The white male voter is not an endangered species, as is sometimes suggested. But he is elusive political prey, for Democrats in particular, as Hoyt Hilsman affirms in his HuffPo post, “Democrats, White Men and the Tea Party Revolt.” Hilsman presents interesting demographic and voting data on the politics of race and gender at this political moment:
In his fine book The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, David Paul Kuhn took a hard look at the future of the Democratic party, and it’s not good news. Since 1972, white men have voted by well over 60% for Republican or conservative candidates in every single presidential race. The only exceptions were Jimmy Carter, who got 48% of the white male vote, and Barack Obama, who got 41% of white men.
…With the minority and youth vote expected to be significantly lower in the 2010 midterm elections, white voters will likely cast more than 75% of the ballots. And with Obama’s approval ratings in the mid-30’s among white men, the Democrats’ hold on Congress is in jeopardy and Obama’s re-election in 2012 is questionable.
While some argue that the more progressive blocs of minorities and women voters can overcome the conservative votes of white men, Kuhn points out the fallacy of that argument. The nearly 100 million white men make up almost 40% of the American electorate, more than five times the total of all Hispanic voters, male and female. And the slight improvement that Democrats have registered with white women voters (over half of whom still vote regularly for Republicans) doesn’t begin to match the Republican party’s enormous advantage among white men. Add to that the outsized influence of the white male vote in the South (where more than 75% of white men vote Republican) and in rural areas which carry heavy weight in the electoral college (one Wyoming resident’s vote equals the vote of seventy-two Californians), the electoral future for progressives looks dim.
Looking at the voting data presented by Hilsman from a different angle, if President Obama was able to win 41 percent of white men as an act of faith based on an unproven track record, could he do even better in ’12, riding the crest of an economic uptick, assuming one is well underway by then and he gets much of the credit?
Hilsman’s remedy for the gender gap is credible enough. He notes, “a focus on jobs is paramount, since men have been the major losers in the current employment landscape,” while cautioning that focus won’t mean so much unless the numbers improve over the next few months. Hilsman adds:
…Democrats need to face the gender gap squarely. This does not mean capitulating on progressive causes, nor does it mean competing with Republicans on the macho quotient or reshaping itself as the “daddy” party. What the Democrats – and progressives in general – need to do is revive their conversation with white men, much as they did with African-Americans in the 1950’s and with women in the 1960’s and ’70’s…Democrats now should learn how to connect with the emotions of white male voters.
Hilsman touches on the third dimension of class, missing in the rest of this analysis, “we have been slow to recognize injustices done to white men, who have been viewed as occupying a privileged place in society (even though the vast majority of white men enjoy no such privileges).”
It’s an important distinction, which merits more consideration, since some white male voters support Republicans to defend their upper-class interests, while middle and working class white men who vote Republican are generally voting against their economic interests, arguably more so than any other demographic group. The proportion and ‘why’ of this second group are questions of huge import for the future of the Democratic Party, as well as the nation.
Hilsman suggests that President Obama emulate Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to the political discontent of white males: “FDR opened a dialogue with disenfranchised workers, who had been largely neglected and even scorned by much of American society…he managed to gain the confidence of a large swath of the American work force, and kept them from falling under the spell of political extremism.”
If Hilsman undervalues the role of a class-based appeal to white male voters, he hits the target in his conclusion:
Democrats have a chance to rebuild that progressive movement, but only if they listen to another disaffected group – white men… We should listen carefully to the concerns of white men – urban and rural, North and South – and respond to them within the framework of progressive values. Only then will we be able build a more inclusive future for our country — one that does not include the divisive hatred and venom of the Tea Partiers.
While many progressives remain doubtful about the Democratic Party’s prospects for winning the white working class as a voting bloc, what should not be in doubt is our ability to win a substantial piece of it — with a conscious, substantive and concerted message that speaks to their interests in a very particular way.