Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Letting go of “Reagan Democrats”

Yesterday at TPMCafe, Rick Perlstein kicked off a week-long examination of his new book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. I’ve been asked to join this week’s cafe (a fun departure from writing about politics through a feminist lens), and I recommend checking it out, because the book is wonderful. And very relevant to today’s post topic: “Reagan Democrats“. The seeds of creation for this group of voters means they’re probably more “Nixon Democrats”, a name that would at least show how fruitless getting them back into the fold might be.
Ezra’s post gently puts to rest the ancient Democratic hobbyhorse of lamenting the loss of that percentage of white working class voters that long ago quit voting their economic interests and started voting against uppity black people and women, and against the “liberal elite”. Interestingly, the “elite” label doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to liberals—the lower you go on the income ladder, the more liberal you tend to be statistically speaking:

So why do Republicans win when (because of Republican policies no less), the number of people falling below the cutoff line greatly outnumbers the people falling above it? In part, because the higher you get up the income ladder, the more likely you are to vote. Also, there’s racial issues (gender a bit less, because while women are more liberal than men, they also vote more regularly, so it probably evens out):

(Results from 2006 election poll results.) I’m not sure how we win back the “Reagan Democrats”—white people, men especially, who would rather vote to screw those less privileged than themselves than to lift themselves up. They don’t even have to be most working and middle class white men. You just need a percentage of them who’d rather scapegoat than seek solutions to give Republicans that edge to get to 50 + 1%.
Trying to win over people who vote their resentments hasn’t worked. Look, Reagan won when I was 3 years old. The people who voted for him and are still voting for Republicans aren’t coming back to the fold. Their resentments are calcified at this point, which is why Republicans are still winning by fighting the same battles they fought in the 60s and 70s—sex in the schools, women’s lib, black people out of control. We’ll stop seeing them voting this way when they start dying off. An entire generation has been born and come of age since he won. Time instead to look ahead, where things are getting sunnier if we can actually harness younger voters.

What the Republicans did to change the political landscape was to be opportunistic. How and why that opportunity came up is an interesting story, and one you’ll get more of if you read Nixonland, but if we want to learn something from Republicans, it’s not “Get that resentful percentage of white working class men”, but “See opportunities and grab them.” The opportunities at hand are a younger generation that isn’t nearly as badly saddled with racist, sexist, and homophobic resentments and that has the numbers. The other opportunity at hand is the browning of America—a handful of states have already become minority majority states, and more will come. Focus on getting disadvantaged people to the polls instead of longing for that group of white people that will vote bread off their own tables if they can get bread and water off the table of a black neighbor.
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