Mandates, Minorities, And The Way Washington Talks About Politics

It’s hard to think of a clearer distillation of some strains of establishment thinking, and the way the publication that published these paragraphs–Politico–manifests it than this section of a premortem on the results of today’s election:

If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.

A broad mandate this is not. The pressure on Obama to deliver for this liberal base will be powerful. Already, top left-wing groups are pressuring him not to buckle on a grand bargain that includes any entitlement cuts.

Remember, folks: white men are the default, the baseline, a representation of political neutrality. The interests that are attributed to them–or you, if you’re one of the great white guys who read this blog–stand in for a fictional consensus, rather than being understood as a product of demographics, economics, and social circumstances that demand interrogation. Women and people of color, not to mention LGBT people and people with disabilities? We’re special interest groups. When we demand that our needs be met by our government, our interests are suspect, sinister. And it couldn’t possibly be that we share interests across our demographics, or even with those white men, that could provide a mandate for President Obama on certain issues.

It may be true that there is not a broad mandate, defined on these terms, to put a serious push behind improving the employment rate of people with disabilities, or to include transgender people in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or to combat racial profiling. And the fact that different sections of the electorate have different urgent needs may mean that President Obama, if he is reelected today, is handed the inverse of a clear mandate for one or two policy priorities beyond the obvious need to create jobs and continue the economic recovery: a broad portfolio of issues his supporters need him to deal with. That broad set of needs may be difficult to meet, if only because of an unfortunate incentive structure in our political system that makes it easy to score points by blocking aid to so-called special interests, as long as those interests have to scrape up collective power to be heard at all. But those issues are not rendered illegitimate because someone needs them. The needs or wants of corporations, or white men in the Heartland, are not more value-neutral than the needs of poor people, or people with disabilities, or transgender people, or women. And it would be delightful for publications that want to play a significant role in defining the Washington conversation to push back against the idea that the support of white men is somehow necessary to validate those needs, to perform the alchemy that transforms them from special interests into mandates.