The Souls of White Folk

The Souls of White Folk
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Some disturbing but not altogether unsurprising news courtesy of Pew:

GOP Makes Big Gains among White Voters
Especially among the Young and Poor

As the country enters into the 2012 presidential election cycle, the electorate’s partisan affiliations have shifted significantly since Barack Obama won office nearly three years ago. In particular, the Democrats hold a much narrower edge than they did in 2008, particularly when the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account.

Notably, the GOP gains have occurred only among white voters; a 2-point Republican edge among whites in 2008 (46% to 44%) has widened to a 13-point lead today (52% to 39%). In sharp contrast, the partisan attachments of black and Hispanic voters have remained consistently Democratic.

While Republican gains in leaned party identification span nearly all subgroups of whites, they are particularly pronounced among the young and poor. A seven-point Democratic advantage among whites under age 30 three years ago has turned into an 11-point GOP advantage today. And a 15-point Democratic advantage among whites earning less than $30,000 annually has swung to a slim four-point Republican edge today.

On the other hand, African-American and Latino voters haven't moved away from Democrats in significant numbers since 2008: just a 2 percentage point shift away from Dems for each segment. And even among whites, the Republicans aren't doing quite as well as these numbers might suggest:

Yet, the Republican Party’s growth has been limited in two important ways. First, the steep gains in GOP leaning that helped the party in the 2010 midterms have not continued, as the overall balance of partisan attachments has held steady in the first half of 2011. Second, while more independents say they “lean” toward the Republican Party, the GOP has not gained in actual party affiliation since 2008 – just 28% of registered voters, in both years, call themselves Republicans. Instead, the growth category continues to be political independents, with a record high 34% of registered voters choosing this label in 2011.

Indeed, Latinos, by far the fastest growing voting demographic in the U.S., have been driven by overt Republican racism away from the GOP in droves, going from 28% GOP identification in 2008 to 22% in 2011. Given the lack of increased party identification for the GOP, what we're seeing here is less a mandate for Republicans and their policies, than a disaffection for the Democratic brand. Still, the numbers among white voters, particularly younger and poorer white voters, are very scary especially when measured demographically against a characteristically similar population Pew identified as "non-voters" back in 2010.

There are two big lessons to be learned here just at first glance:

1) Being the adult in the room doesn't work. There is a widely held belief in certain Democratic circles that independent and moderate voters will come home to Democrats en masse if Democrats just show themselves to be the reasonable alternative to an increasingly extremist Republican Party. This isn't so much a theory of triangulation (though it does suit the Third Way crowd nicely), as it is a theory that trusts that the center of opinion among the American public remains constant, that the public pays enough attention and has enough understanding about current events to know who has extremist views and who does not, and that voters will make rational choices in their own self-interest so long as the facts are laid bare for them.

None of the above is correct. The endless parade of Republican extremism since the 2010 election has not served to significantly weaken the GOP's position, beyond the normal loss of a honeymoon period shortly after Boehner took the gavel. The willingness of the Obama Administration to act the straight man to the GOP's clown has not won the Democrats any friends among independents. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite.

The reality is that 2006, 2008 and 2010 were three consecutive wave elections: a phenomenon unprecedented in at least recent, if not the entirety of American history. Wave elections occur either during realignments, or periods of intense voter frustration, or both. Realignments tend to produce one-sided waves that lead to lasting majorities, periods of relative calm and a new set of regional and factional affiliations. That has not been the case in recent years. What has happened, rather, is that a tired, dispirited and confused public has lashed out at whatever party they perceived to be in power and doing damage, and have chosen to variously stay home from elections and/or vote in the opposite party just to shake things up and see if something will change. Democrats gained from this impulse in 2006 and 2008, but fell easy prey to it in 2010 when the promise of "hope" and "change" fell drastically short of expectations--expectations that, despite the gnashing of teeth among a small number of progressives about Guantanamo, torture, Afghanistan, and the like, were almost entirely economic in nature. Counting on voters to pick the moderate, even-tempered candidates and go for the "reasonable" choice in 2012 is a fool's errand. With no significant change in the economic climate since the Crash and even before, a wise prognosticator would count on the voters to make the unreasonable choice in 2012 just to make something happen to change the status quo. As much as every poll shows that voters want compromise, what they really want is answers.

2) It is clear that the Democratic Party is not offering much of value to less-educated, younger white voters. The Democratic Party has pretty much abandoned them. As a Democratic official and volunteer, I can see that every day, and hear it every time I phonebank on behalf of a candidate.

Suppose you're a 28-year-old straight white guy who graduated high school as a D student, and now work a blue or pink collar dead-end private-sector job somewhere. You're vaguely Christian, but not a fervent believer. You've got a live-in girlfriend, and maybe a kid on the way. What does the Democratic Party offer you?

Not much. The entire Party is obsessed right now with defending Medicare and Social Security, two programs that you don't think you'll ever see anyway, and age 65 seems like it might as well be 300 years from now--not that you figure you'll be able to retire regardless. The only workers the Party seems to care much about are in the public sector: people who make way more money and have better job security than you do for about equivalent labor. You have no issue with school bus drivers and firefighters, but their salaries do make you resentful and wonder why your tax dollars are supporting them when you're barely keeping your head above water. The Democrats keep saying that a college education and universal Pre-K are the golden bullets to solve our economic problems. You don't believe that and for very good reason, but it doesn't help you anyway: you have neither the time nor money nor interest to go back to school. And your kid? You're too worried about keeping her fed to bother about Pre-K. And besides, your school district isn't great, you have no money to move to a better one, home prices are still far out of reach even as politicians want to drive home prices up, and the school system just seems to a huge money sinkhole that never gets better. You have no problem with the Latinos you went to school with, and you know some really nice undocumented families, but you're also afraid for your job security. The wars overseas seem to keep going no matter who is in power, which makes the military less than attractive as an option. You've got nothing in common with the crazy evangelicals you know, and you have no problem with gay people, but your liberal friends who went to college seem pretty condescending and know-it-all to you, which makes you less than thrilled to be associated with them.

Why should you vote for a Democrat? Good question. Back in 1936, even as recently as in 1966, there was a reason for that guy to vote for a Democrat. Democrats used to have answers for that guy. Democrats used to have a solid economic message for workers without a college degree, and the fire in the belly to call out even the more reasonable conservatives for being the heartless toadies of corporate power they are. Today? I can't think of a good reason that guy would vote for the modern Democratic Party. It does next to nothing for him. Nor will fear of losing abortion rights be quite enough to sway his girlfriend, either. That stuff used to work in more normal times. But these are not normal times. These are times of crisis, times when bold leadership is necessary, and when strong and wrong is more appealing than weak and right.

When push comes to shove, that guy will vote for Rick Perry, an unreasonable jackass who actually speaks to angst and insecurity he feels, over Barack Obama, that most "reasonable" arbiter of technocratic tranquility who does next to nothing to address the issues that really matter, and seems never to get really fired up about much of anything at all even at a time of universal distress.

That guy will help sway the election not only of the President, but of all the sorry saps with a "D" by their name downballot as well. And the Democratic Party will have no one and nothing but itself to blame for it.