A Column By Jack D. Forbes

Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

Why the Republicans Won

Native Americans often see little difference between Democrats and Republicans. But, in the recent past, and especially under presidents Reagan, Bush Senior, and Bush Junior, GOP policies have been characterized by hostile acts towards Indigenous People, both in the USA proper and, from 1981 to 1992, in Central and South America where hundreds of thousands of American Indians were slaughtered in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere with the active support of Republican administrations.

In the 2002 elections the Republicans carried almost every inland and rural county in Oregon, losing only urban centers and college town areas. Similarly, in California the GOP, even with an inept candidate for governor, carried virtually all foothill, mountain, and rural counties. Or, if we look at the country as a whole, the GOP carried virtually every interior and southern state, with a handful of exceptions.

The fact is that the Democrats' victories were restricted primarily to urbanized regions, mostly located on the West Coast or in the northeast, areas characterized by large non-white populations, mixed racial families, cosmopolitan and immigrant cultures, major universities, and information-based economies.

In contrast, Republican victories swept across the South and the central and western parts of the country, regions where there are sometimes fewer non-whites, or where African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans can be defeated at the statewide level because of "block" Republican voting by whites, regions also with less prestigious universities, extractive economies, more fundamentalist religious followers, dominance by corporate agribusiness, and a greater proportion of whites of non-recent-immigrant origin, i.e., Anglo-American whites who trace their ancestry back to the armed conquest of the country.

One can argue that a majority of western and southern white males have come to identify with the GOP, in spite of economic issues associated with the Republican indifference to the fate of small farmers and middle-class persons in general. In fact, much of the economic distress in rural areas can be blamed on GOP-led policies, such as the World Trade Organization's free trade policies and the triumphant growth of corporations.

I would propose that many white persons, and especially males outside of cosmopolitan areas, are voting on non-economic, ideological grounds which have not generally been recognized. What are these grounds? First, I will argue that these persons constitute part of an historically "WHITE PRIVILEGE" population. What this means is that they are the descendants of people who, because they were white, had the expectation for several centuries of being able to steal land, timber, minerals, fisheries, and all other resources from the Original Americans.

In other words, they could look forward to a government willing to take resources from the First Americans and make them available to white persons either without charge, or on a nominal fee basis. In this manner huge areas of timber, fertile land, river and ocean front property, mineral locations, potential cattle and sheep range, etc. were seized from the Native People (or, in the Southwest and Texas, from Mexican-Americans) and were given to privileged Anglo-Americans and to other European immigrants. In addition, in many states, non-whites were not allowed to testify against white persons, thus nullifying any crimes unless there was a white witness.

In Oregon, as one example, the tribes of western Oregon experienced ethnic cleansing and then were given two tiny, minuscule reservations at Siletz and Grand Ronde (after two other reserves were abolished), while the privileged whites had the entire resources of the Willamette Valley, southwestern Oregon, and the Pacific Coast opened up for their near-exclusive enrichment. The same pattern was repeated in other states.

But what has happened in the late twentieth century? The "privileged" Anglo-Americans of the west have lost much of their dominant position. Their "rights" to use "public" lands as they please are threatened. Their "rights" to carry guns and have an arsenal are partially regulated. Their dominance of the USA is threatened by growing non-white populations. Their presumption that they should be able to cut down trees, clog streams, dig up mountains, make roads wherever they want to, and be "free" of control by a Federal government (or state governments) sensitive to "city folk," all have contributed to a "sagebrush rebellion" and now to support of the GOP. In the South, of course, the presence of large African-American and other non-white populations presents a different challenge to the formerly-privileged white group, but with analogous ideological results. For example, in Georgia the GOP candidate won the governorship by supporting a return to a racist symbol, a state flag with the Confederate flag on it.

In other words, white supremacy, broadly interpreted, is what the GOP victory margin is all about. George Bush has managed to package a new vision which appeals to "white privilege" not only because of his sympathy to gun-owners, cattle-ranchers, loggers, mill owners, mining companies, and the like, but also because of his open espousal of US dominance in the world. Bush, in foreign affairs, has assumed a posture of "old west" toughness, with the US acting like the Texas Rangers. But the Rangers are no longer going after Mexicans, Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. Now they are going to attack and dominate ANY country which the US considers to be a potential threat to its national interests, not only in the Americas (which has long been fair game) but everywhere apparently.

The US talk of establishing control over Iraq signifies, I think, the birth of a new "empire", one with great appeal to frustrated people used to racial dominance of others. Maybe the Republican vote is, for the less-than-wealthy, a vote for super-nationalism, dreams of "manifest destiny" and privileges restored.

(Jack Forbes is professor emeritus of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. He is of Powhatan and Delaware background and has been writing about interethnic and international issues for over forty-five years.)