Testing the Melissa Harris-Perry Thesis

Remember when Melissa Harris-Perry claimed last year that white liberals were abandoning Obama because of their racism?

She didn’t cite any polls at the time. But now we have the definitive poll. And what does it tell us about the Harris-Perry thesis?

I couldn’t find exact data from yesterday’s election (the polls I’ve seen don’t do cross-tabulations by race and political ideology). But here’s what we’ve got so far: Obama won 86 percent of the liberal vote. The only other group that gave Obama a higher percentage of their vote were African Americans (93%).

But ah, you might say, in 2008 Obama won 89 percent of the liberal vote. That 3 percent must have deserted him because of their racism.

But guess what? In 2008 Obama got 95 percent of the black vote. How are we going to explain that 2 percent drop among black voters?

The basic truth is: Obama did extremely well among liberals and African-Americans in 2008.  And he did almost as well with those exact same groups in 2012.


  1. Donna Gratehouse (@DonnaDiva) November 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm | #

    Liberals were blamed for the 2010 shellacking. We supposed sat out the election by the millions. The exit polls show that liberals voted in the same proportion in that midterm as they had in 2006. Conservatives had a substantial increase from 2006 and it was moderate voters who showed a substantial decline. Once again, it was the moderates who screwed us but liberals got the blame.

  2. Paul H. Rosenberg November 7, 2012 at 2:56 pm | #

    I never could take MHP seriously after that. She had zero data to support her, and dishonestly drew on data that was NOT about white liberals, but about whites more generally. Nice that you’ve taken this opportunity to bring this point up again.

  3. Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant November 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm | #

    I went back and re-read the MHP essay, and Prof. Robin’s reply and his replies to others’ replies. I would like to offer a more charitable explanation as to what lay behind MHP’s essay.

    If one recalls, it was during that period that the electronic and print media was obsessed with the clown-show known as the Presidential Republican Primary Races during 2011 and heading into 2012. The debates’ featuring the Republican contenders gave us an id-laced obscenity on full display and right-wing-nuttery as an ongoing and un-relenting public spectacle of unintended comedy. The Tea-Party’s influence was on overdrive throughout. I would offer that this, plus the economy, plus Obama’s unwillingness to come to the defense of the working class under assault from both Congress and Scott Walker (this was also in 2011 – the year of MHP’s September essay) were altogether the source of the downward pressure on Obama’s support.

    So given this, what accounts for Prof. Perry’s essay?


    She saw all of the same stuff then that we recall now and…

    … And, she panicked.

    Her essay was not the work of a scholar deriving an argument out of evidence, it was the work of an Obama supporter who was struck with fear of that the craziest of the Republican crazies was gonna cruise into the White House remove him from office, only to bring times of darkness that would rival this nation’s experience of the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. What you read as (correctly) an evidence-free claim regarding the motives of others was, I submit (without proof of my own by the way, for I, too, am doing a little mind reading here) written by a panicked mind that did not give itself time to regain its composure. And in her panic, we witness a suppressed turn of mind: a suspicion of her fellow Americans that comes out not as a consequence of understanding those Americans (in this case, White liberals), but due to an enfolding darkness around her deriving from the avowed enemy of liberals, persons of color, LGBTs, women, from the media’s obsession with Tea Partiers, and from the Obama’s absence when progressives could really have used his support.

    Panic can make one write crazy stuff.

    • Corey Robin November 7, 2012 at 9:46 pm | #

      You might be right. I had a different reading at the time of what was going on, but it’s not out of kilter with yours.

    • david mizner November 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | #

      She believes — and she’s stated this explicitly — that vigorous criticism of Prez Obama from the left is counter-productive, and the original column in question was obviously in reaction not to the imaginary abandonment of Obama by white liberals but to criticism of Obama from certain prominent white liberals — you know who.

      Along with many Obama admirers, she believes white liberals were much softer on Prez Clinton. (Often MHP and her ilk express this belief a few minutes after chastising white liberals for supporting Nader, whose candidacy was fueled by opposition to Clinton and Clintonism.)

      Part of the reason this misperception exists is there was no Internet in the 90s, so criticism of Clinton was less visible and more polite.

      Anyway, if you think the debate between Obama admirers and critics was heated during his first term, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

  4. Cavoyo November 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm | #

    To be fair, if white liberals abandoned a black person, it wouldn’t have been the first time they’ve done so. Liberal whites sided with racists over black people when they abandoned Reconstruction in 1877. FDR only passed the New Deal programs by allowing the Dixiecrats to kick black people out of them. And what happened to 40 acres and a mule?

    • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant November 7, 2012 at 4:47 pm | #

      But, also to be fair — liberals in recent decades have been WAY more loyal to Blacks than they used to be in the days to which you refer, for historical reasons (progressive changes in the law, for instance, which liberals and Blacks can take credit for).

      The question remains: where is Ms. Perry’s evidence? What survey has she done, what historical trend does she reference? I suggest that Prof. Robin’s reading of the re-election of the President in 2012 gives evidence for a very different thesis than one offerered by Prof. Perry in 2011.

    • Scott Preston November 7, 2012 at 9:42 pm | #

      “40 acres and a mule!” That’s generous. When the Canadian government, around the same time, was coercing the breakup the very successful Indian tribal agriculture on the reserves in Canada (it was considered “communistic”) they broke up collective economic production and enforced a policy of “2 acres and a plough” to “individualise” reserve economy. (The unbelievable story is told in a book entitled Lost Harvests (– also A National Crime). It had the effect, of course, of destroying the viability of all reserve economy, and drove many aboriginal people off their reserves. The blowback effects are still evident today.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg November 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | #

      For the record, here is what happened to “40 acres”: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-3353

  5. NotALiberal November 8, 2012 at 2:48 am | #

    Melissa Harris-Perry is a petty bourgeois liberal who likes to pretend sometimes that she’s a radical. From her well-heeled position as a tenured university professor, MSNBC anchor and financially successful author she represents and advances the interests of a relatively small layer of small-time Black capitalists and professionals, comforting them with the knowledge that their complicity with the liberal bourgeois establishment’s oppression and exploitation of the working class (including the Black working class) is historically “progressive.” But as we see with the current example of the criminal bourgeois clique running South Africa and their merciless massacre of the Marikana miners, a society run by Black capitalists is not a liberated society. It is a society of capitalist exploitation.

    I’m all for a Black nationalism led by Black socialist revolutionaries, but people need to recognize that the interests of the vast majority of Black people are not aligned with the interests any bourgeois or petty bourgeois faction, no matter their skin color. What is needed is an independent movement of the black working class to break the chains of capitalist exploitation and finally liberate the Black nation.

    People like Ms. Harris-Perry are terrified at the thought of such a movement emerging because it might threaten their positions as counselors to the bourgeoisie. And so they gin up fears of a universal white racism in order to distract from the fundamentals of class politics. White racism is still a huge problem in America, obviously. But it is not universal and it is indeed on the wane, especially among the young. Ms. Harris-Perry’s bankrupt politics do nothing to dampen white racism or to further the interests of the vast majority of Black people, and certainly not the interests of black people around the world, which U.S. imperialism is busy everyday slaughtering. But they do have the advantage of carving out a niche for her as a “radical” voice that the bourgeoisie is willing to listen to because no threat to their fundamental interests is on display.

  6. Josh K-sky (@JoshKsky) November 10, 2012 at 3:33 am | #

    Yes, Corey, but you don’t factor in just how many liberals returned to supporting Obama after reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s article. Boom.

  7. Sergio Lopez-Luna November 13, 2012 at 9:44 am | #

    How does this work out considering that Obama got 5-6 million fewer votes that in 2012 while Romney got 1-2 million fewer votes than McCain? Since the proportion of black and latino votes went up from 2008, it would be logical to assume that the votes that Obama lost where white liberals. Or am I reading this wrong?

    • Corey Robin November 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm | #

      It’s only logical if you assume that the entirety of the white vote is liberal. But there are also white moderates, white independents, etc. And Obama could have lost votes from them.

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