The New American Majority


Last week’s most arresting political development was not Ken Starr’s song and wiretap dance, but the election of a former football player named Julius Caesar Watts Jr. to lead the House Republican Conference. What made news was not his victory over a more experienced rival, but the fact that Watts is black. For an African American to occupy a leadership position in the GOP is about as unusual as a cattle drive in the Bronx. No wonder some conservatives are grousing about “Republican affirmative action.”

Not to worry: Watts is as right-wing as Republicans get. Yet his elevation, along with the selection of kinder, gentler Robert Livingston to replace the nefarious Newt, puts a human face on the Republican response to the 1998 election. The party of the pulpit, the boardroom, and the cigar bar has adopted a new image to suit its millennial ambitions. Let’s hear it for the new buzzword “compassionate conservative,” an oxymoron in search of a mandate.

The election itself was enough to make a pundit plotz. To nearly universal surprise, the Democrats gained six House seats and broke even in the Senate. The right-wing press was quick to blame the GOP for not being conservative enough, but party professionals, who know how to read exit polls, had a very different take. They were alarmed to discover that women and minorities had come out in greater-than-anticipated numbers, swinging close races to the Democrats. The result is what the conservative Weekly Standard called “A Teetering Republican Majority.”

Even more ominous is the premonition that Reagan Democrats might be ready to come home. The Catholic vote (representing 27 percent of the electorate) tilted Democratic, and Jews did not abandon their party despite the crude effort by Gingrich to tar Clinton with a pro-PLO stance. Cementing this alliance of minorities was the African American vote, which was so massive in key states that it swept away several Republican senators and governors, among them Al D’Amato. Not only did his off-the-putz remark cost him a chunk of the Jewish vote, but in upstate cities like Rochester, the black vote was up by a striking 15 percent. That sank D’Amato’s scheme to paint Schumer as a carpetbagger from Canarsie. Meanhwile in California, Barbara Boxer, considered too liberal to hold her Senate seat, rode to reelection on the strength of minority voters (including Asians, despite her opponent Matt Fong’s Chinese surname.)

But the most important thing this election demonstrated was the centrality of the gender gap. Despite periodic predictions that it would fade into the mists of postfeminism, this phenomenon has proven to be a fixture of American political life. So many races are decided by women voters (who have outnumbered men in every election since the 1960s) that by now gender has inflected the very image of the two parties—as in “daddy” Republicans and “mommy” Democrats. This is not good news for the GOP since, as a rule, women prefer Democratic Congressional candidates by a margin of between four and eight percent, while men, as you might imagine, tend to vote Republican.

The gender gap is starkest among whites. Indeed, the Republicans owe their Congressional majority to the fact that, in 1994, white men gravitated to GOP candidates by a whopping 26-point margin, which obliterated the Democrats’ six-point lead among women. But that was the year of the Angry White Male. Since then, the Republicans’ cauca-dude base has shrunk (thanks largely to the defection of union members), while the Democrats have held onto women voters—and that has been the key to their survival.

Even the much-touted decline in turnout does not apply equally to both sexes. “The women’s vote is not falling off as fast as the men’s vote,” says Anita Press Ferguson of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “In fact, women voted in slightly greater numbers in ’98 than they did in ’94.” When you add the fired-up black vote, and the growing impact of Hispanics (who now make up 5 percent of the electorate), it’s clear why the Democrats gained ground. Within a week of the election, Gingrich had retired to the lecture circuit (where his reward for getting out of the way will be $50,000 speaker fees), Watts had been promoted, and GOP spinners were talking about running a woman for vice president. All this is a sign that Republicans are waking up to reality. The right may live in a world where white males stand for the whole, but in the real world, where elections are decided, women and minorities—when they team up and turn out—are the new majority.

this is no news to Bill Clinton. He has always understood the power of women and minorites. Which is why, when the election found him mired in scandal, he sent the emblematic First Lady to bolster Schumer and Boxer while he toured black churches. That strategy was not so different from the one he had used to defeat two patriarchal Republicans. Indeed, if women had voted like men, George Bush would have come much closer to beating Clinton, and so would Bob Dole. For this president, the gender gap has been an opportunity.

No doubt it was preordained that the first president to owe his success to women would end up engulfed in scandals that threatened to alienate them. Instead, the farrago known as Zippergate has been a nightmare for Republican strategists, right-wing muckrakers, and pious prosecutors. Rather than dispriting the Democratic faithful, it drove them to the polls.

As the savants of the Weekly Standard put it, the Republicans “have been unable to leverage Bill Clinton’s unprecedented disgrace [because] a great number of Americans, for reasons that do not flatter them, remain unprepared to reject a president who has committed multiple felonies right before their eyes.” This sanctimonious imprecation betrays a stunning ignorance of the way a great number of Americans now live. For the rise of women and minorities has brought with it a profound change in values, especially about sex.

It is a shift from the puritan code of probity to a more ambiguous standard, in which the emotional quality of a relationship matters more than its adherence to tradition. From this perspective, Clinton’s tryst with Monica Lewinsky plays as the kind of foolish but consensual love affair that shows up daily on TV talk shows, where mothers and daughters compete for the same man, and interracial passions abound. No wonder these shows—watched mostly by women and minorities—have become a prime target for William Bennett: They are a matrix of the new majority.

Republicans prefer the more vainglorious venue of talk radio, where the Angry White Male still rules and the mantra is that Bill Clinton has “defiled the presidency.” This mentality is a major reason why the party of wrathful dads and self-righteous sons is slouching toward minority status. The talk-radio putzgeist is what led the GOP to conclude that slathering the salacious details of the president’s sex life across the media would make the American people recoil. They were right about how white males would react, but for women and minorities, this $40 million impeachathon had precisely the opposite effect.

Media accounts of how Americans feel about Ken Starr and his magnum opus— which should have been called Tropic of Clinton—rarely mention the gender gap. But data from the Pew Research Center show that women are more likely than men to disapprove of Starr, and to think Republicans have pushed too hard for impeachment. And blacks are dramatically more inclined than whites to want the whole thing dropped. These numbers, compiled two weeks before the election, forshadowed the outcome. They could have saved the pundits a lot of embarrassment, if only those “experts” had bothered to look.

As the Pew data demonstrate, most white men regard Zippergate the way the commentators do: as a sordid example of presidential culpability. But women and minorities tend to see the president as a victim of the very system that has made their own sexuality an issue. Not that they necessarily approve of Clinton’s behavior, but the tactics of his enemies seem all too familiar. Here is the same righteousness masking envy; the same morbid fascination with perverse sexuality; the same impulse to police and punish: the whole macho megillah being wielded against a president whose most distinctive quality is his appeal to women and blacks. This perception of a conservative vendetta against the leader who embodies political change overrides concerns about perjury—and it should.

yet for all his virtues as an emblem of change, Bill Clinton has hardly behaved like a progressive. His policies have only broadened the most dangerous gap in American life—the one between the rich and the poor—and his appeal to women and minorities has not been reciprocated by a dedication to bettering their lives. If anything, Clinton has used sexual politics to cover his programmatic tracks. This dirty trick—and not his sex life—is the real reason to call him Slick Willy.

Clinton’s failure of leadership—much more grievous than his so-called character flaws—is a major reason why the new majority has not coalesced into a movement. With no heroic figure to shape the strivings of this vast electorate, its politics remain inchoate—and subject to the siren song of conservative compassion. Already, this shtick has brought Republicans the only bright spot in their recent rout: the triumph of the Bush boys. This dynastic duo arose on its auspicious ability to communicate across the gender gap. Both Bushes also were able to attract Hispanics, motivated by the nativist backlash against immigrants to become one of the most heavily voting ethnic groups. Though they are partial to Democrats, Latinos went for George Jr. (who aggressively courted the Chicano vote) and Jeb (whose wife is Hispanic). That sent a powerful message to GOP strategists.

If the Republicans are right in their reading of the election, all they have to do is schedule a convention speech about immigrant vitality (are you ready for your close-up, Mr. Giuliani?), put a woman on the bottom of the ticket, and find a presidential candidate who can say multiculti with a smile. The American people, they might reason, are no more inclined to abandon fiscal conservativism than when Ronald Reagan swept to victory. Feminism and even black power can coexist with Big Capital, as the rise of Christie Todd Whitman and J.C. Watts attests. If the GOP can mute the rabid right, they may well discover that the new majority can be
divided and conquered. After all, this coalition isn’t held together by bonds of race, class, or sexuality. It’s as fragile as a big tent with wide open flaps can be.

Yet the election offers glimmers of a sensibility that the Republicans may not be able to co-opt. If it is not progressive in the classic sense, at least it is receptive to the L-word (and I don’t mean laissez-faire). Consider that, in New York, the usual antiliberal smear tactics failed against Schumer, who avoided the exculpatory stance that can make progressive pols look like kids caught masturbating. In California, more voters were willing to call themselves liberal and fewer were proud to be conservative. These crocuses may reflect a warm winter—a live-and-let-live attitude founded on good times—and skeptics can point to the drubbing affirmative action took at the polls. But something is blowing in the breeze, if not the wind.

“We’ve seen the beginning of a sense that something is wrong with the Republican agenda,” says Berkeley sociologist Robert N. Bellah, coeditor of Habits of the Heart, the formative 1985 study of American attitudes. “In Europe, every country has a moderate left-wing government, and in America, there’s a growing feeling that something is wrong with the neocapitalist ideology, that labor and minority groups have been left out. But it’s very inchoate, and we don’t even have the remnants of the social democratic agenda that would allow us to make a critique of what’s happened.”

What we do have, however, is a certain reflex toward liberalism, founded on a sensibility Bellah’s book calls “associationalism,” in which communal affinity and personal choice are more credible than programs and policies. Given the syncretic nature of the current American experiment—which borrows from both the moral revolution of the ’60s and the market revolution of the ’80s, and fully intends to preserve the gains of both—it’s probably healthy that the new majority is up for grabs. If progressives don’t embrace it, contradictions and all, conservatives certainly will—and if they succeed, any potential for radical renewal will be lost again behind a wink, a nod, and a beaming Bush.

Research: Michael Zilberman