They Aren't Democrats

by digby

There has been a lot of discussion, as usual, as to whether the Democrats can finally get back those Reagan Democrats we've been desperately trying to woo for the past 28 years. Here's a report from the heart of Reagan Democrat country that should tell us just how possible that really is:

White Men Hold Key for Democrats
Contest May Hinge
On Blue-Collar Vote;
Opening for McCain?
February 19, 2008

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- In a Democratic presidential nomination race that pits a black man against a woman, the victor may well be determined by white men.

The working-class white men who toil in the steel mills and auto plants here are part of a volatile cohort that has long helped steer the nation's political course. Once, blue-collar males were the bedrock of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. They became "Reagan Democrats," helping to propel Ronald Reagan into office in the 1980s. Bill Clinton won many of them back to the Democratic Party in 1992. Two years later they were "angry white males," resentful of affirmative action and the women's movement, who helped Republicans capture Congress.

Now this group of voters is set to help determine the Democratic nominee, and the next occupant of the White House. Working-class white men make up nearly one-quarter of the electorate, outnumbering African-American and Hispanic voters combined. As the Democratic primary race intensifies, some of these white men are finding it hard to identify with the remaining two candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

"It seems like someone else should be there," says Dan Leihgeber, a smelter in a steel plant here, who is supporting Sen. Clinton. "It's like there's someone missing."

Marc Dann, Ohio's Democratic attorney general, frets about the reluctance of some of these blue-collar Democrats to embrace either of his party's candidates. "I worry about [the appeal of] McCain," says Mr. Dann, who lives in Youngstown. "It's not like watching an episode of Archie Bunker -- but there are real issues" that white male voters here have with Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama.

Gee, I wonder what those might be?

In Youngstown, many working-class men say they will vote according to issues, especially economic ones including health care, free trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs. But in conversations in union halls, bars and factories, race and gender are never far from the surface.

"I don't think the country is ready for a woman president yet," says Duane Tkac, a burly vocational instructor at a prison here and a member of the local branch of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union. "The country is in too much turmoil. I don't think she can handle the pressure, the terrorists." He plans to vote for Sen. Obama.

Don Pompelia, retired from the Air Force, supports Sen. Clinton. "I'm hoping Hillary gets the nomination. But if she doesn't, I'm not voting for that guy. I'm going Republican," he booms as he picks up his morning coffee at McDonald's. "There are going to be a lot of people crossing over to the Republicans because he's black."

Oh now, that must be wrong. We've been told for nearly three decades that the Democrats lost this group because of taxes or being soft on crime or being "anti-military" and so the Democrats have moved right on every issue they could think of trying to recapture these guys. The only thing they couldn't quite successfully do was get rid of all the women and the blacks in the party. Until the Dems do that, these guys aren't coming back. (And they aren't going to vote for either Obama or Clinton, they're going to vote for McCain.)

There is some good news in this, however. They seem to be more inclined these days to vote for a black man, although I'd be shocked if they come around during the general election since they haven't voted for any Democrat for president in decades. But maybe the economy will be so bad they'll take a flyer on Obama. They don't appear to be ready to vote for a woman.

"For a lot of blue-collar guys over 40, Hillary Clinton is a poster child for everything about the women's movement that they don't like -- their wife going back to work, their daughters rebelling, the rise of women in the workplace," says Gerald Austin, an Ohio political strategist.

Mr. Leihgeber, the steelworker, says he supports Sen. Clinton for her experience and positions. He carries a book bag to work every day with his lunch and a newspaper inside and a Clinton button pinned to the outside. Some days, he says, he turns the bag around so the Clinton button doesn't show; he says he doesn't like dealing with his co-workers' derogatory comments. Mr. Leihgeber says he wouldn't be heckled so much for an Obama pin.

"People don't want to speak out against Obama because of the fear of being seen as racist," he says. "It's easier to say you want to keep a woman barefoot and pregnant....You can call a woman anything."


In Youngstown, Sen. Obama is seen through the prism of the city's changing racial makeup. Over the years, as Youngstown has become poorer, many whites have moved to surrounding towns and the minority population has increased. The Youngstown area is now one of the most segregated communities in the country, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Everyday racial tensions and animosity run high. A white cook at a local bar says he won't bother voting in this election. "What's the point," he says, rubbing his skin. "We're already a minority."

But for some white men here, Sen. Obama's appeal is that he is different from many black leaders they have seen in the past. "The guys I work with, they know Jesse Jackson and they know Al Sharpton. They call them all sorts of terrible things," says Robert Hagan, a locomotive engineer and a state representative, referring to these politicians' sometimes-inflammatory rhetoric and focus on black causes. "They don't talk about Obama like that."

Those here who dislike Sen. Obama tend to criticize what they call his empty rhetoric, his lack of experience and the fear that he would favor blacks and other minorities.

Many working-class men here say they are being lobbied by their teenage and young adult children to vote for Sen. Obama. And some of the area's newer businesses, such as its growing hospitals and the privately run prison, break down some of the racial and gender barriers found in the mills and auto plants that are still overwhelmingly white and male.

So, things are probably changing. But not that much:

Across town, 14 steelworkers brought together to talk about the election say they predominantly supported Sen. John Edwards before he dropped out of the race. Now 13 of them say they are leaning toward Sen. Clinton. They praise her experience and toughness in withstanding the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Former President Bill Clinton remains enormously popular here, with many blue-collar men saying that they like the fact that he would be in the White House as well.

"I think she has the right person in the bedroom with her," says Joe Marion, who works at the local prison.

Betty Ingramn doesn't buy it. The lone African-American in the room full of steelworkers, she works as a secretary in the steel mill and is the head of the clerical workers union.

"It's a race thing," she says of her colleagues' support for Sen. Clinton. "They can't handle it, an African-American being over them." As an African-American union official, Ms. Ingramn says she has battled constantly to be included in meetings and decisions.

Please, tell me again why Democrats think they can appeal to people like this when we have a party that's filled with women and minorities?

"I think if we nominate one of these two, we are talking about McCain as president," says Bob Rodkey, a firefighter who doesn't like either candidate but plans to vote for Sen. Clinton in the primary. "I talk to a lot of my Democratic friends and they are going to cross over in November or not vote at all. We don't have a viable candidate. Neither of them is one of us."

Mr. Rodkey says he will vote for a Democrat in the fall. He plans to urge his friends to do the same. "Hopefully they will listen to the message, and not who's delivering it," he says.

I feel for these fellows' economic plight. They have been getting the shaft for 30 years and there's no end in sight. But until they get over their bigotry I just don't see them voting for the Democrats because the cognitive dissonance is just too great --- the Democratic party is too diverse for them to feel comfortable. It's good news that their kids are less bigoted and are having some influence, but they are a ways from being able to accept a liberal African American man as president and obviously even farther from being able to accept a woman.

These guys aren't Democrats. They are Republicans who get the shaft by their own party. Not the same thing at all.

Update: Here's a plea not to forget this important constituency, which concludes:

He might be a Republican and he might be a Democrat; he might be a Libertarian or a Green. He knows that his wife is more emotional than rational, and he guides the family in a rational manner.

He’s not a racist, but he is annoyed and disappointed when people of certain backgrounds exhibit behavior that typifies the worst stereotypes of their race. He’s willing to give everybody a fair chance if they work hard, play by the rules and learn English.

Most important, the Angry White Man is pissed off. When his job site becomes flooded with illegal workers who don’t pay taxes and his wages drop like a stone, he gets righteously angry. When his job gets shipped overseas, and he has to speak to some incomprehensible idiot in India for tech support, he simmers. When Al Sharpton comes on TV, leading some rally for reparations for slavery or some such nonsense, he bites his tongue and he remembers. When a child gets charged with carrying a concealed weapon for mistakenly bringing a penknife to school, he takes note of who the local idiots are in education and law enforcement.

He also votes, and the Angry White Man loathes Hillary Clinton. Her voice reminds him of a shovel scraping a rock. He recoils at the mere sight of her on television. Her very image disgusts him, and he cannot fathom why anyone would want her as their leader. It’s not that she is a woman. It’s that she is who she is. It’s the liberal victim groups she panders to, the “poor me” attitude that she represents, her inability to give a straight answer to an honest question, his tax dollars that she wants to give to people who refuse to do anything for themselves.

There are many millions of Angry White Men. Four million Angry White Men are members of the National Rifle Association, and all of them will vote against Hillary Clinton, just as the great majority of them voted for George Bush.

He hopes that she will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, and he will make sure that she gets beaten like a drum.


Update II: None of this is to suggest that unions, which are traditional Democrats, are necessarily these guys, although some of these guys are union members. Unions deliver votes to Democrats and they are backing the Democrat for the presidency this time out for sure. I'm just not certain that those among the membership who call themselves "Reagan Democrats" and have the attitudes outlined above, will vote accordingly.