Wayne O'Leary

Democrats and White Guys

It’s become a commonplace of political analysis that the white working class, particularly white men, now vote Republican. Anecdotal evidence is widespread. A commentator on MSNBC, the “liberal” cable network, recently dismissed white, male voters without college educations as natural Trump supporters beyond the reach of Democratic candidates; the comment elicited no challenge and passed without discussion. Others have observed that half or more of the attendees at Trump rallies appear to be blue-collar voters.

More scientific evidence of this widely assumed phenomenon exists as well. According to the Pew Research Center, white men lacking college degrees currently favor Republicans over Democrats in party affiliation by 54 to 33 percent. And analysis of the 2012 presidential contest has revealed that nearly two-thirds of non-college-educated whites nationwide supported the Romney-Ryan ticket. Until a generation ago, they would have been considered base Democratic voters.

A few party elders are aware of the problem. Bill Richardson, former Democratic governor of New Mexico (2003-11), worried aloud not long ago about the absence of successful Democrats able to appeal to the white male vote in the South, as well as in Midwestern swing states like Ohio. “We are losing the white male vote in droves,” he lamented in a New York Times interview, adding “We can’t just become the minority advocate party.”

Richardson blamed the persistently sluggish economy and the continuing rise of economic inequality, both hitting the white working class hard in a time when Democrats have held the White House. Others offer different explanations — from Southern GOP exploitation of the president’s race to a belief his party is elitist and lacking in middle-class sympathies.

President Obama himself, after years of either ignoring or being unaware of the situation, has finally taken notice of it — unfortunately, a little late in his tenure to fashion a solution. In a December interview on National Public Radio, he honed in on Donald Trump’s divisive campaign, criticizing the leading Republican presidential contender for playing on the resentments and anxieties of white working-class men.

Highlighting wage and income stagnation, Obama admitted that blue-collar men “have a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck.” The resultant anger, frustration and fear, justified but misdirected, was, the president charged, being cynically taken advantage of by Trump.

True enough, but Obama failed to recognize or acknowledge the role he and his party have played in the creation of today’s asymmetrical economy over the course of a generation. It includes a failure to encourage and defend the labor movement; a propensity for trade agreements harmful to domestic manufacturing; the abandonment of serious antitrust enforcement to protect jobs; and a preoccupation with cultivating high-tech entrepreneurs, software start-ups, and the “new economy” symbolized by Silicon Valley.

The ramifications of this 30-year detour from traditional concerns are obvious in both the condition of working-class Americans and their reaction to the position in which they find themselves. An indication of blue-collar malaise was revealed in a startling study last fall by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who reported dramatically increased substance abuse and rising death rates from suicide, drugs, and alcohol among middle-aged whites, especially those with lower educational levels. The cause pointed strongly in the direction of financial distress.

Although the connection is admittedly tenuous, there appears to be a direct link between white lower-middle-class angst and desertion of the Democratic party, most noticeably at the state and local level. Republicans now hold 33 of the 50 governorships, 10 more than in 2009, and Democrats control fewer state legislatures (about a third) than they have in a century, losing over 800 (or half) of their elected members during the Obama years.

This is in stark contrast to the Roosevelt era, when the modern Democratic party was formed by forging a coalition of the have-nots. FDR accomplished this by replacing ethnic prejudices with class consciousness, uniting black and white, immigrant and native American — something the old Populists had failed to do in sufficient numbers a generation earlier — and subordinating (in the words of eminent political scientist Samuel Lubell) “the old nativist prejudices of race and religion, which had divided the lower half of American society for so long.”

The New Deal Democrats solidified their winning coalition not only by sharpening the class disparities between workers and “economist royalists,” but also by championing broadly inclusive programs and policies that benefitted most Americans and not just selective interest groups - - for example: public power, rural electrification, union recognition and collective bargaining, wage-and-hour laws, unemployment insurance, infrastructure projects, and (most of all) Social Security.

This was markedly different from the next great period of progressive political advancement, the Great Society years of Lyndon Johnson. In his recent history of the Johnson era, The Fierce Urgency of Now (Penguin, 2015), Julian Zelizer recounts the disastrous mid-term election of 1966, when LBJ’s congressional Democrats lost their liberal ideological majority despite massive legislative accomplishments. As interpreted by Zelizer, the historic setback was in large part due to the loss of constituents the party had taken for granted: working class, unionized, Northern whites, loyal to the New Deal, but suspicious that the Great Society programs they were paying for weren’t intended for their benefit.

To a considerable extent (Medicare excepted), they were right. Since the New Deal, government initiatives supported by progressives have operated on the assumption that majority whites (particularly white males) are doing well, that the system, for the most part, is working splendidly for them. The job of activist government, therefore, is to help others in society — Blacks, Latinos, women, gays, immigrants, the poor — who have been excluded. As a result, progressive legislation tends to be narrowly targeted to specific groups, creating inevitable antagonisms of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Unfortunately, this approach extends to the Obama administration, whose embattled Affordable Care Act appears to too many to be a welfare-like program enacted for particular categories of citizens, rather than a broad, comprehensive entitlement. That’s its essential vulnerability. It’s also, ironically, the best argument for replacing it with a Medicare-for-All system equally beneficial to everyone, and one way for Democrats to win back those working-class voters.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2016


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