I have a problem with liberals who dismiss the white working class as hopelessly Republican and racist, because they ignore something interesting: in 2008, our first black president got a higher share of their votes than any recent white Democrat in this generation, including John Kerry, Al Gore, and even Bill Clinton. A New York Times analysis found that Obama won 46 percent of whites without a college degree who earned between $30,000 and $75,000 a year, to Bill Clinton's 44 percent. He kept John McCain's edge with that group to 6 points, when George W. Bush won them by 35 points against John Kerry four years earlier. And in some swing states, such as Ohio, the "Obama coalition" ultimately included the white working class.
Yes, many of those voters raced back into the Republican column in 2010, when the GOP ran up a 30-point edge in midterm congressional races, and for much of 2011, Democrats talked about a strategy to keep the White House without winning Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, key swing states he took in 2008. But I'm not sure why we'd conclude that those voters' problem was mainly racial, or that they had run back to the GOP for good. Had they shaken off their racism in 2008, only to have it return like a stubborn virus in 2010? Did the president become more black? What if their reaction derived from frustration with Democratic leaders who hadn't pursued an economic turnaround agenda aggressively enough, at a time when unemployment stood at more than 10 percent—and almost 15 percent for whites without a college degree?
The GOP's new dog-whistle politics, trashing white people in coded language once reserved for blacks, opens new opportunities for Democrats—if they can help those white people translate the new GOP rhetoric. In a 2012 debate, then-front-runner Rick Santorum approvingly quoted from Charles Murray's Coming Apart, hoping his listeners wouldn't know that this time Murray was scolding white people. After Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke supported President Obama's insurance regulations mandating cost-free contraception, conservatives began trashing the young white law student as a "welfare queen" wanting birth control on the taxpayers' dime.
But "dependent voters" aren't just a problem to the GOP because they eat up our tax dollars. "Republican supporters will continue to decrease every year as more Americans become dependent on the government," Tea Party Senator Jim DeMint wrote in his shrill 2012 book Now or Never. "Dependent voters will naturally elect even big-government progressives who will continue to smother economic growth and spend America deeper into debt. The 2012 election may be the last opportunity for Republicans." Wisconsin conservative representative Paul Ryan, he of the "Ryan Plan" to abolish Medicare, divides the electorate into "makers" and "takers."
This is coded language meant to whip the GOP base into a frenzy of fear and resentment. Because for the past forty years, we've all known who the "takers" were, or were supposed to be, anyway: the welfare queens, the urban rioters, the students, the slackers, the various people the Democrats sided with in the 1960s, most of them, in the partisan story-telling, African American.
Yet today, many white folks who are voting Republican don't seem to know one important detail: they are, in fact, the "takers." We saw white Tea Party supporters demanding the government stay out of their Medicare. We know that much of the GOP's aging white base relies on Social Security. But the contradiction runs even deeper than that: Dartmouth political scientist Dean Lacy found the more a county receives in federal government payments, the more likely it is to vote Republican. The New York Times referred to Lacy's research in its understated but still rather shocking feature "Even Critics of Safety Net Depend On It." As Lacy elaborated to a WNYC reporter: "The counties that are getting more in crop subsidies, housing assistance, and Medicaid payments are a lot more Republican. So it really is about that catch-all category that you might call welfare." Yet because their local congressmen and women tend to defend that type of "welfare," Lacy says, "they have the luxury of voting on social issues knowing that these federal spending programs will be kept in place."
Except those programs won't be kept in place by the new GOP, which is committed to trashing even the economic supports it used to (however hypocritically) defend.
The Democratic Party should even have a chance to make inroads with white seniors in 2012 if they're able to broadcast the extremist Republican crusade even against programs that protect them. As long as they give up on the delusion of a "grand bargain," trading Social Security and Medicare cuts for revenue increases, that the president and some of his party allies floated during the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011.
As long as they make it clear they're Democrats, that is.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from What’s The Matter with White People, by Joan Walsh. Copyright © 2012 by Joan Walsh.