The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 10, 2008

The ______ Democrats

The headline of this piece is not intended for the reader to insert his or her favorite obscenity.

It is to note the Democratic Party’s obsession with categorizing its members. As The Economist notes in “White men can vote” this week, referring to Barack Obama:
The “people” section on his website divides Americans into 17 categories: Latinos, women, First Americans, environmentalists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, Americans with disabilities, Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders and so on. There is no mention of whites, or men.
As you can judge from the headline, the Economist’s story (I’d tell you who wrote it, but the Economist rarely uses bylines) proposes that white men will decide whether Obama is elected president, and that poses a problem for Obama given that Obama trails John McCain “by about 20 points among them.”

This is a wonderfully written piece that doesn’t merely talk about racial politics, but about how voters view the role of government. For instance:
Between the presidential elections of 1960 and 2004, [Democrats'] share of the southern white male vote shrank by 17 points, but among non-southern whites it still shrank by 12 points. And racial attitudes have changed dramatically since the 1960s, especially among the young. There must be something besides bigotry making white men spurn the Democrats.

Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, thinks the white working class has been hoodwinked. It is in their economic interest to vote Democratic, but they don’t because those crafty Republicans have got them all worked up about silly moral and cultural issues such as abortion, guns and gay marriage.

Both theories are popular among Democrats, not least because they imply that Democrats have done nothing wrong; it is just that poor white trash are too bigoted or stupid to support them. But Democrats will not get very far by blaming the voter. David Paul Kuhn, author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, points out that moral issues cannot easily be separated from economic ones. Poor people fret more about family breakdown because they see more of it than rich people do and its consequences, for them, are worse.

In a time of economic insecurity, it is rational for people to turn to things they can rely on, such as faith and patriotism, and unwise for Democrats to scorn them for it. That is why Mr Obama’s comment that people in small towns “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” because they are “bitter” will be the keystone of Republican attacks, predicts Mr Kuhn.

Mr Kuhn thinks the Democrats’ failure to take white men seriously is the main reason they keep losing presidential elections. The party captures liberal white men—typically prosperous professionals—but scores badly among businessmen and white male workers. Part of the problem is that Democrats are identified with the notion that white men are to blame for all the world’s ills, from racism to the oppression of the workers. Few white men share this view. Many are workers themselves.


In some voters’ minds, Democrats are associated with an assault on masculinity itself. “Boys can’t be boys in school any more,” complains Karen Combs, a volunteer for Mr McCain. And urban liberals don’t understand how much guns matter to rural white men, fumes Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist. “Someone’s talking about taking your guns, they’re talking about coming inside your fence,” he says. “And government should stop at your fence.”

(I am shocked that a Democratic strategist could be found who espouses such a libertarian attitude as “government should stop at your fence.”)

Economist columnist Lexington echoes that point in a column about Michelle Obama:

Now that the primaries are over, the issues have changed. Blacks are solidly for Mr Obama, but many swing voters are unsure. Some Republicans think his wife’s habit of speaking her mind could prove a problem. For example, in February, as her husband’s campaign was catching fire, she said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Some Americans bristle at the implication that the only worthwhile thing any of them has done in the past quarter-century is to back Mr Obama.

Mrs Obama’s speeches rarely accentuate the positive. America, to her, is a “downright mean” country where families struggle to buy food, where mothers are terrified of being fired if they get pregnant and where “life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime”. But she was born in 1964, when Americans lived shorter, poorer lives and southern blacks couldn’t vote. Whereas her husband is magically skilled at not giving offence, Mrs Obama can be a blunt instrument. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she urges young people, denigrating what most Americans do for a living and biting the hand that pays for all the public programmes she favours. “Barack Obama will require you to work,” she says. “He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation…Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Some people would rather decide for themselves how to live their lives.

Conservative pundits have savaged her. One acerbic blogger calls her “Obama’s bitter half”. Others mock her occasional gripes about her personal finances and her solipsistic college thesis about the woes of black Princetonians. The National Review says she “embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology, which is not where most Americans live. On the other hand, it does make her a terrific Oprah guest.”

(Voters aren’t the only ones being categorized. The Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web Today noticed this passage from a New York Times story about preparations for the Democratic convention in Denver in August: “A 28-page contract requested by Denver organizers that caterers provide food in ‘at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple and white.’ Garnishes could not be counted toward the colors. No fried foods would be allowed. Organic and locally grown foods were mandated, and each plate had to be 50 percent fruits and vegetables. As a result, caterers are shying away.” However, the Denver Post reports that convention organizers changed their minds and termed the stipulations “guidelines.”)

To say that Obama has a white male problem isn’t correct — he has a traditional values problem, one that is not going away regardless of how many speeches he makes about how patriotic he is, how many flip-flops he makes about gun rights, and how many tax cuts he proposes for working families. (His political party clearly has a weirdness problem, as shown by its aforementioned fixation on the color of food.) Those white males Democrats seem to denigrate and can’t attract to Obama’s side more often than not have wives, who probably have similar views about what government should and should not do, and who also vote. Obama’s problem isn’t his skin color or his ethnic background — it’s his positions on issues, including the cynical impression created by his issue flip-flopping, and his ignorance about how taxes work.

Michelle Obama’s demand that “you put down your divisions” should apply first to her husband’s political party — the same party whose presidential candidate’s Web site “divides Americans into 17 categories: Latinos, women, First Americans, environmentalists, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, Americans with disabilities, Asian–Americans and Pacific islanders and so on.”

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