to make wise choices. When I typed “Obama voters” into Google, the third autofill suggestion it provided was “Obama voters are ignorant,” a search that produced more than 1.8 million results.
But beneath the sneering tone, the videos, like Yoho’s remarks, concealed a kind of panic that the Obama era has instilled among many on the right. Conservatives had always believed that elections work—or at least should work—a certain way: people make a sober analysis of which candidate can best govern, then vote accordingly. The masses who had turned out for Obama, though, didn’t seem to act that way. In the eyes of many conservatives, we were witnessing the rise of the stupid voter. “The low--information voters are now the new kings,” the radio host Rush Limbaugh fretted to his millions of listeners not long after Obama was reelected. “The morons, the people that don’t pay attention.”
To many on the right, the problem went further: people were voting not just out of ignorance, but with only their own narrow interests, not the country’s, in mind. When Mitt Romney complained about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, it was his dismissal of nearly half the country as lazy and unmotivated that did the political damage. But Romney’s central point was slightly different—it was about how, in his view, many Democrats approach voting.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said, singling out those “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you--name‑it—that that’s an entitlement, and the government should give it to them.” Then he repeated his key point: “And they will vote for this president no matter what.” To Romney, the biggest problem wasn’t simply that these freeloaders were forcing the rest of us to support them. It was that Obama and his backers saw politics as transactional: give me stuff, and I’ll vote for you in return. Romney was expressing the fear that the votes of almost half the country had been bought.
His formulation may have been artless, but Romney’s larger claim remains a central strand of the story the right tells about American politics. Rather than considering what’s best for the country as a whole, the idea goes, Democratic voters—meaning primarily the poor, minorities, many young people, and, perhaps, unmarried women who are sexually active—are allowing themselves to be bribed by promises of free health care, lavish unemployment benefits, college aid, and other goodies. In short, the game is rigged. A few months earlier Romney himself bragged to supporters about how he’d told an NAACP audience that if they wanted more “free stuff” like Obamacare, they should “vote for the other guy.” In a postmortem after his election defeat, he explained that he’d lost because Obama had been “very generous” toward “loyal Democratic constituencies,” mentioning “free contraceptives” and “amnesty.” The idea endures: asked on the campaign trail in 2015 how he’d attract black support, Jeb Bush contrasted his approach to the one Democrats supposedly use. “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” Bush said. “It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”
Of course, it’s one thing to wring your hands that some voters approach politics this way (though few on the right get this angry about forms of government largesse—say, farm subsidies or corporate giveaways in the tax code—that benefit groups they have more in common with). And conservatives certainly aren’t alone in lapsing into elitism and contempt toward the other side’s supporters when they lose. After President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, a map titled “JesusLand” went viral among liberals. It showed all of Red America, from Idaho to Florida, as one vast expanse of knuckle--dragging fundamentalism. Still, almost no one on the left responded to that defeat by questioning religious conservatives’ right to vote—or by expressing doubts about the very notion of popular rule. But in a development that has been all the more striking for flying largely under the radar, the age of Obama has seen the resurfacing among conservatives of a profound skepticism about the consequences of democracy itself.
It’s an ideology whose roots go back to the Founders, many of whom worried that giving too much power to ordinary people would pose a threat to what they considered core values of civilized society like respect for private property, and pave the way for anarchy, despotism, or other forms of radicalism. Democracy “soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,” John Adams wrote. “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Over the centuries, the salience of this way of thinking declined as a culture of democratic rights gained strength. But the fear of the mob never entirely lost its hold among many conservatives. As late as the 1920s, a U.S. Army training manual defined democracy as a form of government that results in “demagogism” and “anarchy.” William F. Buckley Jr., perhaps the most important figure in shaping modern conservatism, found in this tradition of thought a defense of Jim Crow. “It is more important for any community anywhere in the world,” he wrote in 1957, “to affirm and live by civilized standards than to bow down to the demands of the numerical majority.” Even the sainted Ronald Reagan expressed qualms about democracy. In a 1965 speech to Ohio Republicans delivered as he was building a national reputation as a critic of big government, Reagan approvingly cited a nineteenth-century writer’s view that democracy “can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.” After that, Reagan continued, anticipating Romney’s 47 percent critique, the majority “always vote for the candidate promising the most benefits . . . with the result that democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”
This distrust of democracy has also played a crucial role in shaping the right’s view of the Constitution as a bulwark against majoritarian tyranny—a view espoused by everyone from fringe Tea Party activists to the most powerful institutions of the conservative movement. “The Framers founded a republic because they recognized that mob rule could be just as great a threat to liberty as the rule of a king,” the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s most important conservative think tank, explains on its website. “America’s constitutional framework thereby seeks to protect the people from the dangers of unchecked popular democracy.”
The circumstances of Obama’s rise to power were tailor-made to prompt the resurfacing of these kinds of anxieties on the right. It helps to remember that the period around the 2008 election was a deeply traumatic time for many Americans. The world financial system, and with it the U.S. economy, seemed to be dangling by a thread. A discredited Republican president was spending hundreds of billions to bail out Wall Street bankers before slinking out of office. And along came a smooth--talking champion of the people promising change.
“Is the allure of a charismatic demagogue so strong that the usually sober American people are willing to risk an Obama presidency?” the wildly popular conservative radio host and author Mark Levin wrote a week or so before the election. Levin’s portrayal of Obama drew on a long--standing trope of conservative thought: the fear of the rabble--rouser who uses his rhetorical gifts to hoodwink the masses into supporting dangerously radical policies. In 1878 one prominent historian argued that the hordes of newly arrived immigrant workingmen filling industrial cities shouldn’t be allowed to vote—a popular view at the time—in part because their “ears are open to the promptings of every rascally agitator.” Around the same time, another writer concluded that universal suffrage “establishes the way to demagogism” because the “ignorant, uncultured, or dissipated voter most willingly yields to the persuasions of one of his own class.”
In one symptom of the panicked atmosphere that accompanied Obama’s ascendance, bizarre conspiracy theories and apocalyptic nightmares blossomed on the fringe. The new president was going to establish FEMA concentration camps, or else he’d use the United Nations to implement a global ban on guns. Even among more mainstream conservatives, a sense of foreboding prevailed. At its root was the fear that economic turmoil and the failure of the Bush presidency had opened the door to an angry and ignorant mob bent on reshaping society. When Obama awkwardly suggested on the campaign trail that he planned to “spread the wealth around,” he stoked the genuine fears of many conservatives that that was exactly what was coming.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the president’s race played into these fears. But to many on the right, the demographics of those who voted for him were just as unsettling. Both of Obama’s presidential campaigns conducted unprecedented outreach to racial minorities, the poor, and the young. These groups had traditionally been alienated from politics. But they ultimately provided Obama’s staunchest support. Consider that in 2012 the president won just 39 percent of white voters. Not long ago that would have almost guaranteed his defeat. But because he won 80 percent of nonwhite voters—and crucially, those voters made up 28 percent of the electorate, a higher share than ever before—he still won reelection comfortably.
Obama’s success in turning out these voters was in part thanks to new, sophisticated voter targeting technology, which made them easier to reach. But it was also the result of a genuine philosophical commitment to grassroots organizing on the part of his team. By opening hundreds of field offices in communities across the country, sometimes over a year ahead of the election, the Obama campaign succeeded in bringing millions of new voters into the process.
of new voters into the process.This was profoundly unsettling to many conservatives—much more so than if Obama had prevailed the old--fashioned way, by winning over moderate swing voters. More worrying still has been another realization: as political polarization has increased, the number of truly persuadable voters has shrunk dramatically. A poll taken in August 2012 found 81 percent of respondents saying there was no chance whatsoever that they might change their mind about who to support—far more than at the same stage in past elections. Another analysis, by the respected political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, found “sharp increases in party loyalty and straight ticket voting,” a trend that began in 1992 and accelerated in 2008 when Obama was elected. A third, by the political scientist Corwin Smidt, found that the number of voters who consistently floated between parties had dropped from about 15 percent in the late 1960s to about 5 percent today. In other words, Romney’s idea that Obama voters are impervious to persuasion contained a kernel of truth—though it appears to apply to his side, too.
This stark divide is bad news for conservatives, because demographic changes mean they’re likely to be on the short end for a long time to come. Those nonwhite voters who accounted for 28 percent of the 2012 electorate had shot up from just 13 percent in 1992. And their numbers are likely to increase further over the next few cycles, as Hispanics and Asians—both now looking like solidly Democratic blocs, at least for the next decade or so—continue flexing their muscles at the ballot box. Another left--leaning group whose numbers are on the rise has received less attention: Single women made up 23 percent of voters in 2012—up from 19 percent four years earlier—and two out of three voted for Obama. Many experts now believe these trends give Democrats a built‑in advantage—though certainly not an insurmountable one—in presidential elections.
These demographic changes—not to mention the reality of stagnating wages and growing inequality—are contributing to ideological ones, too. In 1998, 45 percent of voters told Gallup the government should redistribute wealth by taxing the rich heavily, compared to 51 percent who said it shouldn’t. By 2015 those numbers were essentially reversed: 52 percent said it should, while 45 percent said it shouldn’t. It’s young and nonwhite voters who appear to be driving the shift. A 2015 Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans over 35 were four points more likely to say the government is doing too much than that it’s doing too little. But Americans aged eighteen to thirty--four—a group that includes a far larger share of racial minorities—by a margin of 23 points said it’s doing too little. “The country at large,” wrote Peter Beinart in a January 2016 cover story for The Atlantic, “is moving to the left.”
Of course, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the bitter split it’s triggered have made it harder to talk about conservatism in America as a cohesive movement. On the one hand, Trump appears to have the same qualms about full democracy as his fellow GOPers. “You’ve got to have real security with the voting system,” he told a New Hampshire crowd in January. “This voting system is out of control.” And Trump’s promises to Make America Great Again simply by telling China and Mexico what’s what; his unconcealed admiration for Vladimir Putin (“at least he’s a leader,”); his casual endorsement of violence against protesters; and his musing about restricting freedom of the press suggest an authoritarianism that’s starkly at odds with democratic values. In this sense, Trump’s backers represent the last gasp of the older white population looking to hold off the demographic tide.