Two Cheers for the Decline of White Working-Class Voters

Ruy Teixeira, the progressive political scientist who has most consistently pushed the argument that a Democratic majority would not be possible unless Dems paid more attention to white working-class voters and won a larger portion of their vote, has changed his mind.  Co-author in 2000 of The Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, Teixeira has been tracking the intersections of race, class, and gender in electoral politics with increasing persistence and rigor, looking for combinations that would provide the basis for a new New Deal.  His latest effort, New Progressive America, argues that demographic, geographic, and attitudinal changes in the past 20 years make a new long-lasting progressive era not only possible, but highly likely.

Teixeira’s new study walks us through a dizzying array of census and exit poll data, considering the rise of “millennials” (those born between 1978 and 2000), the proliferation of “fast-growing dynamic metropolitan areas,” and the long march of women into the work force and the professions.  But key to his rosy progressive scenario is a creeping progressivism among middle-class whites, a rapid increase in minorities as a proportion of the electorate, and the “rapid decline” of the white working class as a percentage of both the population and the electorate.  As the percentage of voters who are working class and white declines, America is becoming more progressive.  Here’s why.

The single most important part of the Republican Party’s political base today is the white working class.  There are all sorts of controversies and quibbles about how to define both class and race. And dividing the entire electorate (125 million voters) into any four categories is going to grossly simplify reality by abstracting from a maze of other important variables.  (See the national CNN Exit Polls, from which the table below is derived.) But if we use the possession or absence of a bachelor’s degree as the divider between middle class and working class, here’s the basic racial and class breakdown of McCain voters in 2008:

Race & Class

% of all voters

% who voted for John McCain

White Working Class

39

58

White Middle Class

35

51

Nonwhite Middle Class

9

22

Nonwhite Working Class

16

16

As these statistics show, amidst all the talk about America now being a “post-racial society,” there is a huge gap in the way whites and minorities vote, and this gap is largest within the multiracial American working class.

The white working class is the largest racial-class grouping, and it is the only one that gave John McCain a substantial majority.  If white workers had merely split their vote, as the white middle class did in 2008, the Republican Party would no longer be competitive.  It could no longer be a force for opposing increases in the minimum wage, universal national health insurance with a Medicare-like public option, the Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to form a union, a Making Work Pay tax credit, the creation of “green” manufacturing and construction jobs to fight global warming – and numerous other actions and proposals by President Obama that are intended to benefit the American working class of all hues, including white voters who support the Republican party.  For a progressive Democrat, it seems like the majority of white workers just don’t see their own class interests clearly.

Indeed, this data suggests that progressives like me were wrong when we argued that the Democrats could attract more votes from working-class whites if they presented a strong pro-worker economic agenda.  While Obama’s platform may not have been as strongly pro-worker as progressives can imagine, it was dramatically more pro-worker than the McCain-GOP approach, and it didn’t win the support of working-class whites.   A better explanation might be that the Obama-Democrat economic program was not featured strongly and clearly enough to penetrate a media fog obsessed with political tactics and insecure about reporting real policy differences.  As I pointed out during the election, important aspects of Obama’s campaign platform were “maddeningly vague,” and political reporters did little or nothing to press for details that might have been relevant to workers.  Still, how clear do politicians have to be in contrasting a “tax cut for 95 percent of all Americans” with “Drill, baby, drill”?

Why the white working class in its majority is still so enamored of the Republican Party is a complicated question. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of race.  As Sherry Linkon has pointed out, the easy attribution of greater racism among white workers than among white professionals, lacking evidence as it does, probably tells us more about middle-class class bias than about the white working class.  Instead, this may be an issue of geography: 57% of white workers in Massachusetts voted for Obama, but only 9% voted for him in Alabama.  Finally, as a whole, large majorities of white workers have been voting for the GOP in presidential elections for most of the past 50 years, beginning in 1952. (See Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, page 70, and Teixeira and Abramowitz, The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.)

Still, workers of all hues have good reasons to be more than a little skeptical of promises from Democratic politicians.  Maybe things will change if Democrats deliver on their pro-worker program.  Let’s hope so, because, as Teixeira still insists, despite declining numbers, the white working class will remain a very large slice of the electorate.  And, a unified and  mobilized multiracial working class is still our one best hope for making a world that, in the words of the black man who is now our president, actually does “honor and reward work, not just wealth.”

Jack Metzgar

This entry was posted in Class at the Intersections, Jack Metzgar, Working-class politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Two Cheers for the Decline of White Working-Class Voters

  1. Pingback: Griffin tells BBC that immigrant boats should be sunk - Page 15

  2. Roger Davidson says:

    One ignores the white working class (or antagonizes them ala “so shut up and vote for the Democrat, its in your self-interest”) at one’s political peril.

    In the fall of 1984, NYC’s progressive Village Voice ran a cover pic of a smiling Mondale, with a story about the disparate elements that would elect him.

    But he was seen as trying to be “all things to all people” and won only MN and DC, also getting only 41% of the national popular vote in a two-way race.

    Like

  3. Freddi Brown-Carter says:

    “Instead, this may be an issue of geography: 57% of white workers in Massachusetts voted for Obama, but only 9% voted for him in Alabama. ”
    While I agree that racism is too easy an answer,it is certainly noteworthy that the geography shows Obama doing very poorly among white workers in the Confederacy.

    Like

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