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Ira Chernus Headshot

Dems Must Add Class Issues to Story of Election

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Flickr: plackephotography
Flickr: plackephotography

On Election Day we learned who will be president for the next four years. In the days after Election Day we learned something almost as important: the story that will be told about the election of 2012. The popular story of any election takes on a life of its own, and it can shape the political landscape for years to come.

We can now safely project the winner of this year's election story contest: Republicans self-destructed by moving too far to the right on issues that matter to women and to the newly empowered Latino voters.

Let's do a cost-benefit analysis of that story.

The benefits are obvious: Just as African-Americans earned new political respect in 2008 (and kept it this year by turning out at the same high levels as they did four years ago), Latinos have now earned new respect. Whenever a minority group, oppressed and marginalized for so long, takes its rightful place of political equality, we should all stand up and cheer.

We should also stand up and cheer for women, whose rights (especially to control their own bodies) won a resounding victory too. Three years from now, when the jockeying for the next GOP presidential nomination moves into high gear, the rights of women and people of color will no doubt get a higher place on the agenda than ever before. That's certainly a positive gain.

But let's not put the spotlight on the 2016 election quite so fast. First there's the not-so-little matter of the next Congressional election. How will the popular story of Election Day 2012 affect Election Day 2014? Here's where the cost of the story comes in.

Remember what happened back on Election Day 2010, two years after a resounding Democratic victory? Republicans scored huge gains not only in the federal Congress but in state legislatures around the country. In many states they got the power to draw the new Congressional districts that took effect this year.

That's why we have a nation tilting a bit Democratic but full of House districts that lean strongly Republican. RealClearPolitics gave the GOP 211 surely or probably safe seats, while the Dems got only 165.

In 2012, as Democrats convincingly won the White House and improved their standing in the Senate, they picked up only 10 seats in the House (assuming Dems win all the as yet undecided races). That leaves them 33 seats behind the still very right-wing House majority.

For the Democrats to retake the House in 2014, they must hold on to their new seats -- all in swing districts -- and win at least 18 more, eight of them in leaning GOP districts. Most (maybe all) of those districts are predominantly white. Republican state legislatures made sure of that.

The Dems won't have much success if they stick to the popular story of this year's election: The key to victory is to court Latinos and women by moving to the left on the issues they care about. That story plays well in the national media. In those swing and leaning Republican districts, the story will boomerang because it will be translated into language conservatives understand all too well: Latinos are teaming up with blacks (the big story of the 2008 election) and liberal (code for "loose") women to take over the country. They're the reason we are losing the America we once knew and loved. It's time for patriotic whites to fight back.

And you can bet that the seven million (!) whites who voted in 2008 but stayed home this year -- the block whose absence was a major factor in Obama's re-election -- will indeed fight back in 2014, simply by showing up at the polls.

Is there another story about this year's election that fits the facts but can blunt the boomerang effect of the "race, ethnicity and gender" narrative? I'm glad you asked.

Pick up the exit poll and look at the category labeled "Family Income." (The best breakdown is on the FoxNews site, but it's the same poll all the media used). You'll see a strikingly simple tale: The more money you make, the more likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney. Under 30K families went 63 percent and 30 - 50K families 57 percent for Obama. Among 50 - 100K families Romney got 52 percent and among 100 - 200K he increased to 54 percent.

Fifty-thousand, the median family income, is the great political divide. Voters below the median gave Obama his victory.

Many of them were people of color, no doubt, but many were white -- and many were men. The election wasn't just about racial, ethnic or gender politics. It was also about the economy, stupid. This rainbow coalition saw clearly where their bread was buttered, and it wasn't on Wall Street or in the corporate offices of Bain Capital.

Just imagine that this was the popular story of the 2012 election, the one that the candidates carried into 2014. In all those swing and lean GOP districts, there are plenty of whites who are in under-50K families but have voted Republican. Most of them may continue to do so.

But add class issues to the story and some of those whites will stop and think, even if just for a minute. Then there's at least a chance that they'll be able to hear what the Democratic candidate is saying, even if just for a minute. That's all the opening a good candidate needs to plant a seed of doubt: Do you really want a House of Representatives dedicated solely to increasing the wealth and cutting the taxes of the rich while slashing the vital government services we all depend on?

If that becomes the central question, rather than, "Do you want blacks, Latinos and liberal women to take over the country?" then 2014 can be a real contest for the House. It starts by adding "class" as a basic ingredient in the story of Election Day 2012, making it a story about a rainbow coalition that clearly understood its own class interests.

It's always been taboo in America to talk about class. The Democrats are just now beginning to talk about the divide between the rich and the rest of us. It's another big step to talk about the differences between those above and those below the median income -- including the decisive political difference.

But if Democrats don't take that step soon, they risk another major defeat in 2014. Then all the benefits of re-electing the president could easily slip down the political drain.

Ira Chernus is author of "MythicAmerica: Essays." He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.