Angry White Men

R.W. Johnson on Obama’s electoral arithmetic

Running for Congress in Louisiana in 1961, Joe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat and militant segregationist, faced a tough challenge from the Republican candidate, a wealthy oilman called Charlton Lyons. Waggonner came up with a novel – and winning – argument: he warned that electing Lyons would help bring about a competitive two-party system in which a contest could easily be tipped one way or the other by the black vote. This, Waggonner pointed out, was how Jack Kennedy got elected president in 1960, and that sort of thing would never do in Louisiana.

Waggonner was right about JFK, who had beaten Nixon by a mere 0.1 per cent of the vote; the black vote, which split 72 to 28 per cent for Kennedy, had clearly made the difference. But this wasn’t the first time. In his 1948 campaign, Harry Truman backed civil rights, and he ordered the integration of the US Army, causing Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat walkout. In the end Truman beat Dewey by 303 electoral college votes to 189, with the election turning on the results in Ohio, Illinois and California (78 votes between them), all of which Truman won by less than 1 per cent. All three states had large black electorates and the black vote had rallied strongly to Truman. Without it Dewey would have won by 267 to 225.

Carter and Clinton (twice) could not have gained office without the black vote; indeed Johnson in 1964 was the last Democrat to win a majority of the white vote. He used his victory to push through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, observing that this meant the Democrats would lose the South for a generation to come. Presidentially, at least, that has been true: even in 1964 LBJ lost much of the South to Goldwater. The last Democratic president to win a majority among Southern whites was Roosevelt in 1944.

It might be thought that Barack Obama, who won by 365 electoral college votes to 173, and took 52.9 per cent of the popular vote to McCain’s 45.7, really did make a success of his ‘post-racial’ theme. His was the biggest Democratic victory since 1964. Yet in Florida, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, all of which he won, Obama lost among white voters.[*] In each case he won these states because he won massive majorities of the black and Hispanic votes (95 per cent and 67 per cent respectively). These swing states accounted for 142 of his electoral college votes, and without them he would have lost by 315 to 223. Obama also managed to get black and Hispanic voters to turn out in unprecedented numbers. He did better among white voters than John Kerry had in 2004, but not by much: Kerry got 41 per cent, Obama 43 per cent.

The brunt of the recession has been borne by precisely those groups that supported Obama most: blacks, Hispanics and the young. (In 2008, the 18-29 age group, which usually accounts for about 11 per cent of the electorate, contributed 18 per cent of the total vote, splitting 66 to 32 in Obama’s favour.) These groups are now the most disillusioned and apathetic, and feel disinclined to vote in 2012. The Republicans, meanwhile, have mobilised white and older voters as never before. No less striking is that whereas in 2008, 78 per cent of Jews voted for Obama, a poll in June this year found that only 56 per cent still supported him. By a majority of more than seven to one, Jewish Democrats take Israel’s side against the president and by more than two to one they agree that he is ‘naive in thinking he can make peace with the Arabs’. The recent Republican gain of the Ninth Congressional District of New York – the most Jewish seat in America, last won by the GOP in 1920 – shows just how bad the damage is. Jewish votes could make the difference in a state like Florida, and Jewish campaign donors could make a difference everywhere.

Europeans are so massively pro-Obama that they find it difficult to imagine he might be thrown out after just one term. But that is what the figures now suggest. The economy is the dominant issue and by this summer voters thought by a 15 per cent margin that ‘Obama’s policies are making things worse.’ On an average of the latest polls, Obama trails any generic Republican candidate by 43.3 per cent to 44 per cent, and the leading Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, by 45.3 per cent to 45.9 per cent. Among independents and undecideds, he trails badly. Coming to office at a time when large numbers of people were losing their homes and their jobs – and when many more were scared that the same thing might happen to them – Obama should have known that he had to make homes and jobs his top priority. Instead, he concentrated on healthcare. This error has undermined his presidency, provoking so much disappointment that even his achievement in health could well be swept away.

American politics is propelled by laws quite different from any known in Europe. A great deal may be traced back to the elections of the 1960s. Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks, in their study Social Cleavages and Political Change: Voter Alignments and US Party Coalitions (1999), found that the old religious split between voters was deepest in 1960, as Catholics flocked to vote for Kennedy and Protestants, though less monolithically, to vote against him. Since then the religious divide has seemed less important, as liberal Protestants have defected to the Democrats. In 1964, however, Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights led to a major Republican breakthrough among whites in the South, while blacks moved, almost all of them, to the Democrats – and stayed there. It was this exacerbation of the racial divide that made it by far the most potent division in US politics – though the class divide, despite a great deal of verbiage to the contrary, is remarkably persistent. Finally, there has been a slowly widening gender gap, one without parallel anywhere else in the developed world.

The gender gap wasn’t much noticed until 1980 when Reagan opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. In its way this was just as dramatic a moment as when Goldwater turned his back on civil rights: the GOP, the party of Lincoln, was the traditional friend of the black man, and had been the champion of women’s rights for generations. Women had always favoured the Republicans, but since 1980 women have not only been far more pro-Democrat than men but also more likely to vote: in 1960, women made up 49 per cent of the Democratic electorate; by 1980 they accounted for 60 per cent of it.

In fact there was no sudden change; the women’s vote has undergone a long evolution, accounted for not least by women’s increased participation in the labour market, which doubled between 1950 and 1994. Over the same period half of all marriages ended in divorce, the age at which people married rose by more than four years, and a small but steadily increasing number of women decided not to get married at all: in 1950, 35 per cent of the female population were unmarried; by 2005, the figure was 51 per cent. The crux of all this was that as women moved into the labour market they suffered discrimination, and since many had the heavy disadvantage of being divorcees and single parents, they often got low-paid jobs. They responded along traditional class lines, moving in large numbers to the Democrat camp. The abortion issue explains almost none of the gender gap: 55 per cent of women think abortion should always or mostly be legal, but so do 52 per cent of men. There is, however, a growing ‘marriage gap’: married people of either sex are considerably more likely to vote Republican than the non-married.

Working-class men, meanwhile, were moving in the opposite direction. Perhaps the most significant statistic in this regard, quoted by David Kuhn in The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma (2007), is that the average wage for working-class men over 25 was (measured in terms of the 2001 dollar) $34,532 in 1970 and $28,763 in 2003. That’s to say, the working class gained less than nothing from a generation of vastly increased productivity. More than 60 per cent of the gains in after-tax income went to the richest 1 per cent of the population. Men, particularly white men, experienced a severe status crisis. More and more they failed in their traditional role as providers. They felt blamed for just about everything – racism, domestic violence, child abuse. They took affirmative action as another blow: it made it harder for their children to get into college. They found that their old-fashioned code of masculinity was no longer admired; indeed they were derided as rednecks.

The last institution binding the white working class to the Democrats was the trade unions. In the presidential election of 1968, the segregationist George Wallace won huge numbers of votes in northern working-class areas in the Democratic primaries but by November his success was entirely reversed: the unions wouldn’t wear his right-wing populism. The tide, however, was moving strongly against them: by 2004 membership was down to 12.5 per cent of the workforce, and only 7.9 per cent in the private sector. The recent rise in unemployment will have cut that figure even further. In 1980, a vast number of white unskilled workers and the self-employed moved over to Reagan, a trend that has been consolidated since. The main shift in the other direction has been of professionals and managers and liberal Protestants (often the same people) to the Democrats. By the 1990s, the Democrats were getting about the same number of votes from professionals as from unskilled workers – and since 1984 they have raised more money from business than from labour. So there is no longer a party which workers can truly call home.

Earl and Merle Black’s The Rise of Southern Republicans (2003) found that Southern whites came over to the GOP in two great waves: in 1964 for Goldwater; and in the 1980s for Reagan, who in 1984 won 72 per cent of Southern white votes. By 1996 among lower income groups in the South, 93 per cent of blacks were Democrats, as were 65 per cent of Hispanics, but among working-class whites 42 per cent were committed GOP, as against 35 per cent who were hardcore Democrats; in other words, among whites, race trumped class. While upper-income whites were safely Republican, upper-income blacks were still predominantly Democrats (for blacks a Democrat vote is about identity, not class).

One of the greatest conundrums of US politics is that white working-class men have moved to the right while their wives and sisters have done the opposite. Women vote ever more clearly on class lines; men don’t. Something similar is going on with blacks. By 1996, 58 per cent of all black voters in the South were women, and they represented 64 per cent of low-income black voters; 90 per cent of these women voted Democrat, compared to 83 per cent of black men. The results were perhaps most obvious in the case of Al Gore in 2000. He lost in every category of white men, even trade unionists. He did better among white women, and especially women with a college education. Among men a college education made them more likely to vote Republican.

Perhaps it is misleading to consider men and women separately. In practice, as working-class men’s wages have fallen, their wives have gone out to work (women’s wages have risen), so maintaining family incomes and any hope they might have of affording college fees – and thus upward social mobility – for their children. But we don’t know why white men and women have voted so differently on class issues or why men have apparently been so much more influenced by the race issue.

The 2008 turnout, at 62 per cent, was the highest since 1945.[†] But the race question hurt Obama, who lost white Protestants by 65 per cent to 34 and even white Catholics by 52 per cent to 47. While Obama did no worse than Gore or Kerry among white voters, this itself was evidence of racial prejudice since, given Bush’s huge unpopularity and the economic crisis, Obama should have fared far better. But perhaps the most telling point is that of the 3141 US counties in the year of the Obama landslide, 678 of them swung towards the GOP, 225 of them by more than 10 per cent. Most were small towns in rural areas: the Appalachians, for example, where there are many Southern Baptists with little education and few members of minorities. Large numbers of angry white men, gun-owners all, live in such areas. (Fifty-five per cent of white men own at least one gun, and in the South the figure rises to 63 per cent; overall, among gun-owners McCain won 62 per cent to 37.)

All of these factors will matter in 2012. Ridiculous though it may seem on this side of the Atlantic, no Harvard-educated black man is likely to be able to embody a masculine ideal for the aggrieved white men in Appalachia and elsewhere. That is the problem, not healthcare or Obama’s fetishisation of bipartisanship. The current crisis followed on Bush’s decision to fight two major wars without raising taxes to pay for them – he knew that would make them unpopular. When asked how this was possible, Dick Cheney told reporters that Reagan ‘proved deficits don’t matter’. This fiscal irresponsibility was mirrored in the markets, financed by Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve. The bill arrived and the hangover set in just as Obama was elected. Inevitably, the costs have been shifted mainly onto the poorer half of the population – they’re the ones paying with their homes and jobs, their divorces and broken lives.

The real accusation against Obama is that he knows all this, knows how the system works, and that he screwed up nonetheless. He had two years with a large Democratic majority in Congress and should have used them, above all, to consolidate his base and keep his majority through 2010. Jobs and homes and the biggest possible Keynesian stimulus were what was needed. It was to be expected that a black man from Illinois would hark back to Abraham Lincoln, with his penchant for appointing opponents to his cabinet, but a better model would have been Franklin Roosevelt, who never relied on Republicans for anything, brushed aside ideological arguments with the remark that what voters really wanted was ‘a chicken in every pot’, and bent all his efforts to that pragmatic end.

Obama seems to have sensed impending failure when he declared he’d rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer. The problem now is what happens if he does lose. The Democrats have robbed the Republicans of their patrician establishment, the professionals and liberal Protestants who tended to tame the radical reactionaries in their party’s ranks. The GOP stands a chance of winning not only the presidency and a renewed majority in Congress but a Senate majority too. This would put Tea Party extremists in a commanding position at a time of American and world financial crisis; for the rest of us this would be like tightrope walking in the dark with a gorilla on one’s back.

[*] How Barack Obama Won: A State by State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election by Chuck Todd, Sheldon Gawiser and Ana Maria Arumi (Vintage, 258 pp., £8.50, January 2009, 978 0 307 47366 0).

[†] The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House edited by Larry Sabato (Longman, 304 pp., £16.99, April 2009, 978 0 205 65044 6).