Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class

By David Paul Kuhn - December 5, 2011

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Obama has a white, working-class problem. But a doctor cannot cure, or easily assuage, an illness that is not accurately diagnosed. Electoral issues are no different.

The data tell the tale. It’s not all Archie’s fault. (And poor Edith deserves none of the blame.) As I detailed in my 2007 book, “The Neglected Voter,” Democrats lost more white voters over the past half-century in the middle-income bracket than the lower-third income bracket. Between 1948 and 2004, Democrats’ share of the white, working-class vote fell among men by a quarter but it did not fall among women. In the middle-income bracket, white men left the Democrats at twice the rate of white women.

Clinton won the largest share of blue-collar whites in the past quarter-century. And yet he still only won 44 percent that year, 1996. That statistic is especially striking if you step outside the United States. America is the only Western nation where the liberal party consistently loses the workingman (and woman). No comparable European democracy has seen the conservative party unfailingly win the Archies and Ediths for more than three decades. Now Democrats seem to be on the verge of resigning themselves to this trend.

There are myriad macro reasons for this exceptional fact of American politics: a center-right nation, the two-party system, the modern contest for identity blocs, the unusual eminence of cultural issues in American politics on both the right and the left. But it’s also valuable to consider the micro picture -- the voters themselves.

Blue-collar whites are more likely than their upscale white counterparts to live in rural or exurban areas, to hunt, to attend church, experience more familial upheaval in their lives (higher divorce and teen pregnancy rates), suffer the hemorrhaging of blue-collar industrial jobs, and compete with illegal immigrants for low-wage employment.

The Great Recession brought new, and rare, emphasis to the economic side of this world. Blue-collar workers account for seven of every 10 jobs lost in this recession, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Blue-collar men -- black, Hispanic, white -- account for six in every 10 job losses. White, working-class males account for about four of every 10. This helps explain why only three in 10 working-class whites approve of Obama today.

The Great Recession provided Democrats a chance to reconnect with working and middle-class whites. But this chance was squandered by the end of 2009. Obama focused his first year on the Democratic issue of the age (universal health care) instead of the issue of the time (the dire economy). That mistake, like progressives’ over-reading of Obama’s 2008 victory, continues to distort Democrats’ understanding of the daunting electoral terrain before them.

The Crash and the Fraught Road Around Bunkers

Today’s liberal wonks continue to pin the loss of Obama’s mandate on the economy but ignore how the economy created that mandate. Three years ago, with Obama’s election, the authors of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” argued that their majority had indeed emerged. Teixeira soon doubled-down with a detailed 2009 report titled “New Progressive America.” The next year, Republicans won the largest midterm victory in post-World War II America. Why this chasm between liberal seers and reality?

Progressive analysts habitually omit the keystone fact of the 2008 election: The bulk of Obama’s significant electoral gains came after the mid-September stock market crash. It seems impossible to right this wrongheaded conventional wisdom. (I know, I’ve tried.) The reports by Teixeira, alone, total over 100 pages; yet the stock market crash is ignored throughout. That oversight leads analysts to wrongly use Obama’s electoral gains in 2008 as a base line when they seem more likely to constitute an outlier.

Yet the “Path to 270” study also carries an intriguing proposition. It argues that the current shift in demographics means that Obama could win the popular vote even if he merely wins the same share of whites as John Kerry in 2004, providing all else remains constant. But all else would likely not remain constant in that event. After all, as Obama’s white support has declined, so has his Latino support. Half of Hispanics approve of Obama today; three in four once did.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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