Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

(I don’t know what to do) Say it wasn’t you: The white working class and the Shaggy party

In Domestic Politics on March 30, 2010 at 3:30 pm

It is only when you go to say something in public that you realize how prurient our popular culture really is. The hook for this post is the Shaggy song from back in 2000. I won’t even deign to link to it on a quasi academic site, but I will suggest to you that the theme is that a guy is caught cheating on his girlfriend and he works through the farcical implications of his vain attempts to convince her that it was not him when caught in flagrante delicto.

What got me thinking about this was the fascinating responses to Frank Rich’s column over the weekend that blames the opposition of the white working class to Obamacare on race and ethnic issues. Now, I had written on this a few days earlier myself and so my position is fairly clear. I do think race has something to do with this, but I think that racial biases that attach to lifestyles matter even more. The core of my argument is that the Democrats have had the misfortune to alienate the people with lifestyles close to the white working class and have therefore lost many of them to the party. They have not done this on purpose, but they have done it as part of their naturally expansive notion of liberalism from property concerns, to class concerns, and now to recognition concerns. For obvious and important reasons, the left in the U.S. today is primarily an identity based constituency that attempts to redress the injustices done to those who had up until the mid-twentieth century been history’s forgotten. This noble effort was too long in coming, and remains incomplete, but the second main wave of liberal concerns, namely class or economic equity, has been displaced. Democrats are no longer class warriors, and it is not clear if they care overmuch for terms like liberty and freedom (as these have been attached to the right), but they understandably despise marginalization, alienation, discrimination and victimization. There is no way or reason for them to turn back the clock, but there is reason to encourage Democrats to find ways to embrace the full range of their values if they would be successful.

The problem is that, in general, the white working class is not yet all the way with them in these concerns and this has contributed to a decline in faith in progressive economic programs. This is a political problem because the white working class is a crucial swing group who decides elections and swings popular opinion on crucial issues like health reform, peace gestures, and banking reform. Without them, you can win but only 51-49. They are also the ones who make for really testy enemies once they themselves are deeply alienated.

There are several good pieces out there attempting to make sense of the issue here and here. There are some fascinating denials as well. In order to get some leverage on the question, it is nice to have some data. Fortunately there are many good data out there (yes data is a plural word).  I worked on a book in grad. school that set much of this conversation and had a chapter of my dissertation devoted to trends in the voting behavior of the white working class. That would be worth posting and I may when I get the time to scan it. In the meantime there is an interesting paper by another sociologist named Lane Kenworthy who has kept on this subject. The paper is long and packed with General Social Survey data, but shows that indeed, the white working class has largely broken with the Democratic Party and it did so in the late 1970s and in the period from 1987-1991.

Kenworthy and associates do a great job of working with these data to find the silver bullet and provide an admirable tour through a dataset not meant for this kind of investigation. There is an aching need for multivariate analysis here, but they explain why you can’t do it. The answer they give is complicated and based on the data structure leaves out close examination of a few items that I am interested enough to almost run the numbers myself (look at Figure 16 in particular). The main point is that the Democrats are hemorrhaging populist potential (numbers get worse for the young) and that is resulting in Sarah Palin, among other things.

Because the Democrats have lost their credibility with the white working class, members of it are easily convinced that anything Democrats would do for them will not work. I, myself, have heard many times from people who would at least indirectly benefit from the health reform that it will not affect them or anyone they know. This leaves us in the curious condition in which Republicans can act flagrantly (if they so desire) against the interests of the white working class and can then deny their actions. You can see Paul Krugman fulminating against this kind of thing a lot these days.

Therefore the Republicans are in a much better position to do what politicians of all kinds love to do, deny culpability. I have not checked the numbers, but I suspect that the members of the white working class blame Obama and Bush equally for the high unemployment rate. Even if neo-liberalism is the tonic of the twenty first century, this seems more than a bit unfair to Obama. Therefore, I don’t think it unfair to say that this means that the Republicans, at least temporarily, can play the role of the Shaggy party. They can do one thing, say another and their new swing voters will not leave them. Are you a Republican? Here’s my advice: “It wasn’t me.”

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  1. […] of the answer is that the Republicans are just really adept with the Shaggy defense, but what is wrong with President Obama is exactly what is right about him. Both of these crises […]

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