...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.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.
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.
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.