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During every presidential election campaign in recent memory the pundit classes have tried to figure out the riddle of the white working class (male) voter. Why do they support Republicans? Is the support by white people who are not "middle class" for a political party whose economic policies grossly favor the rich a sign of false consciousness? Is this dynamic a function of how white race prejudice is manipulated in the service of white identity politics?

We have discussed this dynamic many times. In fact, given the perennial nature of the white working class who vote against their economic self-interest meme, many people who write about American politics could simply go to their archives, update essays written several years ago, and they would likely still read as current.

The topic is worthy of recurring discussion because it hits on the intimate relationship between race and class in the West, specifically, and in the United States, in particular. Race and class evolved together from the 17th century onward; in all, the latter is the crucible in which the former was made. We cannot escape this shadow even in the Age of Obama.

To my eyes, this puzzle, while fascinating, is not particularly difficult to unpack. The "white working class" as understood by Thomas Frank and others is often vaguely (if not incorrectly) specified. When the white working class is defined as those white men without a college degree, then yes they do tend to support Republicans much more than Democrats.

When this same cohort is defined by income, then the white poor, as poor folk generally do, tend to overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.

The fear by Democratic strategists that the Republicans are making huge inroads with the white working class can be largely explained by 1) how the South was flipped to the GOP over the last few decades; and 2) that the Republicans have been pealing away support from the Democrats with voters at almost all income levels.

The other key element for deciphering white working class support for Mitt Romney is that white people are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country's history. They have uniquely benefited from the Racial State and its focused efforts to create wealth, generate income for, and transfer assets (almost) exclusively to white people from the Homestead Act, through to the invention of the white middle class in the post World War 2 era, and into the present.

White privilege is deeply attune to any threat at its status. Consequently, as recent public opinion data details, whites see racism as a "zero sum" game where racial equality means that there are clear winners and losers. Here, a (perceived) end to discrimination against people of color is interpreted as a threat to white people's group position and the inauguration of  "reverse racism" as the status quo ante.

White Americans, and white men in particular, are also more likely to be less hopeful about the future during the time of the Great Recession. Interestingly, while black and brown folks are suffering much more, it is white men who are feeling the most aggrieved. Finally, despite Barack Obama's careful avoidance of any type of serious policy advocacy on behalf of people of color, the symbolism of a black President, and America's demographic shifts, have primed a deep reservoir of unconscious and implicit racial bias that plays off of white racial resentment, and makes the white working class less likely to support the Democratic Party.

Last week, The Washington Post offered up another chapter in this long running conversation. Cohen and Tumulty's article had a gem of writing that neatly captured the diametrically opposed life-worlds, as well as the differing political calculi of (a particular cohort of) white voters as compared to people of color.

Are the masses asses?

Fifty percent of all voters say Obama would do more to advance the interests of the middle class more generally, and 44 percent say so of Romney.

On that question, Obama has an advantage of 53 percent to 41 percent among those who think their foothold in the middle class is relatively secure, while the two candidates divide about equally among those struggling to stay there.

That overall parity, as has been the case in the past, disguises a vast racial divide. Among white voters trying to stay in the middle class, Romney is considered the better candidate for that group by a 20-point margin; Obama is preferred by better than 3 to 1 among middle-class nonwhite voters, regardless of their sense of security.

Whites and nonwhites — as well as voters across party lines — agree that Romney would do more than Obama to advocate for the economic interests of wealthy Americans.

By a 23-point margin, voters say it’s Romney, not Obama, who would do more to advance the interests of Wall Street.

Mitt Romney would actually continue many of the Bush era policies that created the Great Recession. His austerity politics, Ayn Rand dreams, and naked desire to further starve demand by forcing income and resources further up to the plutocrats would make the economy worst and not better. I grant that the American voting public is not sophisticated. Nor, do they have a deep grasp of public policy. But as revealed by this survey, even they know that Obama is more likely to help the middle class, and Romney is an exclusive agent of the rich.

Yet, it seems that white racial group affinity trumps economic self-interest for many white voters.

Reversing the gaze. What of minority voters? They have suffered the most under the Obama administration, but are among his most ardent supporters. There is much evidence that people of color, both as a life necessity in a country where politics was/is very personal, and because we are keen students of power, are quite sophisticated in our political assessments. Obama may have had his finger in a bursting damn, and most certainly has done little as a "race man," but could it be that people of color understand that he is the better candidate when faced with the hellish alternative that is a Tea Party GOP President?

In all, the model of a "rational" voters may be misspecified. Those white voters who support culture war issues and will do anything to get the black guy out of the White House, even at their own financial expense, may simply have a different set of values upon which they base their political behavior. Likewise, those black and brown folks who support Obama despite the economy may be moved by racial symbolism (never forgetting that white voters are deeply motivated by White identity politics too) and a sense of realpolitik that sees Barack as the best of two less than ideal options.

Who are we to judge?

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's all about "expectations" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, greengemini, Larsstephens

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:04:16 AM PDT

  •  This is very good, except (10+ / 0-)

    I think you need an adjective in some of your statements:

    White privilege is deeply attune to any threat at its status. Consequently, as recent public opinion data details, SOME whites see racism as a "zero sum" game where racial equality means that there are clear winners and losers. Here, a (perceived) end to discrimination against people of color is interpreted as a threat to white people's group position and the inauguration of  "reverse racism" as the status quo ante.
    Yet, it seems that white racial group affinity trumps economic self-interest for SOME white voters.
    I think you correctly describe the dynamic for SOME white voters.  But Barack Obama would not be President today of roughly 40% of white voter shad not voted for him, and I suspect a near-majority of non-Southern white voters.

    Yes, nearly 70% of white voters in the South vote R.  Maybe more in some states.  

    In addition, were the economy better, some more might vote for Obama.  In the end, he was elected as an African American and, while many racists voted against him, if he loses it likley will be more because of the advice he took from Larry Summers on the stimulus (too little) than anything else.

    I still think Obama will win (even with today's sucky news), but the economy drives many votes of those not terminally infected by racism.

    That said, I agree that many white working class voters vote against their economic interest based on racism.  There might have been a time in which that was an economcially rational but immoral act (some whites received economic privileges based on race that overcame their class-based disadvatages).  But that is lessening so that they get double screwed.  Might call that karma.      

    I'm from the Elizabeth Warren and Darcy Burner Wing of the Democratic Party!

    by TomP on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:09:38 AM PDT

    •  Some, many or most? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Hell, it doesn't really matter, I understand that Chauncy is not denigrating all whites here. Do we really need to leap to our own defense so quickly? To me, it makes us look petty. Here is a diary discussing racism and the real harm it causes, but heylookitthat! He didn't qualify his statements with the word "some!" Why, that's reverse racism, isn't it?

      Ah, no. No, it isn't reverse racism, it isn't an insult against anyone who stands for racial equality and it is not, to me, unclear in any way.

      If we are being honest, well, the word "some" doesn't cut it as a qualifier. The word you are looking for is "many" or even "most."

      •  Who's "us" that it makes look petty? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I never said anything was "reverse racism."  Really quick to a strawman attack, aren't you?

        As for most or many, I don't know.  You start out saying it does not amtter, but end up saying it is most or many, therefore it does matter.

        All in all, a really poor comment.


        I'm from the Elizabeth Warren and Darcy Burner Wing of the Democratic Party!

        by TomP on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:44:04 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  i strive for precision (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TomP, Egalitare, Azazello, Larsstephens

      fair points that have been included, but that do not take away from the main thesis. sociotropic voting, plus assessment of presidential voting, plus racial animus are all operative had a great piece on some of the new research on how anti-obama sentiment is tied to white racial resentment which overflows to other policy positions.

      scary, but predictable, stuff...

  •  Over 60 million Americans vote Republican. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    johnny wurster

    1% of them, maybe, are "rich".  If the rest of them are voting in their own self-interests, which must be assumed because it is typical human nature, there clearly is a lot yet that Democrats don't understand about voters.

    "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe." -- Albert Einstein

    by Neuroptimalian on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:09:40 AM PDT

  •  As far as Black people Go (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Black Republicans are the greatest asset the Democratic party has ever had.

    Santorum/Bachmann 2012

    by sujigu on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:10:10 AM PDT

  •  Combination of several things: (7+ / 0-)

    Conservative Social Issue Hooks
    Cognitive Dissonance
    Religious Fundamentalism
    Bigotry and Racism

    not a complete list by far, but these things are a part of the whole on why people continue to support failed Republican ideology.

    -6.38, -6.21: Lamented and assured to the lights and towns below, Faster than the speed of sound, Faster than we thought we'd go, Beneath the sound of hope...

    by Vayle on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:10:38 AM PDT

    •  40 years of advertising has also helped. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Vayle, EMBA30, New Rule, greengemini

      While Republicans have failed by every measure when it comes to economics, except the accumulation of wealth by a very few, they have been calling themselves the ones who know best about the economy for 40 years.

      The combination of anti-government railing and anti-non-white (I've got mine) has helped convince low information voters that Republicans will put more money in white voter pockets and keep taxes out of non-white voter pockets.

      In reality they are only good at putting money in their own Republican pockets and putting tax money in other Republican pockets via privatization.

      Please Vote for the Democratic nominee for President in 2012.

      by mungley on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:42:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Peddling Lies and the social based low incomers (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mungley, IARXPHD, New Rule, greengemini

        just love them some 'believin'.

        So many of the religious are wrapped up so tightly in 'beliefs' that they dig in deeper when threatened because if one belief is wrong (conservatives, Republicans), then other beliefs are threatened too.

        It's very much a tribal group reactivity and they dislike anyone who speaks their own mind or does not follow the pack.

        -6.38, -6.21: Lamented and assured to the lights and towns below, Faster than the speed of sound, Faster than we thought we'd go, Beneath the sound of hope...

        by Vayle on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:47:03 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Please don't be shocked but ..... (7+ / 0-)

    voters are more influenced by 'tribal affiliations' than they are by facts and reason.

    We should work on expanding our outreach to create coalitions with people who are in the same boat as us but who have their eyes on the flotilla of the fabulously wealthy who are about to swamp them in their wake.

  •  There was a time when (5+ / 0-)

    the Democratic Party was the party of poor and working class whites.  When the Great Depression hit, the white working class shifted to the left before FDR had even been elected.  To give you an idea of just how much things have changed among the white working class, read this quote from a "veteran politician from the piny woods" of Mississippi in 1932:

    "Folks are restless.  Communism is gaining a foothold.  Right here in Mississippi some people are about ready to lead a mob.  In fact, I'm getting a little pink myself."  His name was Theodore G. Bilbo.  (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of the Old Order, 204-205)
    Think about it: this was rural Mississippi where Communism was "gaining a foothold."  Even though FDR's administration represented the zenith of big spending, big government liberalism, the white working class and the South were his most loyal and enthusiastic supporters.  This remained so as long as FDR did nothing on race and civil rights.

    So why have things changed so much since then?  Well that can be summed up by can be summed up by the words of a Southern Democrat back in 1937:

    "We intend, and I think I speak for every Southern state, to keep the negroes out of our party…Should the Democratic Party fail to take this course, you may be assured that a white man's party would arise in the South."  (Susan Dunn, Roosevelt's Purge, 237)
    The Southern Democrat who said that was Senator Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, who, it should also be noted, was the author of the Conservative Manifesto, a set of principles that served as the founding document of the Conservative Coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans that stifled progressive legislation from 1939-1963.

    All these years later it's clear that Bailey's forewarning has come true: a white man's party has arisen in the South, and in fact among most poor, working, and middle-class whites all across the country - it's called the Republican Party.  

    "Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in the spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

    by puakev on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:22:40 AM PDT

  •  Self-interest is tricky. For it to matter, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    yet another liberal, Vayle

    a person has to be aware of the self. Some people do not see themselves.  They see only what others see and how they are reflected in other people's eyes.

    "The apple of his father's eye." Such people define themselves according to what others think of them. People who consider them important enough to share their values are "in like flynn." Then there's also the "gilt by association" factor.  People feel honored to be courted by the rich.  Being able to give someone who's got everything one's vote is flattering -- makes people feel important.

    People to Wall Street: "LET OUR MONEY GO"

    by hannah on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:31:42 AM PDT

  •  Republicans are not "the masses." (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    They're not insignificant, but they are not and never have been representative of anybody or anything - not men, not whites, not even necessarily rich people.  They're an alliance of thieves and bigots who only ever win elections outside of wingnuttistan by hiding their agenda.

    Our Germans are better zan zeyr Germans.

    by Troubadour on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:38:48 AM PDT

  •  The masses do as they are told. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Great diary.

    As I said in a response above, I think the masses of white voters who vote against their best interests have been convinced (Through all the mechanisms of race, culture and economic manipulation) that the GOP is the best choice for America.

    Any objective observer can see that the GO hurts the middle class and poor, regardless of race, but the rank and file Republican voter has been programmed to think otherwise.

    Please Vote for the Democratic nominee for President in 2012.

    by mungley on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 11:46:20 AM PDT

  •  If You're White, You're Entitled (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This should be clear by now via the teabagger mob's actions and proclamations.

    White Americans, and white men in particular, are also more likely to be less hopeful about the future during the time of the Great Recession. Interestingly, while black and brown folks are suffering much more, it is white men who are feeling the most aggrieved
    Well- why is this?

    Here's why: most whites don't care if minorities are suffering. don't you know it's because they are lazy/stupid?! There's plenty of opportunities out there if you just look! {snark} In case you think I'm serious.

    White men are pissed off because with past recessions, black/brown people and women were the first fired and the last hired when the recession ended. Recessions didn't impact them all that much.

    Obviously this recession is different, numerous white men were fired/laid off, and they're not finding new positions as quickly as before-- and if they are getting hired, it's often at less pay/benefits.

    "I don't feel the change yet". Velma Hart

    by Superpole on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 12:21:17 PM PDT

  •  Thoughtful diary. I ran across this post (0+ / 0-)

    at, which has a column "Ask the White Guy" by Luke Visconti, which takes comments from readers, including this one:

    I’m a 21-year-old white male. Why does it seem like I must apologies (sic) for it? I’m not racist, sexist, nor feel any kind of discrimination towards anyone. I respect individuals based upon their character and merit. My parents and extended family share the same attitude and just a few generations ago my family were immigrants to this great country.
    ..[Success] will be based upon our character and merit… that is unless this “diversity” stuff keeps holding all of us back. So I ask again, why does it seem like I must apologies for being a white male?
    The columnist's response takes the young man to school:
    Answer [ excerpt] :

    ...Some non-white people do “play the race card.” However, I’ll point out that white people “play the race card” every day of their lives. They may not know it, but they do. Such is the privilege of being white in this country.  

    The core aspect of your ignorance is the assertion that you did not have “some sort of advantage” or that you were “given a better opportunity.” You are profoundly wrong in that statement.  

    The animosity you sense being directed at you is due to your behavior, which is shaped by profound lack of knowledge and perspective on how our current national situation has come to pass. You dismiss the very thing that shapes your entire life: white privilege. The fact that you think you can describe your life in absence of racial terms is the pinnacle of white privilege.

    Being white means you never have to think about race; you never consider that your application to college will be treated differently; that the police officer stopping you isn’t out for anything more than how fast you were going; that your boss didn’t really mean to insult you to your core when he said “You’re so articulate” or dismiss your entire being by saying “I don’t care if you’re Black, Yellow, Brown, Green or Polka-Dot …”

    The rest of Visconti's answer is as pointed.  
    ... You are grossly insulting and express profound ignorance when you say that everyone has the “same opportunity” and that “character and merit” are the only determining factors. It’s ironic—you don’t have to apologize for being white, but if you develop an understanding of why you feel that dissonance in your soul, you will gain a powerful advantage as you will be able to build allies and broaden your world.
    Not sure if the questioner will take the good, and avoid feeling scolded and defensive, though.


    Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

    "..The political class cannot solve the problems it created. " - Jay Rosen

    by New Rule on Fri Jun 01, 2012 at 02:46:03 PM PDT

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