It’s truly befuddling to me why the group labeled working class whites continue to prefer Republican candidates.
The results of the latest Associated Press-GfK survey says that this group favors Republicans 58% to 36% of Democrats, an incredible 22% margin. The AP story announcing the survey results contrasts that poor showing with the last two elections, in which working class whites supported Republicans over Democrats by a margin of 11% and 9%.
Before we can go any further, we need to define white working class. The survey and virtually all other researchers and pundits use this definition: “whites without four-year college degrees.”
Now this group currently represented 39% of all voters in the last presidential election (in which it was the only “racial group” to go for McCain). But a 2009 study by Roy Teixeira shows that over the past 20 years, the percentage of total voters who are white working class declined by 15%. Teixeira also shows that all other “racial groups” are becoming more liberal, including middle class white. Teixeira concludes that working class whites remain the only reliable group for Republicans.
Let’s keep in mind that attitudes might be slightly different today as a result of the mainstream media’s its incessant driving of the political dialogue rightward over the past year and its preoccupation with the Tea Party. But Teixeira is talking about long-term trends, which may fluctuate from year to year but show a steady decline in the importance of the working class white voter and the continued movement of the rest of electorate leftward.
The AP-GfK poll has not been posted at www.ap-gfkpoll.com yet, so I can’t delve into the details of the questions asked, the findings, the sample or the methodology. The article did not mention the decline of the white working class population. Nor did it cite the analysis by Sherry Linkon of the Center for Working-Class Studies, which suggests that the white working class voting pattern is more a function of geography than of race or education (57% of white workers in Massachusetts voted for Obama, but only 9% voted for him in Alabama). If the Republican lead in this group is regional, its impact on mid-term elections will be less important.
But despite the flaws in the AP story and the possible flaws in the initial survey, the results speak loud and clear. On a national basis, working white class voters prefer Republicans so much today that for a Democratic candidate to win a national election, he or she would have to gain 59% of all other voters, a near impossible task, when you consider that 53% is typically called a landslide.
The question remains, why? Economic and social theories and “laws” usually take it for granted that people always act in their best interests. But how could it be in the best interests of people without college degrees, white or black, to vote Republican? On average, people without four-year degrees earn less money than those with four-year degrees, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. That means that they should be supporting policies that help those of modest means.
Let’s take a look at some of the positions that most Republicans have supported:
Many Republicans oppose the minimum wage and virtually all vote against any bill to raise the minimum wage. And yet, when the minimum wage rises, so do all wages, a boon to the white working class.
- Most Republicans are against labor unions. What labor unions have tended to do historically is raise the wages and benefits of people without college diplomas, plus those with college degrees who make lower wages such as teachers and nurses.
- Virtually all Republicans support lower taxes for higher incomes, which results in some combination of higher taxes for others and the creation of safe-haven investment opportunities for those wealthy enough to buy a lot of government bonds. As a result of too low taxes and lots of government debt, those lower down on the economic ladder such as the white working class end up paying more than their share because the rich are paying less than their share. See my blogs of June 14 and 15 for more details.
- Republicans are more apt to want to gut Social Security, and it was the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan that first started to roll the Social Security Trust Fund into the general budget and then claimed that the Trust Fund was near bankruptcy when all it needs to remain strong is get the money back that it lent the federal government. Social Security has been one of the foundations of the retirement of most working class whites for years.
So what’s the attraction that the white working class has to Republican candidates?
It would be easy to evoke the pat answers of racism, resentment at losing wealth/power, social values, gun control or security, but I think it’s more complicated than any of these concepts and issues even as it involves most of them.
Consider this analogy: No matter how much he hated the cook and how many times he heard that he’s already had his supper, the starving man will eat! The German playwright Berthold Brecht put it best when he said, “Erst kommt fressen, dann kommt Moralen,” which means, “first comes eating, then comes morals.” The additional nuance in German is that Brecht says “fressen,” which is an animal eating, not “essen,” which is a human being eating. The meaning is clear, as is its application to voting: We vote with our stomachs, that is, we vote on economic issues. And yet, the white working class does not.
I want to do a little additional research and then explore with my readers more on this question: why do white working class voters vote against their own best economic interests?