Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why the Democrats Need to Stop Hand-Wringing and Losing Sleep Over the White Working Class Vote

...There will be a lot of white working class voters showing up at the polls next November, and the degree to which they support (or abandon) President Obama could very well make or break his reelection.

In 2008, during his otherwise-solid election victory, Obama lost the white working class vote by 18 points. In 2010, however, things got much worse: Congressional Democrats’ experienced a catastrophic 30 point deficit among the same group. While the first number is a figure Obama could live with repeating, the second could very well prove fatal.

Indeed, if Republicans can replicate that 30 point deficit in 2012—a margin which seems increasingly possible given the recent bad news about the economy—Obama will have little to no room for error among his other constituencies.
The 2012 election is creeping closer. Like a ritual, a perennial in the political ecosphere, the hand-wringing has begun over how the Democrats and Barack Obama can win over the white working class vote.

For example, who can forget how John Dean brayed that the Bubba/Nascar/Walmart/Soccer Mom vote was critical for victory in 2004 or the infectious arguments put forth by authors such as Thomas Frank who painted a scary story of false consciousness in which white working class "values voters" support the Republicans against their own economic self-interest?

And as we saw in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the 2008 campaign, these worries are only amplified by the realities of race and how if a black man who happens to be President can win over the whitopian dreaming Middle America border states with all of their misplaced faith in "guns, God, and religion."

In sum, the question of how President Barack Obama and the Democrats can win the white working class vote in 2012 is a veritable Riddle of the Sphinx standing in the shadow of The Bogeyman. It is also a canard and a distraction, one which is based on incorrect assumptions about just who constitutes "the white working class" and the role of class in voting decisions and partisan behavior.

Thus, there is a basic problem: For all of the allure of "the false consciousness stealing of the white working class vote as the secret of the GOP's electoral gains" meme, the facts simply do not match up with all of the sensationalistic accounts. As recent works such as Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State; Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics; and (most compellingly) Unequal Democracy have demonstrated, a belief in the power of the white working class vote as the Achilles heel of the Democratic Party does not necessarily mean that it is true.

To that end, as I did in "They’re Poor, Scared, Less Educated, and Left Behind: New Polling Data from Gallup on Conservatives and Red State America," let's work through the basic premises and first principles of The New Republic's article "The White Working Class: The Group That Will Decide Obama's Fate" to get a more accurate sense of the political terrain.

Some questions:

1. Who is the white working class? While we may have images of construction workers and rough neck blue collar types interspersed with Roseanne Barr typecast in our collective consciousness, how do we actually define this group? Is "working class" primarily about income or is it about intangibles of taste and leisure...what Pierre Bourdieu famously described as "habitus?"

Moreover, is "working class" just as ambiguous a phrase as "middle class?" A series of words that refers to both everyone and no one? While The New Republic does a great job of painting a potentially dire picture for the Democrats among the white working classes (however defined), there is a complication that must be engaged.

2. In these conversations, who in fact comprises the "white working class" is vaguely and poorly explained. As a substitute for precision, there exists an assumption that this group consists of white Americans who have not earned a college degree. Despite a broadening in access to colleges and universities in the United States, this group constitutes a majority of Americans, with a broad range of incomes, resources, and social capital.

As Larry Bartels deftly argues, "working class whites" is a catch-all phrase that does not stand up to rigor as we try to predict their support (or not) for the Democratic Party. In fact, when one actually uses income as a definition for working class (looking at those families who make less than 35,000 dollars a year) the Democrats have an advantage in support among this group. Moreover, when defined this way white working class voters are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

3. Forget Joe the Plumber, what the Democrats should really be concerned about is the degree to which the GOP is actually peeling white voters away from the Democratic Party across all income levels. While there may be an image of a white working class guy or poor Christian Evangelical who is drunk on all of this Culture War talk looming in the heads of the Left-Progressive pundit classes (to the degree those appeals hold any real traction for voters), in fact it is among the middle and upper classes that the "values" narrative holds the most purchase.

4. Race wins again. There is a reason that the politics of white racial resentment, "real America" nativism, the mantle of a faux American "silent majority" exceptionalism, and the GOP's Lee Atwater dog whistle politics are the bread and butter of the Tea Party Republican Party: the Southern Strategy works. The gains of the Republican Party over the last few decades among white voters can largely be explained by how it was able to use a backlash against The Civil Rights Movement and The Black Freedom Struggle to flip the Jim Crow South solidly red and Republican.

The myth of the ill-informed, false consciousness possessed, Right-wing Reagan Democrat white working class vote is compelling for a variety of reasons. Primarily, it stands up to the power of personal anecdote--who doesn't know one of those "confused," "angry," "white working class" types who digests a steady diet of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, believes that the AstroTurf, Koch Brothers funded Tea Party is a grassroots movement, and who hates unions and the evil "big government" all the while receiving Social Security, getting a pension, or working as a state employee?

The myth of the white working class vote is also validating to liberals and progressives: "Those white working class voters are just confused; If they could only be liberated from the Right-wing echo chamber their votes would make sense as the choices of reasonable and rational individuals."

These narratives are also seductive...and easier to grapple with than hard questions such as this one: While the Right is plain out wrong on just about every public policy issue relating to the economy and job growth, how is it that they are able to consistently win elections and attract voters from the Democrats?

The puzzle of the white working class and their support for the Democratic Party in the Age of Obama is both fascinating and compelling because it nakedly plays on America's national obsession with race. The struggle against white supremacy and to become a more inclusive and truly democratic society has been one of the central tensions in American society.

Consequently, the echoes of history are strong here: whiteness was created and has worked precisely to smooth over class differences by encouraging white people to ally with one another on the basis of perceived skin color and racial group membership. While the psychic and material wages of Whiteness were grand, they were not always in the service of the Common Good and/or the long-term material interests of the white poor and working classes.

Votes matter. Of course the Democrats should be working to expand their base across all income levels of the voting public. But an obsession with the white working class is a distraction, a political unicorn and Moby Dick sized fool's errand that is energy misspent. In the time of the Great Recession, with an effective unemployment rate reaching at least 20 percent in many communities, the Democrats and Barack Obama need to be on the offensive.

The Republican Party is waging class warfare on behalf of the plutocrats and corporateocracy--and in the name of gangster capitalism--against the American middle, working classes, and the poor. The rape and destruction of the social safety net is the ultimate goal of the contemporary Ayn Rand infused Republican Party.

In the United States, when the top 1/100th of 1 percent of earners make an average of 31 million dollars a year, and the remaining 90 percent of Americans earn 31,000 dollars a year there is class warfare of the few against the many. When worker's wages have been stagnant for 40 years while corporate CEO's enjoy record salaries by outsourcing American jobs overseas there is class warfare of the few against the many.

The Democrats need to 1) forget their obsessive worries about the white working class vote; and 2) focus on the cruel realities of the new economy and how best to communicate their plans to correct it. Given the facts, those should be easy slogans to write and campaign commercials to program. In the time of The Great Recession, the Republican Party has blood on its hands from vivisecting the American Dream. The Democrats just need to show the body. This is a simple plan...and it is theirs to lose and bungle.


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Since I was back in Nebraska last weekend for a family event, I got to hear the political talk of some authentic members of the white working class.

My grandparents were all FDR Democrats, their children are pretty much all Republicans. From what I've seen, much of the turn has to do with a deeply held belief that liberals are "not like us." You are correct that much of this has a racial subtext. You are also correct that this crosses class lines. Case in point: one of my uncles, by far the wealthiest of my relations, routinely expressed his repulsion with the president in bigoted terms.

However, class and culture do still have much to do with it, especially in rural areas. There is a growing paranoia that "they" are coming in from the cities and enforcing their non-traditional way of life on "us." That mentality drives pro-gun, anti-evolution, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama feeling. There is a great deal of frustration with a perceived lack of fairness, but the government is the primary, and pretty much only target of this viriol. (Corporate America isn't even mentioned! One of my working class aunts even extolled the virtues of Wal-Mart.)

I would like to see political opinion broken down not only by race and class, but also by geographic region. Rural whites are indeed sheltered from many outside influences, and listening to Rush and Fox News is not a political statement, but part of what one needs to do to fit in.

I've been rambling, but I basically think you're right that the "white working class vote" is chimerical, but I think that there are some real ramifications from the culture wars if they are seen as an urban/rural or coastal/interior divide in addition to a playground for racialized resentment, rather than one based on social class.

Shady_Grady said...

People across racial lines are basically concerned with what's good for them. Appeals to justice or compassion have to overcome that.

As stated the Southern strategy works but the other point is that some whites increasingly see the Democratic Party as hostile to them. Worries over affirmative action and illegal immigration are symptomatic of this.

For example there have been more recent reports from the 2010 census that white children are now a minority in the US. Some people cheer this; others are less sanguine. How will most whites view this? Time will tell but I don't think their outlook will be very positive.

In the long term a Republican Party based on "white" interests will lose b/c of shifting demographics. But in the short term, say next 10-30 years, I would look for more explicit Republican appeals to white nationalism and more explicit Democratic appeals to minority (Hispanic) interests. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Oh Crap said...

"Why the Democrats Need to Stop Hand-Wringing and Losing Sleep Over the White Working Class Vote"

TBH, I would have said "why the white Democrats need to stop hand-wringing and losing sleep over the white working class vote".

I look at it this way: it's also time for whites to stop acting shocked and surprised and clutch the pearls with every news story of emails of Obama as a monkey, white politicians spewing hate towards immigrants, and willing Black Republicans being the mouthpieces for articulating their old religious bigotries.

60 years of post-Brown and surburban/exurban white flight, 40+ years of affirmative action, none of this is new news...we are used to this behavior from them; the only thing new about it is the scale. It's not like anything new has been done that we have not been pointing to for generations.

chaunceydevega said...

@Werner. You are right, thus why we need to talk about how different counties and regions within states can be so divergent politically. But, and this is why I shared some of these findings, is that the argument is so counterintuitive to what the mass media and the Democrat talking head crowd has been emphasizing. I remember how hot Frank's book was and all the others that followed on the Bubba vote. What to do when the conventional wisdom is exposed as faulty?

@Shady. Absolutely. The white nationalist rhetoric is already here and is becoming increasingly less polite. Thus they will need more brown and black faces to parrot it for the purposes of cover and legitimacy.

@Ohcrap. Whiteness covers both parties, thus even the white dems are loathe to call out their racial brethren on the other side of the aisle for their obvious b.s.

nomad said...

The thing I hate most about Obama -and there are many- is that he puts a black face on Western imperialism/racism.

nomad said...

Oh!Oh!Oh! Benjamin Woods phrases it so well at Black Agenda Reports. (Still don't know how to post links here.)
"Black servants of white power spread a fatal confusion." "Fatal" he saya.

xulon said...

I am a white working class guy. I wish Democrats would start hand-wringing and losing sleep over my vote. Obama has consistently turned his back on the working class - white and otherwise. Democrats in general don't worry about the working class vote and that is why they mainly ignore them and sell them out for phony "compromise" - which, of course, is better than the party with the philosophical commitment to destroy the working class but not by much. I appreciate AFL-CIO's change to support those who really support labor. These guys need to fear loss of votes and support.