15 October 2008
The American working class did not desert the Democrats: it was the other way around
It is often said that American working class people vote Republican because they have been seduced by a GOP that panders to their social concerns. That pandering may very well take place, but a study done by the University of Arizona which is quoted in an interesting New Yorker essay lends weight to the argument that American workers were first abandoned by the Democratic Party before they fell for the Republicans' social blandishments. The study looked at white working class voting patterns in the USA and concluded that the decline in the Democrats' fortunes in the 15 years after the mid-1970s was not due to race, guns or abortion. It came about because working class jobs were exported, unions weakened and living standards declined. Faced with this, “there was increasing reason for working-class whites to question whether the Democrats were still better than the Republicans at promoting their material well-being,” the authors concluded.
The New Yorker piece then goes on to lay out another factor that is behind the Democrats long-term secular decline. It is "The Emerging Democratic Majority" thesis that was propounded in a 2004 book by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The argument in the book runs that the Democrats don't need the old working class to win elections, what they need are the votes of professionals, minorities, and women. It is horribly like the Nu-Labour strategies that have led to a collapse in working class turnout for Labour at British elections.
In other words the Democrats lost the working class vote because they no longer advocated the economic policies that working class people expected of their party. Then, to add insult to injury, the Democrats basically told the working class to take their hooks because their votes were no longer needed.
Now the party wants those votes back, and the economic crisis may just turn out to be the factor that brings back the lost millions, but that leads to an important question: have the Democrats learned their lesson from this near debacle? If they have then a President Obama will put forward the polices that working class people want. If they haven't, then he will serve for one term and then the Republicans will take over the White House possibly for at least another generation.