The revolt of the white working class
Many Democratic candidates trying to survive the 2010 midterm elections know they must distance themselves from Mr. Obama and Nancy Pelosi, who are viewed as the authors of health care reform, cap and trade, and other legislative initiatives that are generally unpopular. While some Democratic candidates go so far as to attack parts of the president’s agenda, others take it a step further.
The Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor told a local radio station that Obama can “take his endorsement and shove it.” Mississippi Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor told his local newspaper, “I did not vote for Obama. I voted for Sen. McCain. Better the devil you know.” When you remember that many Democrats currently serving in Congress were carried there on Mr. Obama’s coattails, the turn around this year is beyond remarkable. Mr. Obama’s job approval rating according to Gallop is riding around 43 percent. Among white voters it has recently been as low as 34 percent.
The press and the nation’s chattering class (pundits if you prefer) have made the Tea Party activists the default story in this election. They are not entirely wrong. Tea Party activists sounded the first clarion call against health care reform and deficit spending in the summer of 2009. But, they are not the only source of opposition to the policies advanced by Mr. Obama and Ms Pelosi; in fact, they may not be the most consequential, at least in regard to the midterm elections.
According to Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Obama and the Democrats have once again lost the white working class voter, just as they did in 1980 when the term “Reagan Democrats” was first coined. Olsen believes that voting in the midterms will be polarized by race. Olsen, according to The Economist, thinks, “The revolt of [the white working class] could be the defining characteristic of the election, counting more even than the rise of the (also mostly white, but mostly more affluent) tea-party movement.”
Obama obviously feels no great empathy with the white working class. His comment in San Francisco about the folks who cling to their guns and religion and feel uncomfortable with folks who don’t look like them reveals a basic misunderstanding of a significant number of his countrymen.
Another problem for Democrats is that white working class voters have understood progressive code since the institution of the New Society in 1966. When these voters hear Democratic leaders speak of “economic fairness,” “economic justice,” “distributive justice,” “affirmative action,” et al., they fully understand that it is code for transferring money, power or both from them to someone in what Jonah Goldberg calls “the Coalition of the Oppressed,” which includes blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and anyone else who doesn’t happen to be a white male.
It is therefore no coincidence that a disproportionate number of endangered Democrats are in the states where white working class voters still have sufficient numbers to exercise political power. The states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee are in that category along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. Added together, the states included in the revolt of the white working class includes the Ohio River Valley and the upper Midwest, and it is easy to see why Olsen thinks the revolt of the white working class might be the defining characteristic of the election.
The Economist asks the relevant question: “The prospect of a Democratic rout prompts an inevitable question. Have such voters turned on the Democrats because Mr. Obama is black.” It is the right question because race was a factor in 2008 and still is. Black support for Mr. Obama remains above 90 percent while white American support has dropped into the mid-thirties.
The Economist’s answer to the question is no, race may be a factor but is not the reason: “A wrecked economy and the feeling that their president is out of touch are reason enough. It has, after all, happened before. In two short years from 1992 to 1994, when Bill Clinton was president, white working-class support for the Republicans soared like a rocket from 47 percent to 61 percent. Nobody blamed that on skin colour.”
What to watch on Election Night
Indiana polls close early. There are three contested congressional seats, Districts Two, Eight and Nine. Republicans are predicted to take District Nine but if they win in both Districts Nine and Eight, it could foretell a really long night for Democrats. If Indiana District Two goes Republican, evacuate Democratic National Committee headquarters—it’s a tsunami. On the other hand, should they win only District Nine, it will be evidence that the Democrats’ and Mr. Obama’s efforts to rally the Democratic base have been largely successful.
West Virginia also comes in early. The Senate race will be an indicator but if the Third District throws out longtime Congressman Nick Rahall, even the word tsunami won’t be sufficient to describe the Republican wave.
As to the Senate, West Virginia is the key. Connecticut is going Democrat and if the Democrats also hold West Virginia, the Republicans would have to sweep all remaining races including Washington and California; this would mean the Republicans would not have a realistic chance of taking the Senate.
Enjoy the moment: Watch CNN, FOX, MSNBC and Public TV, and always look for the ridiculous—there will be many such moments next Tuesday night.