The Wrong People
Here's an interesting headline:
Most white Americans think health reform benefits the poor and uninsured, not people like them.
by Ronald Brownstein
Can we all see what's wrong with that formulation? I thought so. It reminded me of this memorable phrase from George W. Bush:
You know there's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that, that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self governing. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily, you know, are a different color than white, can self-govern.
Says a lot, doesn't it?
It's not just a headline writer in a hurry problem. It's in the article itself:
Compared with earlier presidents, Obama focused his case less on helping the uninsured and more on providing those with coverage greater leverage against their insurers. That shift was especially evident in his final drive toward passage.
And yet, polling just before the bill's approval showed that most white Americans believed that the legislation would primarily benefit the uninsured and the poor, not people like them. In a mid-March Gallup survey, 57 percent of white respondents said that the bill would make things better for the uninsured, and 52 percent said that it would improve conditions for low-income families. But only one-third of whites said that it would benefit the country overall -- and just one-fifth said that it would help their own family.
So, whites either think that only non-whites are poor and uninsured, or they just assume that that health care reform is going to benefit the non-whites regardless of whether whites are uninsured and poor. Either way, it's a little weird, don't you think?
In both that Gallup Poll and the latest monthly survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, nonwhite respondents were much more likely than whites to say that the bill would help the country and their own families. Those responses reflect not only experience (African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to lack insurance) but also minorities' greater receptivity to government activism. By meeting a tangible need in these communities, health reform is likely to solidify the Democratic hold on the one-quarter (and growing) minority share of the electorate, especially if Republicans define themselves around demanding repeal.
But whites still cast about three-quarters of votes. And if most remain convinced that health reform primarily benefits the poor and uninsured, Democrats could find themselves caught in an unusual populist crossfire during this fall's elections.
The unusual populist crossfire isn't actually unusual at all. It's called right wing populism and it goes like this: Obama has stolen the tax dollars of hard working white people (Real Americans) and given it to the blacks, Mexicans and rich "cosmopolitan" elites on Wall Street. Nothing unusual about that in the least. It's as old as the hills.
Brownstein doesn't seem to know that because he goes on and talking about how odd this whole thing is for the Democrats caught in a crossfire as working class whites rebel against the government bail outs and health care (which they believe is going to benefit people who don't deserve it.) I guess this is a new concept to Stan Greenberg too who gives this fatuous analysis:
Census figures show that noncollege whites are more than twice as likely to lack health insurance as whites with a degree. But these working-class whites have grown more skeptical than better-educated whites that government cares about their needs. And the searing recession has only hardened those doubts. In a recent memo, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg warned that these anxious and alienated voters are approaching a "tipping point" that would send them hurtling toward Republicans in November. House Democrats seem aware of that risk: Of the 34 Democrats who opposed the final health care bill, 28 represent districts with an above-average share of whites without college educations.
But why is it that these voters don't think the government cares about their needs when it just passed a health care reform that will help them since they currently lack health insurance. is it possible that their issue isn't the government caring for their needs at all? Is it possible that the issue is that they simply feel the government shouldn't be giving help to people they think don't deserve it? I think you have to admit that this is a likely scenario for a fair number of those people. They would rather do without health insurance themselves than have the same benefit going to black and brown people. It's always been that way.
So when Brownstein argues "these trends frame perhaps the Democrats' greatest political challenge today: convincing economically squeezed white voters that Washington understands their distress," he's failing to realize that it's not about the government "understanding" their distress. It's about the government passing out favors across the board including to groups who these people feel are inferior, thus devaluing these folks and their privilege. Emphasizing certain policy prescriptions in the health care bill isn't going to change that.
As for the other side of the right wing populist argument, well good luck with that:
Greenberg says his recent polling shows that Obama's collision with insurers on health reform has already softened the belief that Democrats favor Wall Street over Main Street. He predicts the financial fight "will shift it further."
At this point the teabaggers are so confused that they think the government has nationalized all the banks and insurance companies and are preparing to round up all the white people and put them into FEMA camps. The administration's efforts have been extremely lame up to this point and it's left them without any serious way to direct this populist fever away from themselves.
[D]espite a Gallup Poll showing a post-passage bump in support for the health care bill, skepticism that government will ever deliver for them is bred in the bone for many white voters, especially those in the working class. Health care reform won't win sustained acceptance -- or politically benefit the Democrats who finally shouldered it into law -- unless it begins to excise those deeply embedded doubts.
These doubts have been deeply embedded since the 1700s, so it's pretty deep. And the election of the first African American president may have brought some of it up to the surface, but it wasn't unique. There is a fact about all this that simply has to be acknowledged before you can understand what's going on here:
While it's certainly true that enough white people voted for Obama to put him in the Oval Office, the blunt fact remains that a majority of white people did not. Although Obama beat John McCain in the popular vote by an impressive seven-point margin, McCain beat Obama among white voters by an even more impressive 12-point margin. Obama got 53 percent of the broad electorate to vote for him but only 43 percent of the white electorate. When I say "white electorate," I don't mean the white working class, or white Southerners, or any other subgroup whose capacity for racial tolerance has long been held suspect. I mean all white voters.
Of course Democrats haven't won a majority* of the white vote since the civil rights act was passed. I don't think it's a coincidence.
Is this all about race? Obviously not. But it's certainly definitional in right wing populism and is a huge factor in the teabagger revolt. Trying at this late date to direct the populist anger at the banks after dithering for months probably isn't going to work to keep the reasonable members of the working class who still identify as Democratic on board. (It could have if they'd done it consistently, but at this point they're either on the team or they aren't.) The Democrats are going to need to get out the African American, Hispanic and liberal white vote in big numbers.
Too bad they helped the wingnuts kill ACORN. They really could have used them.
* Keep in mind that in 92 and 96, Perot took 20% and 8% of the vote --- and they were virtually all white.