Democrats 36,000, Part 2

Whatever happened to working-class whites?

Book cover

We can all agree that the Emerging Democratic Majority (EDM) predicted in the book of that same name by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira failed to show its face on Nov. 5. (For the details, see Chatterbox’s previous item, “Democrats 36,000.”) Not to worry, say Judis and Teixeira; it’ll be here by decade’s end. Chatterbox finds many of their arguments persuasive, but they fudge unforgivably on one important constituency: white working-class males. It’s a four-decade-old puzzle, and Judis and Teixeira haven’t solved it.

Chatterbox’s favorite conceit in The Emerging Democratic Majority is what Judis and Teixeira wittily dub “George McGovern’s Revenge.” McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign famously shattered the New Deal coalition that kept the White House in Democratic hands for most of the previous 40 years. (It drove away the white working-class males!) But Judis and Teixeira argue that McGovern also laid the foundation for a “progressive centrist” Democratic coalition of the future: working women, minorities, highly skilled professionals, people who live in university communities that have now evolved into new-economy “ideopolises.” (For a summary, see Judis’ article, “How George McGovern Won Election 2000 for the Dems” in the Dec. 4, 2000 NewRepublic.)

This McGovernite coalition was too negligible to prevent a Nixon landslide in 1972. Since then, though, its components have either grown or grown more Democratic, and together they now constitute a sort of larval EDM. Minorities, for instance, have grown from 10 percent of the electorate to 19 percent. Highly skilled professionals (a census grouping that includes architects, engineers, scientists, computer analysts, lawyers, physicians, registered nurses, teachers, social workers, therapists, designers, interior decorators, graphic artists, and actors) have both grown (they’re now roughly 21 percent of the electorate) and grown more Democratic. They’re more numerous because of the postindustrial economy. They’re more Democratic, Judis and Teixeira argue, because, having marinated for years in academic and quasi-academic environments, they care more about things like creativity and spirituality than they do about market imperatives. (A white working-class male might put it differently: Because they’re the big winners in the knowledge-based economy, highly skilled professionals can afford not to “care about” money.) Judis and Teixeira further point out that the economic interests of some highly skilled professionals are in conflict with the market. Doctors are the best example; during the past two decades they’ve been at war with the insurance companies that pay them.

While the McGovern coalition has ballooned, Judis and Teixeira argue, an important slice of the Reagan coalition—evangelical Christians—has leveled off or even started to shrink. White evangelical Christians tilted heavily toward Bush in the 2000 presidential contest, but they represented the same proportion of the electorate (around 25 percent) in 2000 as they did in 1992. Observant white Catholics, who in recent years have favored Republicans, represent a shrinking proportion of the electorate; 17 percent in 1960, the year John Kennedy was elected, they now are down to 6 percent. At the same time, the godless hordes, a reliable (if seldom acknowledged) Democratic constituency, are proliferating. Judis and Teixeira cite a finding by the National Opinion Research Center that those who never or rarely attend church grew to 30 percent in 1998, up from 18 percent in 1972. These church-avoiders number twice as many as those who identify themselves with the religious right. Chatterbox is proud to call himself one of them.

The main pro-Republican theory competing with EDM is the idea that the exurban Republican constituency—collectively dubbed “Patio Man” by David Brooks—is growing like crazy. Yes, Judis and Teixeira concede, these exurban cities are heavily Republican, and yes, they’re growing faster than anyplace else in the United States. But they’re growing from a teeny-tiny base. Colorado’s Elbert County, the country’s third-fastest-growing county, doubled its population during the 1990s—but that was merely from 10,000 to 20,000. What’s important, Judis and Teixeira note, is not what’s happening in these pipsqueak counties. What’s important is what’s happening in the 50 most populous counties. Gore won these, 54-42 percent, in 2000.

So far, so good. But what about the white working-class males?

Judis and Teixeira recount the sad story. Through the early 1960s, the Democrats, party of the working man, had a lock on the working man. But as Democrats started to support civil rights and oppose the Vietnam War, the white working class started voting for Republican presidential candidates. This realignment was reversed, somewhat, by Bill Clinton, who in 1992 won a 39 percent plurality of white working-class votes. It was Clinton’s special genius to convey to African-Americans that he was America’s “first black president” while simultaneously conveying to the white working class that he was not a captive of the African-American (i.e., liberal) political agenda. (He also got some help from Ross Perot, who drew white working-class votes away from George H.W. Bush.) There was some slippage in 2000, partly because Gore was a less gifted politician than Clinton, and partly because the main issue that had drawn the white working class to Democrats—”the economy, stupid”—had been mooted by the boom, allowing non-economic issues like gun control and affirmative action to come to the fore. But, Judis and Teixeira write,

the economic slowdown that began soon after George W. Bush took office is likely to lead many of these voters to pay renewed attention to economic issues, especially as their focus shifts back from the war on terror to domestic concerns. This should benefit Democrats for years to come [italics Chatterbox’s].

There is zero evidence that the economy will continue to falter “for years to come.” And it’s insane for Democrats to root for such an outcome. Yes, it is possible that some sort of deflationary nightmare lies around the corner, but it’s at least equally possible that it does not. Can’t Judis and Teixeira cite anything else that will lure the white working class back to the Democrats? (Teixeira, after all, co-authored an entire book about the white working class and why it still matters.) Er, no. Then how can they claim it for the EDM?

They can’t. Instead, they suggest that there will be fewer of these folks in the future, as more jobs shift from manufacturing to the new economy and as the working class becomes more racially diverse. But Judis and Teixeira can’t have it both ways. If the white working class dwindles away, it won’t help create an EDM. And if it doesn’t dwindle away, it will need a reason to vote Democratic.

Chatterbox has no projections to offer (though he’d guess that the big decline in the nation’s manufacturing sector has already occurred). But he does fear for the future of a Democratic Party whose attractions are evident only if you’re on the dole or have three advanced degrees. If the Democrats were to cease even aspiring to be the party of the working man, it wouldn’t seem to have much point.