Posted on May 22, 1995 in Washington Watch

As Republicans continue to struggle to maintain internal unity in the face of a divisive debate over abortion, Democrats are facing a challenge to their unity over the future of affirmative action programs.

Affirmative action primarily refers to Federal government programs and initiatives that were designed to remedy historic discrimination against African Americans and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. Begun in the aftermath of the historic Civil Rights movement of African Americans in the 1960s, these affirmative action programs were strengthened and expanded during the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s.

The logic behind these “remedy” programs was simple: if a systematic pattern of discrimination could be shown in denying disadvantaged groups opportunities in business, education or government service, then those groups that had been excluded and discriminated against could qualify for affirmative action as a remedy. Although the initial beneficiaries were African Americans, the programs ultimately came to include Asians, Latinos, women and, during the Bush Administration, those with physical disabilities.

From the beginning, these programs engendered some deep resentment. Because race has always been a source of division in this country, those groups which had for centuries discriminated against and excluded African Americans were, of course, vocal opponents of programs designed to give African Americans an opportunity to be included.

In the early years, the opposition to affirmative action was quite blatantly racist in nature. George Wallace’s (the former segregationist Governor of Alabama) Presidential campaign in 1972 – the most successful third-party candidacy in the modern era of American politics – was fueled by this white resentment against civil rights and affirmative action.

Wallace, a white southern Democrat, appealed openly to those who wanted a return to the South’s segregationist past. (Segregation refers to the system imposed by law in the south to keep African Americans separate from whites, but also applied to custom and prejudice in the North which produced a similar pattern of racial segregation.) Although the segregationists lost, the spirit of resentment lived on. National Republican leaders, even the most mainstream among them, understood that white resentment was a “wedge” that could be used to win the white voters from the Democratic party. And so instead of using race directly as an issue, Republicans have used more subtle issues that frequently represented a kind of code for white resentment and fear of blacks.

President Nixon, himself, used white anger at welfare as such a wedge issue. Ignoring the reality that the majority of welfare recipients were white, Nixon rallied against welfare fraud, frequently using examples of indolent African Americans caught deliberately cheating the government. More recently, President Reagan made [African American] “welfare mothers” a frequent target of his verbal abuse. Other coded issues used to reach tap white resentment in search of votes have been the questions of crime and drugs. Again, ignoring the reality that most violent crime is poverty-related black-on-black crime, and that drugs are a universal problem (and of course, the major suppliers and king-pins of the drug trade are white), Republicans nevertheless have subtly but unmistakably presented these issues as “black” problems.

In the best-known recent example, the now-infamous “Willie Horton” television advertisements used by then-Vice President George Bush to defeat Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 had an obvious racial edge to them. The basic point of the ad campaign was that by paroling a criminal in Massachusetts, Dukakis was responsible for the death of Horton’s next victim in distant Maryland. The coded subtext of ads, however, read that Dukakis foolishly had paroled African American rapist Horton who had in turn predictably raped and murdered a white woman.

These racially-inspired “wedge” issues have taken an increasing toll on Democrats, costing them white votes first in the South, but now in most of the rest of the country.

The Democratic party had historically been known as the party of America’s working people – in contrast to the Republican image as the party of big business interests. But as the Republican tactic of employing racial “wedge” issues worked to peel off some segments of the white vote, Democrats came to be perceived as the party that was “soft” on crime,” supportive of welfare, and more interested in “minorities” and their rights than in white working people.

Although only verbalized in past years by outright racist candidates, such as Ku Klux Klan (KKK) politician David Duke of Louisiana in the 1980s, this last theme of “white rights” has now gained some currency in more respectable and mainstream circles today. A national commentator recently noted that after listening to California’s Republican Governor Pete Wilson speak about “affirmative action,” he heard echoes of some of David Duke’s appeals to white resentment of a decade ago.

By now embracing the campaign against affirmative action programs, Republicans may not only have found their newest tool to pry white voters from the Democratic ranks, but they also have found an effective and potent “wedge” with which to divide the perpetually fragile and always turbulent Democratic coalition.

Having lost scores of Congressional and Senate seats in 1994, especially in the South, Democrats have resolved to avoid further hemorrhaging of their support bases. In the past, the Democratic coalition of voters looked like this: union members, African Americans, urban ethnics (including white ethnic Catholic, Jews and Latinos), liberal college-educated men and women, small business people and farmers. The party now finds that – with the exception of African Americans, Jews, some Latino groups and liberals – the traditional base of their coalition is leaking away to the Republicans.

And so as Republicans begin to mount an assault on the affirmative action programs that have benefited African Americans, Latinos, and women – and their campaign begins to attract white support – Democrats have started to question whether or not they can continue to support those programs.

California Governor Wilson, who ironically is viewed within the Republican party as a liberal on social issues, launched the first raid in the Republicans’ frontal assault against affirmative action programs. In an effort to respond to Wilson’s initiative, President Clinton called for a formal review of all such programs run by the federal government. But by simply opening the door to a review, Clinton set off a firestorm, especially among African Americans and some leading liberal women’s groups.

Jesse Jackson, the leading African American spokesman, charged that “women and people of color are being used as scapegoats and objects of vilification” and added that if Clinton moves against affirmative action, he (Jackson) might challenge Clinton for the Presidency. An independent Jackson campaign would not win the White House, but it would take away enough African American and liberal votes away from Clinton to ensure that the Democrats would lose the White House in 1996.

When Clinton’s pollster and advisor Stanley Greenberg recently termed affirmative action as a temporary remedy and “not forever,” African American tempers flared again and Congressman Kweisi Mfume (the former Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus) said, “this issue can do more to polarize us as a society than the KKK.”

The President has a dilemma:

Some of the more moderate white leaders in the Democratic party, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, are now joining the call to revamp all affirmative action programs. And many others are recognizing that, in fact, some of these programs have not worked or are simply in need of modifications. But having faced an assault on so many fronts (budget cuts to social programs, the plight of systemic poverty and neglect, and a harsh new racially divisive rhetoric), African Americans have dug in their heels on affirmative action.

Clinton must therefore seek to find some middle ground between the challenge of the Republicans and the demands of the liberal wing of his own party. As one commentator framed Clinton’s challenge, it is to “articulate a policy that aims to neutralize the Republican assault on affirmative action without angering working class white or minority voters – the two groups he needs for reelection.

In this sense, the Democrats dare not abandon their support for affirmative action. For the past two and a half decades the Democrats have not won the majority of the white vote on a national level, but in many races the huge margin they enjoy among African American voters helped to push them over the top. For example, after the Reagan electoral sweeps of 1980 and 1984, the Democrats came back in 1986 to take the Senate back. The six seats that they won that year were won with 95% of the African American vote – in each case, the Democrat lost the white vote but because of their overwhelming victory among African Americans they won the election.

And Clinton and the Democrats cannot afford to lose any of the 43% of the vote Clinton won in 1992, which means they cannot afford to lose the large African American vote they enjoyed then. As Jesse Jackson and other African American leaders have pointed out many times, Democrats cannot take their votes for granted, because even if the majority of African Americans won’t vote Republican, simply staying away from the polls and not voting at all hurts the Democrats. If the Democrats seem to be abandoning support for affirmative action programs, they risk losing millions of African American votes – and as if that weren’t enough, this Republican “wedge” issue may peel off another segment of the Democratic coalition.

In raising the issue of affirmative actions, Republicans have also tapped into the potent force of anger and resentment found in many (mostly white) men in the U.S. who feel that they have been victims of reverse discrimination as jobs and educational opportunities have gone to African Americans and women. In reality, of course, that is not the whole story.

There are a number of factors that have shaped the current U.S. economy and job market, which put men at a relative disadvantage (relative because they still earn on average 15% more than women who do the same job and make up occupy more than 85% of top managerial positions). There has been an overall decline in industrial jobs, as basic industries have moved abroad – jobs which traditionally went to men. There is also a dramatic upward of women in the job market who are also better trained and educated than a generation ago, which has also caused the displacement of some male workers (particularly since women will do more for less). And while the economy has continued to grow, the real income of working people has declined over the past two decades, particularly among those with low educational attainments.

To some extent, the “wedge” aspect of the campaign against affirmative action is about finding a convenient scapegoat for this declining male position – and such scapegoat has been found, two actually. In most national polls, white men express their strong disapproval for the programs and many initiatives which they believe have cost them economic opportunity through “reverse discrimination.” To the extent that women play a large role in the Democratic coalition (the largest bloc of voters in Clinton’s win in 1992 was women), casting the affirmative action debate in this way poses a serious threat to the party. If liberal women’s groups and African American groups which oppose changes to affirmative action programs are not satisfied with the Democratic position on the issue may leave a majority of the Democratic coalition inclined to stay home and not vote in November of 1996.

In the end, it may be that the Republicans have found what is for now the ultimate “wedge” issue to drive a deep division into the Democratic ranks – as powerful a source of division as abortion is for the Republican party.

The most interesting and, in some ways, decisive battles to be fought in the next election will be these intra-party struggles. Republicans will need to take a stand on abortion that will keep party moderates and conservatives together, while Democrats will need to develop an approach to affirmative action that will maintain needed unity among liberals, African Americans, and moderates. If either party fails to resolve their intraparty challenge, they will enter the 1996 race for the White House with a significant handicap.

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