If there’s one thing Joe Biden’s presidential campaign taught us, it is that the sentiments that gain purchase in online forums are not representative of the views of the general voting public. In fact, the kind of thing that generates traction online may actively turn off the less plugged-in among us.
The approach Biden’s team took during both the 2020 primary and general elections represented a departure not just from Donald Trump’s style of politics but Barack Obama’s, too. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Obama, not Trump, was our first “extremely online” president. When Obama revealed his unguarded views on social issues, in particular, they reflected the vainglorious condescension that is so common on hyperpolitical social-media outlets, which are primarily populated with users who are more educated, affluent, whiter, and more progressive than the general population.
The 44th president’s recent remarks in an interview with “The Breakfast Club” radio show exemplify this condition:
“People were surprised about a lot of Hispanic folks who voted for Trump,” Obama recently said. “But, there’s a lot of evangelical Hispanics who, the fact that Trump says racist things about Mexicans, or puts detainees–undocumented workers–in cages, they think that’s less important than the fact that he supports their views on gay marriage or abortion.”
There are at least four glaringly obvious problems with these remarks. The first red flag, which should give pause to any competent Democratic politician who lived through 2020, is that they rapidly gained purchase on Twitter. “Having a lot of trouble figuring out which part of his statement is inaccurate,” Los Angeles magazine editor-in-chief Maer Roshan wrote. The architect of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” agreed. “There was nothing controversial about this nuanced and accurate take on a very diverse voting bloc,” Nicole Hannah Jones affirmed.
“Nothing controversial.” Really?
That’s a telling admission because the second most obvious problem with the former president’s characterization of the Hispanic vote in America is that it cannot be supported with data. If such a claim is supportable at all, it can only be buttressed only by anecdotes. That makes for bad social science, but, as Jones might attest, it might be good enough for a Pulitzer Prize.
The third painfully conspicuous blunder Obama made here is that it is counterproductive for a political party that is reeling from a surprisingly poor showing with Hispanics to correct for that shock by accusing Hispanics of being bigots and homophobes. That is, at the very least, impolitic. It is difficult to imagine a prospective Democratic office seeker who would echo Obama’s sentiments, which suggests these remarks are designed for internal consumption among progressives and only progressives.
These remarks are a species of Obama’s famous quip about “bitter,” small-town Pennsylvanians, who “cling to guns or religion” or “anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” It is condescension designed not to help understand and appeal to a wider base of voters, but to convince liberal partisans that they shouldn’t even bother. Indeed, it’s nobler to ignore these anachronisms than it is to win them over. Their coalition is more virtuous without these voters.
And that, lastly, is the final problem with Obama’s remarks. They’re not just insulting, self-soothing, and unsupportable; they are also actively misleading Democratic voters. Obama’s remarks weren’t just wrong on the facts (though it may be too much to expect the president to launch into a dissertation on the intricacies of the Flores settlement, which led his administration to construct those cages, even if Trump expanded their use). Obama is wrong in electoral terms, too.
For example, among the many places in which Donald Trump outperformed expectations with Hispanic voters were cities like Miami, which is (to put it mildly) not exactly known for anti-gay biases. To hear the story told by the South Florida Democrats who unexpectedly lost their congressional races, it wasn’t the voters’ hidebound attachment to prejudice that did them in—it was the number of self-described democratic socialists who had become Democratic celebrities since 2018, allowing Republicans to yoke them with the mantle of socialism, too. That proved a resonant message among Hispanic voters for whom the word “socialism” evokes the horrors visited upon Venezuela and Cuba. Even Democrats who are reluctant to credit Republican messaging strategies for their shortcomings will instead blame their party’s lack of investment in traditionally bluer Hispanic-dominated portions of the country.
Log off and listen to Joe Biden, and you’ll hear something similar. Both before the election and after, Biden went to great lengths to distance himself from his party’s socialist socialites. We can only conclude that Obama’s remarks are nothing more than a comfort blanket for Democrats who want some explanation that absolves them of fault for their party’s underwhelming down-ballot performance. They don’t want the truth—they want a self-satisfying narrative. That is how “extremely online” discourse is done.