In Barack Obama's now famous remarks to rich donors in San Francisco in early April, he attributed the fact that white Democrats in small towns were resisting his candidacy to their anger over their economic misfortune. "They get bitter," Obama said, "and cling to guns or religion... as a way to explain their frustration." Obama seemed to be implying that social conservatism is a toxic byproduct of economic distress -- and it may have hurt him in Pennsylvania last week, where he lost the primary contest to Hillary Clinton.
Yet the notion expressed by Obama is hardly new. Way back in 1991, Bill Clinton claimed that Republican appeals to traditional values worked because "you have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death." Indeed there is much currency to the idea that white members of America's working class foolishly vote for values at the expense of their economic interests. But is this thesis correct? The answer, it turns out, is complicated. If the white working class is defined as those without college degrees, then yes, these voters have been crucial to Republican successes since the 1960s. In 1972, Richard Nixon deliberately aimed to "make patriotism and morality the issue and get above the material things." GOP strategists Lee Atwater and Karl Rove later led their party to success by appealing to uneducated voters on the basis of issues like religion, patriotism, gun ownership and opposition to welfare and race-based affirmative action.
But it is far from obvious that by choosing to vote the Republican ticket, such Americans have acted against their economic interests -- for it's not at all clear that recent Democrats would have offered more economic help than Republicans did. While U.S. liberals in office have been extremely generous to the poor -- by removing them from the tax rolls, enlarging the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising the minimum wage -- these reforms have done little for many working-class whites who make too much money to qualify for means-tested antipoverty programs. Instead of promoting plans to raise median wages, which have stagnated since the 1970s, liberals have focused on rolling back tax cuts for the rich -- a valid goal, but like universal health care, one that would not raise take-home pay by a penny. By supporting race-based affirmative action, conventional liberals have favored positive discrimination for blacks and Latinos against members of the white working class in college admissions, small-business assistance and congressional redistricting.
Proponents of the thesis that the white working class votes against its interests also err by suggesting that Democrats ought to return to the rhetoric of class, which they were alleged to have used in the New Deal era. In the 2004 best seller "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Thomas Frank argues that by dropping class language, which he says once distinguished Democrats from Republicans, Democrats left themselves "vulnerable to cultural wedge issues... whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns." But the truth is that New Deal Democrats, from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, always spoke the universalist language of national interest and public good versus corrupt special interests and "economic royalists" (in FDR's phrase), not the Marxist language of workers versus capitalists. They were largely silent on social issues.
Today's Republicans offer white working-class voters traditional values but not economic progressivism. Contemporary Democrats offer economic progressivism but not traditional values. While neither party gives white working class voters the blend of moderate social conservatism and moderate economic progressivism that they want, Republicans continue to benefit from the fact that in the United States, as in much of the world, identity-defining values outweigh material interests. When there is a conflict between people's pocketbooks and their values, most voters choose the latter. People who would not risk a blister for a raise will die for a creed.
The irony here is that liberals do acknowledge the importance of communal identity when it comes to Black History Month, Gay Pride Day or the need for black, Latino and women's studies at universities. But many elite liberals are all too happy to criticize heavily working-class white subcultures, like Irish-American Catholics and Southern Scots-Irish Protestants, when they refuse to sacrifice their identities to their economic interests. Now that the Democrats raise more money and win more votes than Republicans from the super-rich, this has given rise to a blatant double standard. When Obama's big-city donors vote their ideals, not their interests, they consider themselves enlightened and noble; when small-town white traditionalists do the same, they are considered pathetic dupes.
The key truth that Democrats should remember is that values politics are not inimical to economic progressivism. But economic progressives, like economic conservatives, must learn how to pitch their programs to traditionalists, and reassure their audiences that they do not agree with Thomas Frank that their values are "hallucinatory."