Empathetic Indifference: Why the Democrats Lost

In 2008 white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Iowa gave Barack Obama 52% of their vote – and that was pretty important because in both states, working-class whites were a majority of all voters.   In 2010 they were even larger majorities, but they gave Democratic candidates  only 40% of their votes in Wisconsin and 32% in Iowa.

Though especially striking, these huge swings are pretty typical of Midwestern states – where, except for Illinois, whites without bachelor’s degrees (the reigning definition of the electoral “working class”) constitute a majority of all voters.  In the Great Lakes states over the past two decades, there has been a slow but substantial drift of white voters, including working-class whites, toward the Democratic Party.  That drift halted (or at least paused) big time this year.  Why?

First, as Democracy Corps has documented (see “Graphs,” p.7), nearly every demographic group swung against Democrats in 2010, including declines of 3 and 4 percentage points among the core of the Party – African-Americans, Latinos, and union households.  The swing was just larger, more dramatic, and potentially more damaging among working-class whites in the industrial Midwest.  Given the ubiquity of the swing, any explanation needs to focus on large overarching causes that affect the entire electorate but have special force in the Midwest where the working class of all colors is such a large majority.

The consensus causal explanation among analysts and pundits on this score is, of course, the state of the economy.   But there are several variations of this explanation with important differences.

One variation is arithmetical mechanics:  an official unemployment rate of nearly 10% automatically leads to whoever is in charge being thrown out by voters, regardless of what they have or have not done.   With the inauguration of President Obama, the Democrats were clearly in charge in January 2009.  The official unemployment rate then was “only” 7.7%, and it steadily rose to 10% by the end of the year, where after a very slight improvement it has remained.   That economic number and its trajectory are highly predictive of electoral outcomes.  Period – end of story.

There is wisdom in the simplicity of this mechanistic explanation, and it should not be forgotten.    I am among those who think that Democratic economic policies in 2009 averted a much worse economic situation than would have occurred had the Republicans been in charge – or if there had been complete, instead of partial, gridlock.  That’s why I voted for Democrats, but I can understand why the “wisdom of crowds” might see voting as a kind of thumbs up – thumbs down affair, and not a comparison.  Indeed, as I voted for Democrats (a few of whom, like my Representative Danny Davis, are actually very good),  it felt like I was saying “everything is okay.”

Another variation of the it’s-the-economy explanation holds that the Obama administration was simply ineffective in explaining its various economic policies.  Endless punditry about “messaging” and “narratives” ranges from the mildly insightful to the disgustingly superficial and manipulative, but there is undoubtedly truth to the general proposition.  In particular, the President bragging on his accomplishments (which, as Rolling Stone has comprehensively summarized, are many) as life got palpably worse for workers and homeowners, not to mention the poor and unemployed, was certainly counterproductive when it was not outright maddening.

The third it’s-the-economy analysis points to the actual Obama macroeconomic policy, the “stimulus plan”: it was not big enough and too much money was spent on the wrong things to get the economy growing vigorously enough to bring down unemployment.  This is tricky territory, and I’m not competent to make the kinds of combined economic and political judgments that politicians have to make.  But if the mechanistic relationship between unemployment rates and electoral outcomes is as important as decades of statistics indicate, then a President and his party have to actually move the numbers – or at least try.

They did try in 2009.  Indeed, the Obama mistake was not in the original stimulus plan, which we now know averted a Great Recession but was not sufficient to move the economy forward.  Rather, the key mistake was later, in the President’s first full budget at the beginning of this year. After promising “to focus like a laser” on jobs and the economy when health care reform was passed, the President presented a budget that accepted 9% or 10% unemployment as the best he could do.  Eschewing a second stimulus plan, he rejected an economically robust and politically shrewd stimulus plan that was developed for him by the labor movement and its allies.

That plan would have invested $400 billion of borrowed money in job-creating activities, paid for over time by a permanent Financial Transactions Tax designed to reduce the kinds of speculative activity on Wall Street that helped drive our economy into the ground.  After the $400 billion stimulus was paid for, that tax on Wall Street would have produced more than $100 billion a year in government revenues, which could have been used to reduce the national debt.

It was not too late then to make a significant dent in unemployment, and it is not too late now.  The President could pursue a similar plan outlined by some of his most important allies.  Even the Federal Reserve Board is now pleading for a large deficit-financed job creation program in the short term that will reduce government deficits and debt in the long term, in part by growing the economy faster and stronger.

It’s true that Republicans will form a phalanx of opposition to any such plan, and even with a full-throated, whole-hearted effort by the President and his party, the chances of passage are well south of 50/50.  But the alternative for Democrats is to do what they did this year: to do next to nothing about unemployment and to be seen again as doing nothing as the jobless rate edges down to a projected 9.2% by the end of next year and not much below that in 2012.

The white working class, in the Midwest and elsewhere, swung decisively against Democrats in 2010 for pretty much the same reasons as almost everybody else did:  As they went to vote, there were not enough jobs for one of ten people who want to work and need to work, and the governing politicians in charge, all Democrats, didn’t seem to give a shit.  It’s not just the fact of such outrageously high and painful rates of unemployment.  It’s the passive acceptance of them, the serene, if empathetic, indifference.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies




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6 Responses to Empathetic Indifference: Why the Democrats Lost

  1. Pingback: Empathetic Indifference: Why the Democrats Lost (via Working-Class Perspectives) « Close Campsfield

  2. Jack Labusch says:

    Rick, you may be right about Obamacare I. But, if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say Obamacare II, outright nationalization of health care, is at least being thought about.
    President Obama, I think, was genuinely stung by the American Medical Association’s peremptory rejection—no explanation at all– of the public option just before he spoke to them. (My understanding is that the public option was a creature of the New America Foundation and similarly-minded folks, among them, the recently deceased Elizabeth Edwards.) He knows the terrain of autocratic lobbies, a clueless public, and gratuitous deaths and personal bankruptcies. Declining reimbursements to medical providers, a rigged-up debt or currency crisis with China, and the very recent Republican example of President Bush’s very swift economic interventions in the private sector may pave the way for America to join the rest of the modernized world in providing universal health care.


  3. Jack Labusch says:

    Betsy—Universal health activist Jill K. gave up completely on the prospect for health care change in October 2008, after tracking the shift of donor moneys to then Candidate Obama. Jill was among the most sincere universalists, motivated by religious conviction, and an upmarket Clevelander barely two degrees of separation removed from onetime Democrat contender John Kerry. The town hall meeting she organized in the early 2000s was the first clue I had that The Suits didn’t have a bloody clue what America’s group health insurance actually was.


  4. Rick says:

    What I don’t understand is why so many people continually look to government to solve their problems when it should be readily apparent to all that they do not give a shit. Mr. Metzgar’s essay centers around one principle, that government is the one who must solve the economic problems. Usually when government attempts to solve a problem they either make the problem worse or cause so much collateral damage as to make the solution not worth the effort.

    There is a growing realization that government solutions come at too high a price, and that those in government are the least qualified to implement any solutions. With both the chair of the ways and means committee and the Treasury secretary accused of tax cheating, the absolutely absurd notion that we have to beg legislators to read the legislation they vote upon, (come on, these people care less about the content of a bill affecting millions than they would about the content of their home mortgage), and the outright lies that Obamacare would both cut costs and improve service, it is no wonder why the American people have shown little faith in the current crop of legislators.

    I actually think that the two necessary steps to turn the economy around have taken place. The first step was to create a situation of gridlock where future cart upsetting pieces of legislation are not likely to pass, and the second is the tax deal just agreed to by the president. Both of these actions will serve to introduce a bit more stability to the marketplace and may be enough to bring shell shocked businessmen out of their bunkers and attempt to pursue profit once again. Yes I know, I said the dirty “P” word, but the pursuit of profit is at the very root of why we sit in warm houses with Internet access sipping our favorite beverage instead of huddled in a hut around a campfire trying to survive through the day.

    The extra $200 a month of discretionary income that this household will realize as a result of this deal (half from extension of current rates, other half from lowering payroll tax), is money that will be spent on consumer items, trips, entertainment, etc., just the activity needed to stimulate the economy. But instead of a measly one time $200 check from the Feds, this stimulus will happen every month during 2011, multiplied by the many households that still pay taxes.


  5. “Serene, if empathic, indifference” – what a zinger! That about sums it up.

    What do Working Class Studies folks think about the metaphor of Obama as a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome, starting to think like his captors?


  6. Jack Labusch says:

    Thanks for that “didn’t seem to give a shit” phrase. I futzed around with health care as an ordinary citizen for eight or nine years. Waste of time, and I pretty much knew that all along. Anyway, I’ve read “puppetization” (Chris Hedges), “infantilization” (Hans-Hermann Hoppe), and, from yesteryear, “happy robots” (C. Wright Mills) to refer, I think, to a public whose leaders really don’t have to “give a shit”.


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