11/13/2012 01:11 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Race in the Voting Booth

Race was the unspeakable factor in the presidential election -- in contrast to 2008 when it was on everyone's mind and on display. That does not mean it has disappeared and that the neuralgic issue of race in American public life had been resolved. We are kidding ourselves if we take that sanguine view. Hidden behind the poll numbers, concealed in the surveys, was a current of racial feeling that infected many -- consciously or unconsciously. Get away from the Blue Belt cities to find those feelings manifest.

Oddly, race may have been less of a factor in the first Obama election. As Colonel Pat Lang ruefully has explained, some people:

may have voted for him in 2008 out of fascination with the novelty of the idea of him and as a mute protest against the domestic and foreign policy misrule of the Bush administrations. The financial disaster into which we were clearly falling probably added to willingness to experiment with the Obama idea ... (But) after 4 years of his government and endless ... discussion of the notion of a black president, many of these folks were completely and irreversibly against him.

Others were simply negatively disposed by the racial element. Racial attitudes involve a complex psychology. Pure, blind racial animus that totally dominates behavior is relatively rare today.

Undercurrents of prejudice are another matter. They get diluted or intensified as they mix with other attitudes, They wax and wane. They are more or less salient according to time, to circumstances and to persons. Measuring them with exactitude is impossible.

One thing we do know. There are a lot of disgruntled white males for whom racial consciousness is a reality. Their discontent and disaffection has several roots: financial headaches, job insecurity, the incomprehensible rise of women -- everywhere, diminished American prowess in the world, and the status anxieties that have been ingrained in the American psyche from the republic's earliest days gnaw at them. Self-esteem is fated to be eroded further as the gap widens between high expectation and bleak prospects, between macho pretensions and the gender revolution, between American exceptionalism and our lost ability to get our way in the world, between myth and reality. One can only wonder what will happen when, before too long, male whites become a minority of a minority.

What does this mean politically? Well, the pool of potential recruits for the Tea Party certainly will be large if not in fact increase. Electorally, the racial demographics of the country point in the opposite direction. The growing Latino vote likely will remain overwhelmingly Democratic. Two groups in the United States have always been shrewdest about voting their socio-economic interests: the rich and black people. Latinos are now on the verge of joining the latter (along with Asians for what are in part a different set of reasons). This will take the form of convergent interests rather than a coalition. One reason that historically so many Latinos voted Republican was precisely to distinguish themselves from blacks. Increasingly, they are making a separate calculation as to where they stand relative to the people and ideas that dominate the Republican Party. They were far more sensitive than working class whites as to what a Romney presidency had in store for them. When they saw his 47 percent speech, it confirmed what he is and what he meant. By contrast, there are millions of white common folk who still fantasize themselves as destined to be part of the 1 percent or 10 percent but for having come up short due to a bit of hard luck.

In addition, the aspiration to see a Latino president a la Obama can only be imagined as a Democrat. Forget Rubio -- a Cuban who personifies the Tea Party madness now coopted by moneyed interests. Forget Ted Cruz in Texas who long has been part of the white establishment. He combines a Harvard degree with a rabid know-nothingism that won him the Senate nomination over Rick Perry's lieutenant governor, portrayed as soft on government, soft on liberals, and soft on the Enlightenment. A Cruz has little to offer most Latinos except sweat, tears and police stops.

The political issues raised by the crisis in white identity are related to the eruption of the Christian Right. Acute free-floating anxiety has an affinity for apocalyptic visions. Brought up on the Book of Revelation passions and the harsh strictures of Scriptural absolutism, tens of millions are at once unnerved and reaching out for the sword of righteousness -- of course with the Stars and Stripes flying from the hilt. Two or three million people voted for senatorial candidates in Missouri and Indiana (along with House candidates) who declared repeatedly that a raped woman, whatever collateral damage she has and will suffer, must deliver her baby because the incident was scripted by God's plan.

For many commentators, this was a "gaffe." It was not -- it was honest expression of deeply held sentiments -- as was Romney's heartfelt expression of Social Darwinism at that infamous fund-raiser. Are these Christian salafists hostile to racial minorities? Not necessarily. Icons of the movement, however, like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, have made abundantly clear that their vision of the "real" America is not at all rainbow hued.

There are two lessons to be drawn from this phenomenon. The convictions of a previously fringe segment of American society have passed into the political bloodstream with the backing in places of a majority of those Republicans who vote in primaries -- if not quite into the mainstream. The cultists' disproportionate power within the Republican Party ensures them a place in the councils of power for the foreseeable future -- even if they are an electoral liability.

The future of the country's electoral politics could well be determined by how the balance is tipped between a Democratic Party that has hamstrung itself by sweeping aside its progressive heritage along with its bedrock constituencies of all races, on the one hand, and a Republican Party beholden to far-right fanatics, on the other.

Happy days are here again?