Maybe Nothing is Wrong With Kansas

| Fri Oct. 17, 2008 3:03 PM EDT

CNN reports that Rep. Murtha is apologizing for referring to western Pennsylvania, which he represents, as "a racist area". Of course, this comes on the heels of Obama's comments about the white working class bitterly clinging to racism, guns and religion as the economy worsens. Until recently, this week in fact, my reaction had been a big 'truth hurts. Deal with it'. Now I'm wondering if it's so simple.

In the Oct. 13 New Yorker, George Packer offers a superbly argued defense of this very demographic and tries to shift the paradigm: Counter-intuitive as it seems for poor-to-lower middle class whites to have shifted their loyalty to the GOP and remain aloof to Obama, it is not a symptom of stupidity. It's a legitimate reaction to their belief that the Democrats just haven't done much for them lately. Lately, like since the 70s, when working whites abandoned the party they'd embraced since FDR.

It's the delicious New Yorker, so a quick excerpt just won't do:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"[A] study followed the voting behavior of the forty-five percent of white Americans who identify themselves as working class. Mining electoral data from the General Social Survey, they found that the decline in white working-class support for Democrats occurred in one period—from the mid-seventies until the early nineties, with a brief lull in the early eighties—and has remained well below fifty percent ever since. But they concluded that social issues like abortion, guns, religion, and even (outside the South) race had little to do with the shift. Instead, according to their data, it was based on a judgment that—during years in which industrial jobs went overseas, unions practically vanished, and working-class incomes stagnated—the Democratic Party was no longer much help to them.

"Beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s, there was increasing reason for working-class whites to question whether the Democrats were still better than the Republicans at promoting their material well-being," the study's authors write. Working-class whites, their fortunes falling, began to embrace the anti-government, low-tax rhetoric of the conservative movement. During Clinton's Presidency, the downward economic spiral of these Americans was arrested, but by then their identification with the Democrats had eroded. Having earlier moved to the right for economic reasons, the Arizona study concluded, the working class stayed there because of the rising prominence of social issues........ But the Democrats fundamentally lost the white working class because these voters no longer believed the Party's central tenet—that government could restore a sense of economic security.

Since the recession/layoff 80s and the rise of the Reagan Democrats, I have been astounded, but convinced, that less affluent whites would shoot themselves in the foot and support the very people responsible for their problems. What else could explain their voting behavior but the three card Monte of shifting their focus from the corporate fat cats who laid them off to the minorities, women, and gays suffering along with them.

When What's the Matter With Kansas hit the shelves, I had to be among its first, and most avid readers. That book's central thesis: that non-affluent whites who voted GOP were, basically, stupid. Duped. In thrall to their oppressors and so intrinsically racist, sexist, etc., that such appeals were irresistible. Now Packer's messing with my mind.

Every vote is a stark one; who among us agrees with everything the party we vote for stands for? Most of us no doubt loathe certain facets (for me, all the heart-on-my-sleeve religious posturing, for just one thing) of those who get our votes. So, the argument that whites abandoned the Dems because they believed it abandoned them makes sense. So does the corollary that social issues could tip the balance between two parties, neither of which cares about them, but one of which resonates with their own social preferences.

It makes more sense to believe that people are rational, than that they're too stupid to know what's happening to them. Racism, etc. is all too real, but it's good to be reminded that it isn't all that bigots ever think about. Slate makes this point a different way: Why an Obama win wouldn't be a victory over racial prejudice.