Joan Walsh seems to have had an epiphany in writing her latest book, a very human lesson that offers hope for our nation. (More)

What’s the Matter with White People, Part III: An Obama Epiphany (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers Joan Walsh’s new book What’s the Matter with White People? – Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was. Thursday we looked at her childhood myths of a post-World War II working class golden age. Yesterday we saw how the 1960s and 70s splintered the New Deal coalition that had been the Democratic Party’s base. Today we conclude with how that base began to reform during the George W. Bush era, and how Democrats can knit that still-fragile coalition more closely for the future.

Joan Walsh became Salon‘s first full-time news editor in 1998 and editor in chief in 2005. At the end of 2010 she became the site’s editor at large, to write full-time. Before joining Salon, she worked as a journalist, as a legislative staffer for the California Assembly, and as a policy consultant on education, community development, and urban poverty issues.

United Against, But Not For

The presidency of George W. Bush reunited the Democratic coalition, but not all at once and then only in the most fragile form. Walsh makes a compelling argument that George W. Bush becoming president was stark proof of Democratic Party disunity. From quarrels over the Gore campaign’s image and policy focus, to Gore’s choice of right-leaning Joe Lieberman (who would campaign for John McCain in 2008) as his running mate, to the Nader campaign endorsed by many prominent voices on the left, to Republicans’ ability to marshal the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot‘ during the Florida recount while Democrats could not cobble together any coherent recount message, Walsh paints 2000 as the year Democrats lost because we could not agree enough to win.

Democrats remained divided after the 9/11 tragedy. Most embraced the prevailing theme of national unity in the face of attack, while others questioned whether the outburst of flag-waving patriotism was carefully choreographed theater to embolden and empower a war president wannabe, and a handful wondered if the entire event had been staged. The national unity held for several months, despite the whirlwind passage of the USA PATRIOT Act that seemed to threaten fundamental civil liberties. But as the drumbeat for war in Iraq built, more Democrats began to believe that President Bush and his neoconservative advisors had seized on the nation’s grief as a pretext for a war they long wanted to fight: a war to dominate the oil fields around the Persian Gulf.

As the Iraq War began to spiral into quagmire, the Democratic backlash built. Yet no incumbent president seeking another term has ever lost a wartime election, and that pattern would hold in 2004. Republicans boasted of being a permanent majority, a hubris matched only by President Bush’s claim that a razor-thin victory was a popular mandate to privatize Social Security. More miscues quickly followed: from backing the ‘intelligent design’ absurdity in Pennsylvania to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist claiming to diagnose a brain-dead woman from a few minutes of edited videotape, from the woeful response after Hurricane Katrina to the series of sex scandals emerging in the party of ‘family values.’

By 2006, Democrats had united against President Bush and the Republican Party, and the midterms saw Democrats take control in Congress as well as in many state capitals. But we had not yet united for a coherent Democratic message.

The Meltdown

The 2008 Democratic primary seemed at first merely a formality: the inevitable nomination of New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Most party leaders seemed ready to endorse her, and many women – including Joan Walsh and others in her extended family – saw the Clinton candidacy as the fulfillment of a dream they had long pondered but never imagined possible. For the first time in our nation’s history, a woman seemed poised to be President of the United States.

Or Illinois Senator Barack Obama – a young, gifted orator not yet known for anything else – could be the first black President of the United States.

There were few real policy differences between them. Neither had a long Senate résumé. Clinton had voted for the Iraq War. Obama, then in the Illinois legislature, had spoken against it. Clinton’s service as First Lady was offset by concerns about the presidency becoming a legacy passed between two families. Identity politics of race and gender – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – dominated the primary race. Ultimately the Obama campaign’s organizational genius, crucial in caucuses, overcame the Clinton campaign’s institutional heft.

Save for a handful of holdouts who dubbed themselves PUMAs (Party Unity My A**) the old Democratic Party seemed to unite. The economic meltdown drove many working class whites to question Republican policies, or at least to reject the Bush-era policies that John McCain seemed determined to continue. Obama won in a landslide that brought even larger majorities in the House and Senate.

Yet within months, the Democratic coalition began to fracture again. Early dismay over appointments and policies that seemed more focused on Wall Street than Main Street quickly built into narratives of incompetence – or selling out – as the health care reform battle dragged and key progressive ideas were discarded. The Tea Party once again peeled away working class whites, dominating both the political dialogue and the 2010 midterms. By August of 2011, as he seemed to plead for cooperation from a Republican Party committed to ultimatums, President Obama’s approval ratings reached their lowest ebb.

Divided We Squabble

Joan Walsh, like many Democrats, hit bottom during the debt ceiling debacle. Within a month, The Nation‘s Melissa Harris-Perry would write a column decrying white liberals’ double-standard for President Obama, and Walsh’s rebuttal at Salon would evoke a stinking rebuke from Harris-Perry.

Although Walsh mentions the argument only briefly, it seems to have triggered an epiphany. She again recalls her time as a legislative staffer and consultant on urban poverty issues, and the resentments voiced by some she sought to help. Maybe they had a point. Maybe she – a college-educated, middle-class white woman – could never truly be an ‘expert’ on urban poverty. Maybe her defense of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on The Negro Family – that many of its premises were later echoed by black leaders – missed the key point. Those black leaders could talk about their community in ways that Moynihan could not. Maybe Walsh’s reluctance to see that was evidence of a phrase she had come to loathe: “white privilege.”

In a section titled “Some of My Best Presidents are Black,” Walsh concedes Harris-Perry’s point:

On the other hand, my comparing Obama to Dr. King showed that I was probably subjecting [the president] to outsize expectations, scrutinizing his every move, not only for political efficacy but also for its moral, political, and racial justice. It was too big a burden. Obama represented an advance beyond King in terms of our foreordained roles for African Americans. We want our black leaders to be the country’s conscience, to make us better than we are. It was hard to just let Obama be an extraordinary American politician but a politician nonetheless, a skilled transactional Chicago leader, one who would disappoint me and make mistakes just like the rest, as he had every right to do.

And with that epiphany, Walsh seems to have shifted the focus of her book. What began as the stories of Irish-Catholics offered as a proxy for working class whites overall – ‘speaking for all of us’ – became something both less and far more: a courageous and poignant portrait of Walsh’s own extended family.

She writes about appearing on The O’Reilly Factor after the murder of Dr. George Tiller and how O’Reilly tried to cast her as complicit in the abortions Tiller had performed. Yet that story is less about herself than about her family. Walsh knew one of her cousins, a retired cop whose wife was terminally ill with cancer, watched O’Reilly every night:

The minute the awful segment ended, my cell phone rang. It was my cousin’s wife. “I’m very proud of you,” she told me in a voice so softly I could barely hear it. “And I love you.” I thought about my mother’s grief after a priest condemned prochoice Catholics to hell, just before she died. I felt a kind of grace coming from my mother, through my cousin’s brave wife. I didn’t know whether my mother or my cousin’s wife was personally prochoice; they were just good Catholics who knew the issue was as simple, morally, as bullies such as O’Reilly tried to make it seem.

She died three weeks later. At her funeral, my cousin told me it was the last phone call she had made. Other than that, no one in my family mentioned the O’Reilly segment at all.

When some Democrats talk about the destiny of demography – that whites will soon be a minority of the U.S. population, as if building an effective political coalition is simply a matter of waiting for older whites to die – Walsh sees the faces of her own aunts, uncles, and cousins. They, and Walsh herself, became the “White People” in her title. In its shift from ‘speaking for all of us’ to sharing intimately about herself and her family, her book reads as a journey toward one of our most needed and least common civic virtues: humility.

The Democratic Party is the proverbial big tent. That can be a weakness, but it can also be a strength … if we let others speak with their own voices, pay each other the respect of truly listening, and recognize that no one of us has the wisdom – or the privilege – to ‘speak for all of us.’ If we truly embrace that humility, we can tell stories that resonate today and build a future that will shine for generations to come.

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Happy Saturday!