Thomas Edsall of The New York Times is one of journalism’s most incisive writers about economics and political economy. (And no, that’s not a subtle put-down.) That’s why it’s so strange to review what he left out of his column today on “The Demise of the White Democratic Voter” and on Republican attempts to change this group’s long-time loyalties.
According to Edsall, one of the keys to understanding why Democratic office-seekers have done so poorly among white voters in recent elections is the Affordable Care Act. He does indeed do a good job of explaining how Obamacare “shifts health care benefits and tax burdens from upper-income Americans to lower-income Americans, and from largely white constituencies to beneficiaries disproportionately made up of racial and ethnic minorities.” The author also rightly noted the ever greater resentment of white voters about underwriting big government more generally with tax bills that seemingly never stop rising.
But what Edsall left out is important, too: First is the Democrats’ 20-year ambivalence on offshoring-friendly trade deals, and their dramatic shift to wholesale support for immigration reform proposals featuring sweeping amnesty proposals. Second is the Republicans’ nearly equally wholesale refusal to capitalize on voter anxiety stemming from the job- and wage-killing effects of recent U.S. trade policies.
Since the 1980s, it’s been clear that Democratic party ranks include a great many voters from union families in particular who closely identify with the so-called traditional social values typically pushed by Republicans (who candidate Barack Obama in 2008 condescendingly claimed were clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”). At the same time, this group still (rightly) associates the GOP with a business establishment that’s been happy to abandon Main Street for cheaper foreign workers (whether brought into the United States or working abroad) and fast-buck financial engineering-heavy business models.
Ronald Reagan successfully appealed to many of these voters by combining vigorous defense of traditional values (often only in rhetoric rather than with action) and a series of trade policy decisions that provided major protections to key industries like autos, steel, and machine tools with big blue-collar unionized workforces. But his GOP successors in the Oval Office, the Georges Bush, strongly rejected this political and policy formula.
Of course, so have Democratic Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – even as many of the House and Senate members elected by Democrats have staunchly opposed the last two decades’ worth of trade agreements and related policy decisions like coddling China’s currency manipulation. Small wonder that white men in particular – many of whom still relied on a shrinking manufacturing sector for their earnings and pensions – moved rightward.
Most middle class whites in particular have not been directly threatened at the work place by ever greater flows of legal and illegal immigrants (with exceptions in high tech fields flooded with H-1B visa holders). But unquestionably they have been turned off by the challenge to the rule of law and national security posed by the tacit encouragement of illegal immigration, by the use of their tax dollars to fund public services for illegals (which feeds into the broader hostility to high taxes), by the related sense of entitlement projected by the mass illegals’ demonstrations of the mid-2000s (which also included many legal immigrants and other supporitve citizens and residents), and by the multi-culturalist arguments so often used by champions of Open Borders.
Thus white voters face a choice nowadays that, if not entirely Hobson-ian, is decidedly uninspiring. On the one hand they can support a Democratic party that’s always taken the lead in creating the key economic protections crucial to creating a large, enduring middle class, but whose president is apparently determined to enact a mass amnesty by executive order, and only somewhat less determined to support more offshoring-friendly trade deals. On the other hand, they can continue defecting to a Republican party that, whatever its other perceived advantages, is only superficially united against looser immigration controls, and that’s even more enthusiastic than Mr. Obama about trade offshoring.
Some day, some national-level politician will figure out the advantages of fusing a populist economic platform with positions on social and cultural issues that can not only be called traditional, but that clearly emphasize the best of that tradition. Until then, however, it looks like winning the White House will depend heavily on whether the Democrats attract and retain enough non-white voters to offset continued loss of white supporters, and the converse for the Republicans – hardly a formula for a more harmonious and more unified nation.