Who Is the Working Class, Anyway?
And do the proles really hate the party of the working man?
Timothy Noah chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
At a San Francisco fundraiser on April 6, Obama uttered his now-famous remark about white working-class Pennsylvanians:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This theory of white working-class alienation from the Democratic Party derives from Thomas Frank's compellingly argued 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas?To Frank, the proletariat suffers from a form of "derangement" in believing that its woes derive from the decline of traditional values—patriotism, organized religion, self-reliance, the heterosexual two-parent nuclear family, etc.—when the true source of its troubles is a set of economic policies that favors the rich. Republicans have come to win blue-collar votes in elections by portraying Democratic tolerance of racial and cultural diversity as depravity—"abortion, amnesty, and acid," in the famous slogan used against George McGovern in 1972. (This is not a new trick.) GOP officeholders typically set their conservative cultural agenda aside after the election is over to concentrate on cutting taxes, reducing regulation, busting unions, and so forth. But the white working class continues to fall for the bait-and-switch because the demoralized Democratic Party lacks the courage to lure it back with a muscular appeal based on economic justice.
Frank's is probably the dominant theory today about how the Democrats lost their core working-class constituency. This is in large part because Frank avoids the usual euphemisms and pieties to make his case with clarity, humor, and anger. These qualities render What's the Matter With Kansas? insanely readable, but they also make it unwise for any politician to adopt its diagnosis as his own. Working-class people don't like being told they're deranged (or "bitter," to use Obama's term), even—make that especially—if it's true. Obama will therefore have to either shut up about Democrats' struggle to win working-class votes—that's the usual tack, and the one I'd probably advise—or find himself another theory. Below, three possible candidates:
1) The white working class likes being pandered to even less than it likes being insulted. This is the official line of the Democratic Leadership Council and other party centrists. One heard it a lot after the 2000 election and, to a lesser extent, after the 2004 election. It is the argument that ended the career of Bob Shrum, a political strategist with a penchant for putting left-populist rhetoric into his candidates' mouths; Shrum was a key figure in Gore's 2000 campaign and Kerry's 2004 campaign, and his input was widely blamed for contributing to their losses. Shrum's recent memoir, No Excuses, serves up some evidence that a class-based "on your side" pitch will often work well for Democrats running in Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. That's how Shrum got to be a hot political consultant in the first place. Shrum argues that it can work at the national level, too, and, given recent signs of a leftward drift at the grass roots, that may be truer today than it was in 2000 and 2004. But nobody's ever pulled it off, including Shrum.
Hillary Clinton has been attacking Obama nonstop since his "bitter" remark surfaced, even to the point of boasting that her father taught her to shoot right there in Pennsylvania ("behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton"). This last prompted a reporter to ask when she'd last attended church or fired a gun, a question she refused to answer, and gave Obama an opening to mock her posturing: "Hillary Clinton is out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday." If proles don't like being pandered to, mightn't Clinton's overkill hurt her? The logic is seldom applied to the "values" agenda, but there's no reason it shouldn't be. One possible indicator: A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online poll shows (at this writing) 43 percent of respondents identifying Clinton as the most "out of touch with the voters of Pennsylvania," against 28 percent identifying Obama and 20 percent identifying John McCain.
2) The white working class isn't the problem; Dixie is. This theory has been forwarded by Paul Krugman and Thomas Schaller, among others. It would not be wise for Obama to embrace this theory before he locks up the nomination, lest he forsake Southern superdelegates or primary delegates in North Carolina and West Virginia, whose contests still lie ahead. (Obama has tended to do particularly well in the South in part because African-Americans are well-represented in the Southern Democratic Party base.) But after the convention, Obama, if he is the Democratic nominee, might as well write off the South, because Democrats can't win there. Princeton's Larry Bartels made the case two years ago in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. According to Bartels, the white voters lacking college degrees who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves are nearly all Southerners. Outside the South, the decline among voters in this group who support Democratic presidential candidates is less than 1 percent. Moreover, if the white working class's interest in "guns or religion" indicates derangement or bitterness, then the white working class isn't very deranged or bitter. According to Bartels, there is no evidence that social issues outweigh economic ones among white voters lacking college degrees. Social issues have admittedly become more important to voters during the past two decades, but the derangement/bitterness index has risen most steeply not for the proles but for the country-club set. For example, white voters with college degrees give more than twice as much weight to the issue of abortion than white voters lacking college degrees. Most devastating to Frank's analysis, "most of his white working-class voters see themselves as closer to the Democratic party on social issues like abortion and gender roles but closer to the Republican party on economic issues" (italics mine).
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Hillary Clinton by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images. Photograph of Barack Obama on Slate's home page by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.