This Ross Douthat piece really got me thinking, particularly after I followed some of the links he used to substantiate his argument that the Democrats share responsibility for the increasing racial polarization of American politics. Before we get to responsibility, we should note that if the 2012 electorate had voted in 1972, George McGovern would have beaten Richard Nixon. The country has changed dramatically, and it’s not just racial demographics. In 2012, more college-educated women voted than non-college educated men. We’re not living in Archie Bunker’s America anymore.
All the linked pieces (above) make the same basic point. The Democrats showed in 2012 that they no longer need to care very much what the Archie Bunkers of the country think about politics. They can win without those voters. At least, they can win without them up to a point. Sean Trende has been tantalizing conservatives with optimistic assessments of where that point is, but even he knows that maximizing the white vote can do no better than claw the Republicans back to near-parity, and probably not for more than one more election cycle. I’d also point out that Hillary Clinton will swamp whatever gains the Republicans can make among disaffected lower class whites simply by appealing to more whites overall. Her challenge will be to maintain the enthusiasm of the Obama coalition while capitalizing on her ability to bring in elements of the Clinton coalition that have wandered away.
In any case, Mr. Douthat makes a very fundamental and basically offensive mistake when he equates the Democrats’ change of strategy (they no longer work very hard to get the “downscale” white vote) with complicity in the racial polarization of the electorate. It pains me even to have to say it again, but it’s been a mantra on the left for eons that white working class voters are convinced to vote against their own economic interests by appeals to social, religious, and racial values and resentments. That’s what the War on Christmas, Welfare Queens, and the Food Stamp President are all about. It’s what Fox News serves for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack. The Democrats are not abandoning lower class whites when they offer them subsidies to buy health care or build a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect them against rapacious lenders and fraudsters. In the sense that Democrats are abandoning white lower class voters, it’s only in the sense that they are no longer willing to pander to their racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and hawkish militant nationalism. It’s too much work to deprogram folks who have been marinating in hate radio and Fox News, and it is no longer necessary.
The truth is, the Democratic Party’s reliance on the votes of downtrodden people of color guarantees that they will pursue policies that are helpful to downtrodden whites. In economic terms, there is no color in policies that help people afford health care or avoid getting ripped off. That’s why Douthat has to talk about coal and social issues to make his point.
Where the pre-Obama party still made room for immigration skeptics and coal-country populists, the Obama-era Democrats have pushed in policy directions calculated to alienate many of the swing voters who cast ballots for Byron Dorgan in the past, or Joe Manchin or Mark Pryor in the present. Where the pre-Obama party spoke the language of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion and basically set gun control aside as a losing issue, the Obama Democrats have mostly dropped the “rare” part and, post-Newtown, taken up the gun-control cause anew. And so on.
There’s a nugget of a point in there, but the Democratic Party as a party has been pro-choice, pro-environment, and skeptical of 2nd Amendment absolutists for 40 years. Again, the party isn’t pandering to voters on those issues any more, but they are still representing their economic interests much better than the Republicans. The truth is that the Democrats could do a lot more to help out lower class whites if they didn’t have to worry about getting swamped by corporate money, or if corporate money didn’t keep so many Republicans in office that the Democrats can’t pass any working class-friendly legislation.
Other than the brief “bitter-clinger” moment, that was supposed to be private, President Obama has done nothing intentional to alienate white people or racially polarize the nation, and neither has his party. If there’s a group that has a right to feel singled out, it’s the people making more than $250,000 a year that were told to pay more in taxes. By definition, those are not working class voters.
But Republicans and conservatives just waged and are continuing to wage a brutal campaign to suppress the black and Latino vote. They constantly insult anyone who uses, however briefly, any kind of public assistance. They badly insulted the black community by treating the president with no respect. They jump on the slightest hint of race-based solidarity from the president.
Their strategy has failed, and they are doubling down on it. They are making us worse people and a worse nation, and they deserve ALL the blame for it.