As soon as veteran political reporter Tom Edsall posted an insightful examination of President Obama’s re-election prospects on Monday, the conservative media swooped in to misrepresent it and to spread a racially inflammatory untruth about the President. Edsall’s post, titled “The Future of the Obama Coalition” in the New York Times, explained that the rising share of non-whites in the electorate and the increasingly Democratic leanings of educated white voters offset Obama’s weakness among less educated whites in 2008. For decades Democrats had struggled to regain the popularity among working-class white voters that they enjoyed before the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Now, writes Edsall, “all pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment—professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists—and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.”
If you read Edsall’s item, it is abundantly clear that he is describing shifts in the electoral terrain, not a governing policy. There is no mention of any specific policy changes in the piece. Rather it is all about what states and demographics the Obama campaign will target.
Nonetheless, conservative pundits—who are either incapable of distinguishing between politics and policy or who choose not to when it suits their agenda—have rushed to claim that Obama is abandoning the interests of the white working class. They do not cite an iota of evidence for this assertion, because none exists.
The most egregious example, flagged on Monday by Slate’s Dave Weigel came from Fox Nation. The website’s headline for its link to Edsall’s post? “NYT: Democratic Party Operatives Plan to Abandon White Working Class.” As Weigel notes, they also inserted a photo of Obama grimacing and waving and his wife next to a headless black person with his arms folded.
As Weigel explains, “The funny thing here is that ‘abandoning’ the white working class means ‘continuing to lose voters who have been voting Republican since 1966.’ Obama isn’t switching policies in or out of a playbook because whites won’t vote for him.”
On Tuesday Weigel caught two more items repeating the false abandonment meme. Former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson points to Edsall’s piece as evidence that Democrats are no longer looking out for working-class white voters. “The Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey—the party that prided itself on championing the ordinary working American—has utterly vanished,” Robinson concludes. There is, of course, no evidence to support the statement that Democrats no longer champion the interests of working-class voters. More odiously, Robinson conflates whites without a college degree with “the ordinary working American.” Is that because African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos are not “ordinary Americans”? Or is it because Robinson thinks they don’t work for a living?
It’s worth noting that the Democratic Party’s commitment to social insurance and equality applies equally to whites and non-whites. Rich non-whites would go back to paying their Clinton-era tax rates under Obama’s plan. Poor whites receive Medicaid and food stamps. Everyone receives Social Security and Medicare when they turn 65. Indeed, whites living below the poverty line remain more Democratic than middle-class whites, and for good reason. Middle-class whites have plenty of reasons to vote Democratic too, but Republicans have successfully capitalized on their cultural resentments.
In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, William McGurn cites the study that inspired Edsall’s piece. “Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin made headlines for making official what everyone has known unofficially for some time: The Democratic Party is abandoning the white working class,” McGurn claims. “For all of Joe Biden’s nostalgia about the blue-collar virtues of his home town [Scranton, Pennsylvania]…the coal mines shut down years ago and many in the white working class have been drifting to the Republican Party.”
McGurn repeats the “abandoning the white working class,” lie. At this point it is reaching the status of official conservative shibboleth, along with whoppers such as Mitt Romney’s oft-repeated assertion that Obama “apologized for America” while traveling abroad.
At least McGurn makes an effort to demonstrate that the objective fact that white working-class voters have been abandoning the Democratic Party has some basis in his assertion that Democrats have abandoned those voters on a policy level. Unfortunately, he falls far short of making a convincing case. All McGurn does is presume that the Republican agenda of deregulation would improve the economic lot of working-class whites. “If these citizens weren’t bitter before, they sure have reason to be now,” McGurn writes. “For the white working class, the private sector was what gave them jobs and propelled them into the middle class. Yet whether it’s drilling for oil or putting up a shopping mall, today’s Democratic Party seems opposed to most of the private-sector jobs that deliver opportunity to those without a college degree.” Aside from the fact that there are plenty of working class whites in the public sector—police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers and Postal Service workers—it’s simply untrue that the Democratic Party is “opposed” to jobs for the non-college educated. If it “seems” that way, it is only because conservative propagandists keep saying so.
What is the evidence that construction workers who would gain opportunities if we built more shopping malls would be better off under a Republican administration? What is the evidence that Democrats oppose building shopping malls? What exactly have Democrats done to prevent shopping malls from being constructed? In point of fact, it is Democrats who keep trying to put construction workers back to work on improving our crumbling infrastructure and Republicans who oppose doing so. It is Democrats who raised the minimum wage and who want to make it easier to organize labor unions that guarantee living wages for blue-collar workers, and it is Republicans who have opposed doing so. Republicans’ main contribution to the debate over how to help construction workers in recent years has been their incessant demand to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages on public works projects.
So Republicans would like to reduce the wages of construction workers but it is Democrats, according to conservatives, who are abandoning the working class. The most generous interpretation would be that since conservatives do not actually care about policy, they do not even recognize the difference between seeking a group’s votes and actually representing its interests. A cynic might suggest that these conservatives know exactly how misleading they are being—they just don’t care about the truth.