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Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class

Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class

By David Paul Kuhn - December 5, 2011


It’s an enduring myth of modern American politics that the white working class is what stands between Democrats and a majority. Even before the character of Archie Bunker became a liberal scapegoat on television, the demise of the FDR coalition was reduced to bubba blowback.

In a sense, “All in the Family” captures decades of Democratic deliberation. The debate between old Archie (Joe Sixpack) and the young, college-educated Michael Stivic (hippie) defined the 1970s sitcom. The Democratic establishment decided that it had to choose between the two archetypes. It bet on Michael. And the Nixon-Reagan coalition dominated American politics for more than four decades.

A recent Democratic study has reignited this old debate. In effect, the report argues we are finally living in Michael the hippie’s America. Democrats, it implies, should invest their future in a coalition of college-educated Michaels, his wife Gloria, his friends of color, basically anyone not an Archie or an Edith.

Last week, veteran political writer Tom Edsall added fuel to that debate with a smart overview of this budding Democratic consensus. He led his New York Times story with this provocative tease: “Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.”

In effect, this “adios, Archie” mindset has been Democrats’ de facto strategy since 1984. But those voting blocs -- minorities, youth, the emerging tide of educated white women -- were always considered carrots to supplement, not supplant traditional, working-class Democrats. Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign strategists placed these voters, particularly “soccer moms,” in a preferred bracket they termed “swing one,” augmented by white men and working-class whites, or the “swing two” bracket. But now, demographic shifts have led Democrats to conclude that they no longer need the latter.

It worked for Clinton. But he had a booming economy at his back, a middling Republican opponent, and a third-party candidate who siphoned more votes from the right than the left. Yet Clinton still failed to win a majority of the vote or a majority of white women.

Since then, however, America has grown browner, more educated, less married and more secular. Democrats are depending upon these changes to fortify Obama’s presidency. A weak Republican nominee (see Gingrich, Newt) would certainly help Obama’s cause.

It is those demographic shifts that led influential progressive analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin to write a report titled “The Path to 270.” The detailed study essentially argues that Obama cannot afford to completely lose working-class whites but he can, and should, salvage re-election by seeking supporters elsewhere. Teixeira first argued this strategy in a book he co-authored in 2002, “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” A decade later, Democrats are still waiting.

Misunderstanding of Democrats’ “White Problem”

The “Emerging Democratic Majority” was a formative text for a generation of liberal thinkers. Yet its premise was fatally flawed. It argued that when whites become more educated they become more liberal, and thus more likely to vote for Democrats. This has proven true of white women, but not of white men -- a trend that helps explain the persistence of Democrats’ white-male gap.

Consider Obama’s current job approval rating in the Gallup Poll. Only 35 percent of white, college-educated men approve of him, compared to 46 percent of white, college-educated women. This latter group has a view of Obama more similar to Hispanics’ than their white, male, upscale counterparts. This trend has defined voting behavior for decades.

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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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