Why do we have such low expectations for white voters? The midterm elections brought into stark relief just how many white voters are willing to make a mockery of showing any pretense of concern for democracy, good governance or even the barest qualifications for our country’s highest offices. As unfortunate as that behavior is, what’s even more dangerous for the future of the country is how resigned the rest of the country has become to the anti-democratic and intellectually unjustifiable voting patterns of much of white America.
On one level, we shouldn’t be surprised because white Americans have been voting against whatever political party is aligned with Black people for more than a century – the civil war itself began when seven slaveholding states, all dominated by the Democratic party, refused to accept the outcome of the 1860 election, seceded from the Union and launched a violent and bloody war. While many would like to believe that such whites-first electoral decision-making is a thing of the past, the most recent midterm elections reveal just how little progress has been made.
The slew of inexperienced and unqualified candidates elevated by Donald Trump this year was markedly different from prior elections over the past several decades. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and other states, Republicans put forward as nominees for the US Senate people who’d never held any elected office or expressed much interest in participating in government at all. And yet, in state after state, the majority of white voters opted to back the candidate with no demonstrable qualification for the office other than that they were endorsed by the former president, who sought and seeks to make America white again.
The situation is most stark in Georgia, which has its Senate runoff election on 6 December. After the African American civil rights leader and minister Raphael Warnock was elected to the US Senate from Georgia in 2021, Trump recruited the former Georgia football player Herschel Walker – who lived and may still live in Texas – and persuaded him to throw his hat in Georgia’s 2022 Senate race. Beyond Walker’s blatant lack of qualifications – or for that matter even interest – in government, his candidacy has been repeatedly rocked by scandal. From alleged domestic violence and stalking (including allegedly holding a gun to his ex-wife’s head) to reportedly fathering at least four children he has not publicly acknowledged (while opining in the media about the ills of absentee fathers) to the rank hypocrisy of championing anti-abortion views while having allegedly paid for two abortions of women he impregnated, the scale of Walker’s previously disqualifying revelations is at a truly Trumpian level.
The pretense that Georgia’s white voters were conducting a good-faith exercise in democracy is laid bare by looking at the behavior of the those who self-describe as “white born-again or evangelical Christians”. Georgia’s white Christians faced – and still face – a choice between a man who has zero qualifications for the office and a mountain of unchristian immorality and scandal on the one hand, and an incumbent senator who is a Christian minister and the successor to Martin Luther King Jr. (Warnock is the senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the faith-based home of Dr King.)
Walker’s melanin notwithstanding, he is nonetheless the handpicked errand boy of Trump and all who subscribe to his whites-first view of the world. As Georgia pastor Jamal Bryant put it, “When the Republican party of Georgia moved Herschel Walker from Texas to Georgia so that he could run for Senate, it was because change was taking too fast in the post-antebellum South, and there were some … who were not prepared for a Black man and a Jewish man to go to the Senate at the exact same time.”
In deciding between the Christian church leader and the unrepentant and unqualified hypocrite, 88% of white born-again Christians voters chose against the church leader. Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that it was not the Christian part of their identity that determined their political choice. It was their whiteness.
Despite the absolute absurdity of this situation, the rest of the country has collectively shrugged its shoulders and moved on without any expressions of outrage or attempts to insist on some shred of fidelity to the notion that we’re supposed to be choosing responsible leaders to serve in our highest governing body. Where are the articles and stories interviewing Georgia’s white Christians about why they are voting for the decidedly unchristian Walker over the Christian pastor Warnock? Where are the calls, tweets and emails to reporters demanding that they ask such questions?
The national silence brings to mind the words of Georgia native Dr King in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Beyond the morality of the matter is a question of practical politics. We now know that ignoring white racial preference in elections is ineffective. Letting white people off the hook doesn’t work; what does work is holding the line, insisting on standards and challenging whites to rise above the race-based pandering they are offered by modern-day Republicans.
When Barack Obama’s opponents attempted to weaken his support among whites by endless and out-of-context repetition of seemingly controversial comments by his then pastor, Jeremiah Wright, he tackled the challenge head-on with his now-famous “race speech”: “In the white community,” Obama said, “the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that … the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds.”
Fears were calmed, and Obama went on to secure the highest percentage of the white vote of any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Academic research has also affirmed the effectiveness of this approach. In her book The Race Card, Princeton professor Tali Mendelberg revealed how Republicans’ use of coded racial messages, and their impact on voters, lost power when the implicit was made explicit. She found that “when campaign discourse is clearly about race – when it is explicitly racial – it has the fewest racial consequences for white opinion”.
Trump and his electoral success broke many norms of America’s fragile democracy, and we are still trying to pick up the pieces. One norm we should not and must not relinquish is outrage at obvious and unapologetic racist behavior in the electorate. It is imperative that we hold voters to a higher standard.
Steve Phillips is the founder of Democracy in Color and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good