My liberal and left-wing friends continue to puzzle over a single, unanswerable question: why do white, working class people vote “against their interests”? Perhaps the reason that this is an unanswerable question is that it is the wrong question. I would like to suggest that they don’t vote against their own interests — or at least, that when voters that have profound needs defect from the Democratic party, perhaps the party leadership should honestly assess whether they are promoting rhetoric, or the policies that voters need.
In the waning hours hours of November 8 2016, the Democratic party had to grapple with the difficult truth that it had lost the trust of its white working-class base. The defection of counties in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, won by Obama in 2012, delivered the presidency to Donald Trump. Blame Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders if you like, blame Hillary’s failure to campaign sufficiently in the Midwest, blame James Comey, blame Robbie Mook’s bad data, blame Facebook — but when it comes down to it, white working-class voters no longer supported Democratic policies.
It doesn’t always take a catastrophic and unexpected loss for a political party to discover that something seismic has occurred: sometimes it is a win that reveals surprising and unwelcome news. This was the case in the early years of the Reagan administration, when a new era of American conservatism was inaugurated. But as records at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library show, soon after the euphoria of a victory first strategized in the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, White House analysts detected a yawning, 10-point gap in support for the President among white men and white women who had voted in 1980. In other words, the archetypical “Reagan Democrat” who had created the possibility for reversing the New Deal and the Great Society, was a man — and his wife, daughters, and sisters were voting disproportionately Democratic.
Why? A major culprit had been the elimination of long-term support for gender equality in the Republican Party platform, the elimination of support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the insertion of family values policy positions promoted by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. These changes eliminated support for women’s rights, and specifically the ERA, as well as for reproductive freedom, that had been in every GOP platform for decades, Acknowledging that there had been “legitimate efforts” on both sides of the ERA struggle, and reaffirming the party’s “historic commitment to equal rights and equality for women,” the 1980 platform also demanded an end to federal efforts to support the amendment’s passage. Similarly, although the platform acknowledged that Republicans differed about the moral legitimacy of abortion, the platform committee asserted the personhood of the fetus as a fact and called for “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”
Shockingly, however, the Reagan team and the Republican National Committee had not anticipated that female Republican voters would abandon the party because of these dramatic policy shifts. On July 15 1981, Reagan pollster and chief White House strategist Richard Wirthlin sent Edwin Meese, the President’s longstanding friend, counselor and closest advisor, a memorandum outlining exactly how serious the President’s problems with women were. “What is the gender gap?” Wirthlin asked. “About 10 percentage points on the presidential job rating” and a perception problem the whole party now shared. Young women disliked Reagan and the GOP 25% more than women over the age of 45 and the working wives of so-called “Reagan Democrats” were persistently skewing liberal. “Generally, the rank order from the most positive GOP group to the least positive goes married men, non-married men, married women and non-married women,” Wirthlin noted. It was possible, he suggested unhelpfully, that “a portion of the problem exists just because men are men and women are women.”
As the Congressional elections approached in the summer of 1982, Office of Public Liaison chief Elizabeth Dole warned West Wing aides that sitting on their hands would not make the problem go away: failure to devise real policies aimed at real women was the only solution to eroding support for the President among white female voters. “Much has been written in recent months about the erosion of support for the President and the trend away from Republicanism among women,” she wrote. “The media has now picked up on what is now commonly referred to as the ‘gender gap’ and speculates often about its causes and long-range implications.” Reagan could expect to be accused by feminists of being “an enemy of women” because of “the effect of budget cuts on the poor and needy, and the trend of female defection from the President and the Republican Party.”
The only answer, Dole argued, was to show how the President’s own economic and social policies supported women as well as men. She recommended that the White House immediately develop “a positive counter-offensive strategy” to neutralize these attacks with evidence of his positive accomplishments for women: tax relief, services for the elderly that had been retained despite budget cuts, women appointees, gender equity initiatives, and Reagan’s “plans for peace and arms control.” On the day that ERA ratification expired, Dole argued, the President could schedule a major policy speech that “would serve as a much-needed ‘State of the Union’ for women,” a message that could be supported by female surrogates who would campaign for House candidates in 1982.
A program to cultivate female political leaders, she argued, could also make the face of the party more female, strengthening Reagan Republicanism by training women to run for office at the state and community level. Supported by White House policy seminars to “help them complement their own local knowledge with a detailed grasp and understanding of the major initiatives and positions of the administration.” Finally, Dole advised, the wives of men in the administration, “armed with information,” could represent the President in projects in which they were already engaged and become surrogates at “additional events which would broaden exposure of the Administration’s views.”
It was an ambitious plan that imagined alienated voters as having needs, and as hungry for knowledge and information rather than superficial reassurances. But White House policy analysts chose the latter: President Reagan, aides insisted, cared deeply about women, and this care was so obvious to them that it did not call for policy solutions, but campaigns to persuade women how much Ronald Reagan liked them. One frustrated speechwriter pointed out what an impossible task such an effort when any policy issue associated with feminism was off the table. “Without a specific target or occasion anything of this nature is bound to be fluffy, if not vacuous,” he complained. The speechwriter was urged to keep talking to women until he came up with some fluff that worked. “The fluff is unavoidable,” a West Wing aide wrote, underscoring “is” three times. “Pls. try again.”
Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the gender gap represented a real policy vacuum rather than a public relations problem, a problem of sex, or a mirage created by the persistence of identity politics, as Dole predicted, the Republicans lost the House in 1982, effectively derailing the Reagan Revolution.
Similarly, for a party that imagines itself as the champion of the downtrodden, finding out that white workers voted for a grifter Trump was a, perhaps long overdue, punch in the gut for Democrats. While no one political moment is the same as another, outreach to working class voters over the next six months will clearly involve supporting centrists, a strategy that seems simultaneously to be working and, as Alan Blinder and Alexander Burns reported today, may produce a House majority at the risk of feeding ideological splits within the party (“Trying for House Gains, Democrats Bless Moderates and Annoy Liberals,” New York Times, May 13, 2018.) A second, and more worrisome, phenomenon has been a new and somewhat prurient fascination with poor white people. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), an account of how a poor white kid from the Upper South overcame family dysfunction to graduate from Yale Law School, has become an ur-text across party lines. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Stranger’s in Their Own Land (2016); Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2017); and, most recently, Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir (2018) have also become best sellers, while popular and scholarly interest in Appalachia hasn’t been so intense since the Kennedy administration.
The literature itself is serious and important, yet when it is delivered in sound bites, too often an awareness of the problem, and earnest expressions about the desire to close gaps of perception, are not enough. Even capturing Congressional seats that might swing the House to a Democratic majority, does not in itself resolve the problem of the policy vacuum that now plagues the Democratic party. Voters are commonly understood as less interested in long-term policy solutions than they are in quick fixes — a tax cut, an executive order eliminating discrimination, or reversing President Trump’s cruel immigration policies.
Yet successful governance, and addressing the problems of the poor, needs to involve implementing quick fixes that temporarily alleviate distress, while simultaneously attempting to turn the “big ship” of the state to render those quick fixes obsolete. This is why James Carville’s famous line — “It’s the economy, Stupid,” delivered by candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 (the “Stupid” being addressed, by the way was the media, not the voter) — was such genius, because it captured the immediacy and importance of the short term and the long term. The economy is, of course, a cyclical thing, something that can only be fully understood and theorized in the historical longue durée: “Can I afford to retire/send my kids to college/buy a house?” are the kinds of voter issues that require politicians to engage their constituencies in implementing long term change. But the economy is also something that voters experience viscerally in the moment: does your prescription drug coverage meet the cost of your heart medicine? What is the price of gas?
This is a question of policymaking, not public relations: if the Democrats understand both these things, they have a chance of winning voters back from the party of Trump.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.