The irony of ’s “bitter” comments is that he was lamenting the failure of white working-class people to vote their “class interests” before an audience of affluent San Francisco Democrats doing exactly the same thing.
That should have been his first hint that he had veered into an intellectual dead end in claiming that working-class communities “cling to guns or religion … or anti-immigrant sentiment” because they are “bitter” over their economic circumstances.
Obama has since said he “mangled” his words. And his remarks at the San Francisco fundraiser surely sounded more disparaging than he intended. In the marathon modern campaign, when the camera never blinks, all candidates say things they regret. “Sniper fire,” anyone?
But Obama’s words are worth scrutinizing because they reflect a bedrock belief on the left, the conviction that Republicans have seduced blue-collar whites by diverting their focus from economic issues toward the emotional social issues that Obama cited. That perspective reached its apotheosis in "What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," the 2004 best-seller by Thomas Frank that portrayed Republican blue-collar gains as a form of mass “derangement” driven by the “hallucinatory appeal” of “cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion.” Physically, Obama was in California when he described the working-class as “bitter,” but mentally he was in Frank’s Kansas.
It’s true that since the 1960s Republicans have flipped the loyalties of white working-class voters who anchored the Democratic coalition from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. In the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections, Democrats won an average of 55 percent of the votes of whites with less than a college education, according to an important recent paper by political analysts Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz. In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominees won an average of just 43 percent of those voters.
And there’s no question that generations of wedge issues—from busing in the 1970s to gun control and abortion today—have helped Republicans dislodge culturally conservative white voters from the Democratic column. But the liberal idea that Republicans have beguiled the white working class by diverting their attention from their real (economic) needs to peripheral (cultural) concerns—the notion that Obama in effect endorsed—is a dangerous illusion for Democrats.
For starters, that argument understates the obstacles that Democrats face in trying to win back working-class whites. These voters have also responded consistently to hawkish Republican approaches on national security and, intermittently, to anti-tax, small-government GOP domestic messages. As Teixeira points out, 2004 exit polls found that noncollege white voters not only preferred Bush to deal with terrorism over Democratic nominee John Kerry by almost 2-to-1 but also gave Bush a resounding advantage of 55 percent to 39 percent on the economy.
The argument also ignores the extent to which cultural disintegration genuinely strains working-class life. In fact, the consequences of social disorder—crime, family breakdown—are usually felt more keenly in blue-collar communities than in white-collar ones, as Atlantic Monthly editors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam note in their provocative upcoming book, "Grand New Party." Democrats are right that the top conservative social priorities—banning abortion and gay marriage—don’t tangibly respond to those concerns. But for years Republicans have felt more comfortable than Democrats talking about the value of maintaining moral order, and that is an understandably attractive prospect in hardscrabble communities frequently exposed to the costs of its absence.
Most important, the idea that working-class people have been uniquely bamboozled to vote on their cultural affinities rather than their economic status ignores the parallel change at the top of the income ladder. As Obama might have noticed in San Francisco, a growing number of upper-income and well-educated Americans are also voting against their “class interests,” preferring Democrats even though the party routinely supports raising taxes on top earners. In presidential elections from 1960 through 1972, Democrats won, on average, only 37 percent of the votes of white college graduates. Since 1992, they have won an average of 47 percent. Those voters (especially the ones with graduate degrees) have trended Democratic largely because they hold liberal positions on the same social and foreign-policy issues that helped Republicans crack the working class. Culture is replacing class as the glue of both parties’ coalitions.
Economic anxiety could help Democrats this year regain ground among working-class whites. But it won’t if the party condescendingly views those voters’ cultural concerns as an artifact of “bitterness.” Someone should tell Obama that he’s not in Kansas anymore.