In 2008, Barack Obama won the largest share of the electorate of any Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Democrats added seats in the House and knocked off five Republican incumbents in the Senate on their way to achieving a fifty-seven-seat majority. Two years later, the Democrats endured a crushing defeat at the hands of a “Tea Party” insurgency, losing the House majority they had held since 2006 and dropping to a razor-thin fifty-one-seat majority in the Senate.
What happened? Part of the answer was a collapse in support for the Democrats among white voters, who supported Republican House candidates by more than twenty points. Much of this decline was driven by disaffection among working-class whites. Among white voters without college degrees, more than two-thirds who voted in 2010 disapproved of President Obama’s performance.
To a casual observer, the weakness of the Democrats among the latter group might seem curious. Haven’t the Democrats always been the tribunes of the working class in American politics? African-American, Asian, and Hispanic working-class voters vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. What’s the matter with white people?
Answering that question is the objective of Salon editor Joan Walsh’s new book, What’s the Matter with White People? Walsh grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood in New York City during the 1960s and ’70s and was able to observe firsthand her extended family’s gradual estrangement from the Democratic Party.
Walsh’s method is to weave her personal story together with a broader overview of the political and social history of the past fifty years. She is well aware that there was never a golden age of racial harmony within the Democratic Party, and reviews some of the long-standing tensions between Irish Americans and African Americans going back to the time of slavery. The much idealized New Deal political coalition was only able to emerge because it did not seriously challenge entrenched racism in the South or elsewhere in the United States.
That challenge would come, and with it came pressures that would eventually shatter the Democratic coalition. Walsh details, for example, how rising crime in New York City during the 1960s drove a wedge between a largely Irish-American police force and African Americans critical of its policing tactics and lack of diversity. Similar conflicts emerged between African Americans and Jews over “community control” in the Brooklyn public schools, which led to a bitter strike by the largely Jewish teaching staff in 1968. (A joke in Woody Allen’s postapocalyptic farce Sleeper blames the movie’s cataclysm on the use of an atom bomb by teacher-union president Albert Shanker.)
Walsh is sensitive to the ways in which the political clumsiness of liberals during this era produced alienation and resentment among the white working class. At the same time, she blames the Republicans—and the Nixon administration in particular—for inflaming racial tensions through their use of a “Southern Strategy” that courted the segregationist supporters of presidential candidate George Wallace. More poignantly, she tells the story of her mother, a JFK Democrat who gradually moved toward the Republicans and ultimately voted for Nixon in 1972. Later, of course, would come the wholesale defection of both Southern and Northern working-class whites from the Democratic Party that led to Ronald Reagan’s victories in 1980 and ’84.
Like most activist liberals, Walsh spent the 1980s in the political wilderness, working on local elections in Chicago and doing community organizing in Oakland. These experiences led her to question the way many Democrats seemed inclined to writeoff the white working class. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, she notes, were able to win the presidency because they emphasized an economic agenda that united people across racial and ethnic lines.
Walsh’s argument is sound. But the story she tells has been told—and often told better—by others. The difficult racial politics in New York in the ’60s and ’70s have been amply chronicled in works such as Jim Sleeper’s The Closest of Strangers and Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. Boston’s even more challenging racial history was well documented in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.
What all these works have in common is strong reporting that gets inside the heads of individuals and families at the center of the story. Walsh clearly hopes the story of her extended family will play the same role in this book. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough detail. Even when their names are mentioned (and several remain anonymous), they tend to blur into one another. We don’t get a sense of why they, personally, have made the political transition that Walsh is trying to describe. Ultimately, the book reveals a lot more about Walsh than about the people who are ostensibly the focus of her narrative. Good reporting should do the opposite.
More fundamentally, it’s not clear that the urban working-class (and largely Catholic) whites at the heart of Walsh’s book are still the Democrats’ core problem. Despite Obama’s weakness with this demographic, he still ran well in 2012 in the heavily white states of the Midwest, including Ohio, which has historically trended Republican. Obama has even won Michigan’s Macomb County—the epicenter of white working-class racial resentment chronicled by pollster Stanley Greenberg in the 1980s—in two consecutive elections.
These days, the Democrats’ real problem with white voters is in the South. In 2012, Obama won about 46 percent of the white vote outside the South—a figure comparable to other Democratic presidential candidates—but only 27 percent within the South. One of the most striking graphics from the 2008 election showed a map of the United States with the counties where Obama did better than John Kerry in blue and the counties where he did worse in red. Virtually the whole country is blue except for a strip of counties running through Appalachia, the deep South, and East Texas.
Walsh’s recommendation that the Democrats pursue a more populist economic agenda may not succeed in bringing these voters back into their coalition. The cultural and ideological cleavages are deep and, if anything, getting deeper as the Democrats increasingly take their cultural cues from well-educated voters on America’s coasts. In the wake of their decisive defeat in the 2012 election, it was suggested that the Republicans had “run out” of white voters. This may prove to be true of the Democrats as well.