The richest states will vote Obama and the poorest states will vote Romney

Yes, "it's the economy, stupid" is true, but other issues are influencing voters counter-intuitively, too.

According to a report last month, the five richest states in the USA are Maryland, Alaska, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts whilst the five poorest states are Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama. Politically, four of the five richest states (the exception is Alaska) are regarded as safe for Barack Obama and all five of the poorest states are regarded as safe for Mitt Romney.

Viewed from these shores, this is puzzling because the richest states are supporting the candidate of the left-wing party while the poorest states are voting for the candidate of the right-wing party. In England, if a constituency is prosperous you can be sure it does not have a Labour MP; very probably it will have a Tory MP and occasionally a Lib Dem. If a constituency is deprived, the Tories are glad if they save their deposit and the MP is invariably Labour.

A partial explanation for the prosperous citizens of a state like Maryland voting for a Democrat is that the centre of politics in the US is significantly to the right of the centre of politics in the UK and Europe. However, it is still the case that if you are earning very well you can expect to pay more tax under the Democrats.

Journalists often use the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” when analysing elections and it is true that some people vote in elections on the basis of which party they think will make them and their family better off financially. It is ironic, as the phrase originated in the US, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign, that this test is applied more by voters in the UK than those in America. In the US millions of votes are cast for non-economic reasons.

For the last few decades fierce debates have raged in America which have come to be known as “Culture Wars”. These cover a range of issues which are highly controversial in the US, such as the importance of religion, the law on abortion, gun-control and issues around homosexuality like gay marriage. Depressingly, even the issue of climate change, rather than being judged on the basis of scientific evidence, has become caught up in these Culture Wars. On these issues, the Democrats tend to have progressive, liberal views and the Republicans conservative, traditional views. For millions of Americans these issues are decisive.

Many of the poorest states in the US are in the Deep South. These states now vote solidly Republican in presidential elections. The vote is split on racial grounds. In 2008, Obama received some 98 per cent of the black vote in Mississippi and Alabama but was easily beaten by John McCain who received some 90 per cent of the white vote. The result was much the same when the Democrat candidate has been white.

Once it was the Democrats who were the beneficiary of white Southern voters as a result of the civil war and its aftermath. The states in the Deep South were slave states and they were defeated in the Civil War by a government led by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a Republican, in fact the first Republican president.

After the Civil War and after Lincoln’s assassination it was the Republican Party that tried and failed to secure proper rights for the blacks in the Deep South. It was the Democrats who ensured that, although slavery was finished, the blacks in their states had minimal rights. Into the 1960s southern blacks faced discrimination, segregation and were denied the right to vote. Southern whites at the time never voted anything other than Democrat.

In 1964 it was a Democrat president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who forced through the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act to make sure that blacks in the South could vote and had proper legal rights. He knew that this would earn his party the hatred of the white voters in the South. As he signed the law he reportedly said: “There goes the South for a generation.”

LBJ was right in that voters who had only ever voted Democrat now proceeded to only ever vote Republican. He was wrong about this voting pattern lasting “for a generation” – it has already been far longer than that.
The economy may well be the most important issue in the battle between Obama and Romney but it is by no means the only important issue.

Romney supporters. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.