For those of you with your images turned off, that’s President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law. Martin Luther King, Jr. stands immediately behind him.
It is taken as virtual gospel among progressives that Democrats once had a lock on white working class voters, but that position quickly eroded in the 1990s and later as party leaders pursued cuts to social programs, Wall Street deregulation, and anti-union trade agreements.
But what if the Democratic position among the white working class hasn’t eroded at all outside the south? What if, even as Democratic Party economic policies undeniably became more obsequious to the one percent, the entire Democratic decline among the white working class can be attributed to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”?
In a paper (PDF) published on the eve of the 2012 election, political scientist Elisabeth Jacobs presented compelling data pointing to that exact conclusion:
On average, Democratic presidential candidates prospects with self-identified white working class voters have diminished somewhat over time. ... Yet, the downward trend in Democratic presidential vote choice between 1956 and 2008 is concentrated amongst the Southern white working class. ... White working class presidential party vote choice for non-Southerners is remarkably stable over time; if anything, the period between 1984 and 2008 has been one of improvement for the Democrats amongst this group. The opposite is true in the South. Prior to the 1960s rights revolutions (including, most notably for the South, the major upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement), a strong majority of the Southern white working class voted for Democratic candidates. Southern white working class voting appears to have settled into a basic equilibrium with Reagan’s 1984 election, with the notable exception of an uptick for Clinton’s first election in 1992, and again for Obama’s 2008 election gambit.
Please read below the fold for more on this story.
More from Jacobs:
[P]erhaps most importantly because it is so often overlooked in popular analysis, the defection of the white South from the Democratic Party plays a central role in driving the overarching story of white working class politics. As Bartels succinctly summarizes: “Democratic presidential vote share has declined by almost 20 percentage points among [S]outhern whites without college degrees. Among non-southern whites without college degrees, it has declined by one percentage point. That’s it. Fourteen elections, 52 years, one percentage point.” The same basic relationship holds across all income groups of non-college educated whites: a 20-point-gap between the South and the rest of the country. This is Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy come to life, not a widespread national defection of white working class voters from the Democratic Party. Case in point: in 2008, Obama won 54 percent of whites with incomes under $50,000 outside of the South, while he secured just 35 percent of this group in the South.
For the greater good of this country, to reduce America’s intolerable levels of poverty and its obscene levels of inequality, every effort must be made to get the Democratic Party to become a serious advocate of pro-working class economic policies. On that front, we have a long way to go.
However, just because Democrats moved to the right on economic policy does not mean that was the cause of their decline among the white working class. Instead, the Democratic decline among the white working class happened because the party did the right thing and stood up against oppression.
The fact is that whether “working class” is defined by income, education or by self-identification, Democrats have not seen their performance among the non-southern white working class decline at all over the past six decades. What’s more, the decline of Democrats among southern working class whites coincided precisely with the photograph at the top of this article, and not with the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council.
The dominating Democratic coalitions of the past were based not only on organized labor and economic populism, but also significantly on Jim Crow and American apartheid. It’s OK for us to admit that. As progressives, we strive for a better, more equal future that has never been attained, not for a past golden age that never really happened.