By Alan Bean
The American electorate is more racially divided in 2012 than at any time in the recent memory. This encourages the simple conclusion that white Americans prefer Mitt Romney to Barack Obama because Mitt is white. But a recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute paints a far more complex portrait of the white American voter.
As has been widely reported, white women are about equally divided between the two candidates; it’s the men who break strongly for Romney. In 2008, Barack Obama carried a higher percentage of the white vote (41%) than any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Moreover, working class whites give Mitt Romney a favorability rating of 45% compared to Barack Obama’s 44%; among college educated whites, both men are favored by 49% of those surveyed. If white America throws its support behind the Republican candidate in tomorrow’s election (as they assuredly will) it has little to do with a birds-of-a-feather firing of mirror neurons.
The white electorate divides sharply along five distinct fault lines: education, gender, age, geography and religion. The Public Religion Research Institute Survey compares the white working class to college educated whites. College educated white voters favor Romney, but by a scant 2 points; the white working class favors Romney by 13 points (48-35).
In other words, when we are talking about “the white electorate” we are primarily talking about white working class voters. In this election, 80% of minority votes will go to the Democrat; Romney will be the overwhelming favorite of the white working class; and white college educated voters will fall somewhere in between these extremes. Since white middle class voters comprise 36% of the voting population, their clout is difficult to exaggerate. White college educated voters account for 21% of the electorate, black voters, 11%, and Latino voters, 13%. (For the poll under discussion 11% of white voters are neither working class or college educated).
As we have seen, white women are far more likely to favor Obama than their brothers, boy friends and husbands; and this applies just as much to the white middle class (41%-41%) as to white college educated women. White working class males, on the other hand, will favor Romney by 27 points (57%-28%). It should be noted, however, that working class males making less than $30,000 divide their votes evenly between Obama and Romney while working class males who have received food stamps in the past two years, favor Obama by a margin of 48% to 36%. The authors of the study use this data to argue that the white working class, contrary to popular opinion, do not always vote against their perceived interests.
Older white working class voters are considerably more likely to support Romney than whites between 18 and 39: 65%-37%. If you’re doing the math, that’s a 28 point difference.
But it is region that really tells the tale. Among white voters, Obama leads by eight points in the Midwest, but trails by five in the West, four in the Northeast, and by an amazing 40 points in the South. This largely explains why Mitt Romney could win the popular vote and lose in the electoral college–his lead among white voters skews so heavily to the South. Romney could win Alabama twice, but the votes only count once.
The study revealed significant regional differences on social issues. Only 33% of Northeastern whites think abortion should be illegal compared to 54% of Southern whites–a 21 point difference. On same-sex marriage, the gap is 25%.
Among white Roman Catholics, the race is a virtual dead heat: Obama 46%, Romney 44% when the study was conducted. Among Catholics as a whole, Obama holds a strong edge, but that is largely due to overwhelming support from Latino Catholics. White mainline Protestants favor Romney by a similarly slim margin (48%-46%). But among white evangelicals, Romney leads 64% to 28%.
Distinct differences appear between working class and college educated white voters when they are asked if the Bible should be read literally, word-for-word. Thirty-nine percent of working class whites agree with this statement, compared to only 17% of college educated whites. Thirty-six percent of working class whites have an evangelical affiliation, compared to just 21% of college educated whites. But the college educated are just as likely as the working class to attend church on a weekly bases (36% to 35%).
Unfortunately, the study doesn’t bring these factors together as much as I’d like. For instance, if we restrict our attention to older white evangelical males in the South, how many would consider voting for Barack Obama? My guess is that Romney wins among this demographic by 80 points–but that’s just a hunch.
When the study turns to economic issues, confusion reigns. Almost 80% of white voters, regardless of educational status, believe the economy has been adversely affected by corporations shipping jobs overseas. Similarly, 80% of working class whites and 69% of college educated whites believe risky decisions on Wall Street contributed to the economic downturn.
But almost 70% of working class voters also believe the economy has been hurt by too much regulation of corporate America (with the college educated, the figure is ten points lower). This is one of many reasons why Barack Obama never pushed the economic populist message during this election–white voters hate big government even more than they like big business, even though government is only the only realistic check on corporate excess.
White voters believe the economic policies of Barack Obama are just as responsible for our hard economic times as were the policies of George W. Bush, although the college educated tend to see Bush as slightly more at fault (64%-56%).
A large gap between the working class and the college educated appears when the question shifts to the impact of illegal immigrants on the economy. Only 37% of college educated whites see this as a big problem, compared to 57% of working class whites. The college educated benefit from access to better information on this issue, but the working class (black and white) feels this issue in an existential and personal way. Immigrants are less likely to compete for jobs that require a college education.
Similarly, when compared to their college educated counterparts, working class whites are nine percent more inclined to see lack of opportunity as a problem. Seventy percent of working class whites believe the system unfairly benefits the wealthy, compared to 62% of college educated whites. To place this in context, only 44% of Republicans think unequal opportunity is a problem in America. This suggests that a populist message resonates with most white voters, especially those who work the hardest and have the least to show for it. Significantly, “Over 6-in-10 (62%) of white working class Americans and nearly two-thirds (66%) of white college-educated Americans favor raising the tax rate on those with household incomes of over $1 million per year.”
Moreover, 41% of white voters believe that capitalism is incompatible with Christian teaching. Working class whites in the Northeast are ten points more likely to agree with this statement than their southern counterparts, likely an influence of Catholic social teaching which is famously suspicious of laissez-faire capitalism.
The study makes much of the “our government” versus “the government” distinction–the extent to which respondents feel personally connected to the decision-making process. Working class whites between 18 and 39 are far more likely to vote for Barack Obama than Mitt Romney than their senior counterparts, but they feel far less connected to government. Seventy-one percent of young working class whites speak of “the government” while 53% of working class whites over 65 prefer to speak of “our government”. The older white voter may feel alienated from Obama’s America, but they feel a strong connection with what many of them would call “the real America”.
Throughout America, support for increased government service is exceedingly weak. Among Democrats (56%) and African Americans (52%) small majorities favor increased services, but the Republican low-service, low-tax philosophy dominates elsewhere. White Americans, regardless of social class, are opposed to increasing government services (and taxes) by a 60-40 ratio; among Republicans, over 80% oppose this policy. Over 60% of Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants also oppose increased government services.
This helps explain why the nation is evenly divided between the Republican and Democratic philosophies. White Americans may be concerned about the misbehavior of corporate America while feeling that wealthy Americans aren’t bearing their “fair share” of the tax burden, but these sentiments don’t translate into support for government programs designed to increase opportunity or level the playing field. Seventy percent of Americans believe that people have become too dependent on government largess–an overwhelming majority–and white Americans are no more likely to share this sentiment than African American or Latino Americans. Politicians who believe that government can make a positive difference in the lives of disadvantaged citizens are rowing against a strong current. Even Americans who have received help from government programs feel, by the same seven-in-ten factor, that their fellow citizens have grown too dependent on government assistance. This comes close to being settled American orthodoxy.
White working class Americans have strongly conflicted opinions about what America represents. While 60% of college educated whites continue to believe in the American Dream (“work hard and you’ll get ahead”), only 47% of working class whites agree.
But ask if God has granted America a special place in human history (the American exceptionalism question), and the outcome is reversed. Seventy percent of working class whites believe that America has a special role in the world compared to just 42% of college educated whites. White working class Southerners (80%) are particularly drawn to the idea of American Exceptionalism. Interestingly, 82% of black Americans endorse this view as well. The line between believers and skeptics on this issue has more to do with education than race.
While approximately 40% of white Americans believe that America is a Christian nation, opinion splits along class lines respondents are asked if America was once a Christian nation but is so no longer. Working class whites are far more likely to believe that America was a Christian nation than are college educated Americans. College educated whites are twice as likely to say that America never was a Christian nation (20% to 11%). Overall, however, the idea that America is, or at least was, distinctively Christian enjoys overwhelming support in white America.
This explains why the Republican appeal to a vaguely conceived civil religion, a generic form of Christianity (now encompassing Mormon piety) has been such a powerful force in American politics. You can’t reject this rhetoric without sounding like a skeptical secularist. Among Southern evangelicals, this appeal to a “Christian America”, is at least as powerful as appeals to small-government conservatism. In evangelical circles, capitalism is widely viewed as part of the God’s gift to America; a gift threatened by the incursion of European socialism in the person of Barack Hussein Obama.
When white respondents were asked if they thought discrimination against whites had become as big a problem as discrimination against other minorities, differences is social location became highly significant. While only 39% of white college educated Americans agreed with this statement, it received 60% approval from the white working class (69% approval in the South). This view is shared by 66% of Republicans, 65% of white evangelicals and 52% of white Mainline Protestants. Despite their reputation for “liberal” views, mainline Protestants are consistently moderate-to-conservative on social issues, generally mirroring national opinion.
The social class gap narrowed somewhat when the racial resentment question was restated: “the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities over the past few decades”. Forty-nine percent of working class whites agreed with this statement, compared to 32% of college educated whites.
This suggests that most white Americans show tentative support for the affirmative action policies of the past, but that support for this form of government intervention is waning rapidly, especially among the working class. Significantly, 20% of black Americans and 43% of Latino Americans also believe that the government has devoted too much concern to the problems of minorities. This sharp division between the Latino and African American communities makes it difficult for Democrats to invest political capital in affirmative action policies. Similarly, concerns among the black working class that immigrants are taking their jobs stifles the emergence of progressive “rainbow coalition” politics.
What does this portrait of the white electorate tell us? The most important take-away is that the conservative movement has done an excellent job of selling its small-government, low-tax vision of America and that white racial resentment, particularly in the South, encourages support for small government politics. Southerners received immense benefit from New Deal programs and post-war GI Bill programs, support that was normally withheld from black and Latino Americans. When almost 70% of white working class Southerners believe that discrimination against whites is a major problem, advocates for the poor and dispossessed are in for a stiff fight.
I found myself wondering what percentage of white evangelicals in the South believe that whites are contemporary targets of discrimination? The figure is likely in excess of 80% and, in rural regions, may climb to 90%. This is why I argue that white racial resentment is the most powerful force in American politics.
I am not saying that most white Americans hate Barack Obama because he is black. White voters are going to vote overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney despite that fact that they would rather share a beer with Barack Obama. The President’s skin color only becomes a problem when he encounters the trauma of the white American male. The Democrats don’t have a problem with white folks, as such; they have a problem with older white working class evangelical southern males. When I speak of the “South” in this connection, I have in mind large portions of states like Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania close enough to Dixie to identify with the region’s turmoil. These are the men who bet the farm on White Supremacy and lost big. These are the men who are struggling to find work in an increasingly automated and high-tech economy. This group has suffered much from the new face of American capitalism, yet it votes Republican so predictably and so overwhelmingly that Democrats must play to the center to have any chance of success. These guys are angry enough to shape American politics.
But white racial resentment is most powerful when it is aligned with small-government economic policy and a firm belief that America is, or at least was, God’s chosen nation. A strong majority of American voters subscribes to a form of this ill-defined but still potent brand of orthodoxy. Republicans have learned to manipulate the symbolism of American mythology. It was Martin Luther King’s genius to appropriate these images for the cause of civil rights, but progressives have failed to cobble together a mutually reinforcing web of America-symbols, largely because they regard the project as tacky and distasteful. As a consequence, they have ceded the field of national mythology to the conservative movement. Older southern white working class evangelicals are tired of being dismissed as ignorant, racist, rednecks. They aren’t experiencing the American dream and they are looking for some one to blame. They have found their man.
That said, Republicans have much to fear from the steady evolution of the American electorate. Young white “Millennials” aren’t nearly as attracted to the brand of made-in-America religion that worked so well for Ronald Reagan. Back then, white voters comprised 89% of the electorate; now they stand at 72% and are falling fast. Young white voters who are increasingly comfortable with diversity will gradually make the politics of white resentment an American anachronism.
This may be the last general election in which an appeal to an exclusively white electorate has any chance of success. Republicans cannot survive as the Party of White. But if a younger generation of conservative politician is willing to plant seeds in the fertile soil of conservative black and Latino culture, the brand can still flourish. America remains an essentially conservative nation. I’m not saying this because it fills me with joy; I say it because it is true.
Progressive politicians must counter the widespread notion that we must shrink government or perish. Mainstream America won’t respond warmly to the news that ill-conceived military adventures coupled with an unending quest for the next speculative bubble has driven up the debt. This diagnosis runs up against the deep American belief in our own collective virtue. Warnings about global warming, tough absolutely essential, will meet the same fate unless we find new ways of spinning the American dream. The dream of isolated families “getting ahead” though their own individual effort has lost its resonance but persists for lack of a credible rival.
America needs a new ground for optimism, a new dream language that plugs the challenges of the present into the past and the future. If we want to become a better nation we must stop telling ourselves pretty lies about who we are and how we got this way. The besetting sin of white America is our penchant for self-delusion on a scale that mystifies non-Americans. We are chasing our Paradise Lost; we want to return to the glory that once was ours; a glory that was stolen from us. As long as we keep swapping this lie with one another we are on a one-way road to hell. America is a great nation in spite of itself. Herein is the glory of God revealed. The key to the next progressive era is making that sound like good news to white voters.