During every presidential election campaign in recent memory the pundit classes have tried to figure out the riddle of the white working class (male) voter. Why do they support Republicans? Is the support by white people who are not "middle class" for a political party whose economic policies grossly favor the rich a sign of false consciousness? Is this dynamic a function of how white race prejudice is manipulated in the service of white identity politics?
We have discussed this dynamic many times. In fact, given the perennial nature of the white working class who vote against their economic self-interest meme, many people who write about American politics could simply go to their archives, update essays written several years ago, and they would likely still read as current.
The topic is worthy of recurring discussion because it hits on the intimate relationship between race and class in the West, specifically, and in the United States, in particular. Race and class evolved together from the 17th century onward; in all, the latter is the crucible in which the former was made. We cannot escape this shadow even in the Age of Obama.
To my eyes, this puzzle, while fascinating, is not particularly difficult to unpack. The "white working class" as understood by Thomas Frank and others is often vaguely (if not incorrectly) specified. When the white working class is defined as those white men without a college degree, then yes they do tend to support Republicans much more than Democrats.
When this same cohort is defined by income, then the white poor, as poor folk generally do, tend to overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.
The fear by Democratic strategists that the Republicans are making huge inroads with the white working class can be largely explained by 1) how the South was flipped to the GOP over the last few decades; and 2) that the Republicans have been pealing away support from the Democrats with voters at almost all income levels.
The other key element for deciphering white working class support for Mitt Romney is that white people are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country's history. They have uniquely benefited from the Racial State and its focused efforts to create wealth, generate income for, and transfer assets (almost) exclusively to white people from the Homestead Act, through to the invention of the white middle class in the post World War 2 era, and into the present.
White privilege is deeply attune to any threat at its status. Consequently, as recent public opinion data details, whites see racism as a "zero sum" game where racial equality means that there are clear winners and losers. Here, a (perceived) end to discrimination against people of color is interpreted as a threat to white people's group position and the inauguration of "reverse racism" as the status quo ante.
White Americans, and white men in particular, are also more likely to be less hopeful about the future during the time of the Great Recession. Interestingly, while black and brown folks are suffering much more, it is white men who are feeling the most aggrieved. Finally, despite Barack Obama's careful avoidance of any type of serious policy advocacy on behalf of people of color, the symbolism of a black President, and America's demographic shifts, have primed a deep reservoir of unconscious and implicit racial bias that plays off of white racial resentment, and makes the white working class less likely to support the Democratic Party.
Last week, The Washington Post offered up another chapter in this long running conversation. Cohen and Tumulty's article had a gem of writing that neatly captured the diametrically opposed life-worlds, as well as the differing political calculi of (a particular cohort) of white voters as compared to people of color.
Are the masses asses?
Fifty percent of all voters say Obama would do more to advance the interests of the middle class more generally, and 44 percent say so of Romney.
On that question, Obama has an advantage of 53 percent to 41 percent among those who think their foothold in the middle class is relatively secure, while the two candidates divide about equally among those struggling to stay there.
That overall parity, as has been the case in the past, disguises a vast racial divide. Among white voters trying to stay in the middle class, Romney is considered the better candidate for that group by a 20-point margin; Obama is preferred by better than 3 to 1 among middle-class nonwhite voters, regardless of their sense of security.
Whites and nonwhites — as well as voters across party lines — agree that Romney would do more than Obama to advocate for the economic interests of wealthy Americans.
By a 23-point margin, voters say it’s Romney, not Obama, who would do more to advance the interests of Wall Street.Mitt Romney would actually continue many of the Bush era policies that created the Great Recession. His austerity politics, Ayn Rand dreams, and naked desire to further starve demand by forcing income and resources further up to the plutocrats would make the economy worst and not better. I grant that the American voting public is not sophisticated. Nor, do they have a deep grasp of public policy. But as revealed by this survey, even they know that Obama is more likely to help the middle class, and Romney is an exclusive agent of the rich.
Yet, it seems that white racial group affinity trumps economic self-interest for many white voters.
Reversing the gaze. What of minority voters? They have suffered the most under the Obama administration, but are among his most ardent supporters. There is much evidence that people of color, both as a life necessity in a country where politics was/is very personal, and because we are keen students of power, are quite sophisticated in our political assessments. Obama may have had his finger in a bursting damn, and most certainly has done little as a "race man," but could it be that people of color understand that he is the better candidate when faced with the hellish alternative of a Tea Party GOP President?
In all, the model of a "rational" voters may be misspecified. Those white voters who support culture war issues and will do anything to get the black guy out of the White House, even at their own financial expense, may simply have a different set of values upon which they base their political behavior. Likewise, those black and brown folks who support Obama despite the economy may be moved by racial symbolism (never forgetting that white voters are deeply motivated by White identity politics too) and a sense of realpolitik that sees Barack as the best of two less than ideal options.
Who are we to judge?