CNN’s Ronald Brownstein has done us a great service by introducing a new way of looking at the Democratic Party’s problem with white working class voters.
If you take that group and pull out all the white people who are working class as well as evangelical Christian, you see potential for a campaigning strategy that has worked for the Democrats in the past and that may work again as they prepare for 2020.
“Though Republican candidates almost everywhere registered large margins among white voters without a college degree,” Brownstein wrote last Tuesday, “Democrats ran much more competitively [during the midterm elections] among the roughly half of that group who are not evangelical Christians.” Brownstein added:
Democrats, the analysis found, ran particularly well this year among white working-class women who are not evangelicals, a group that also displayed substantial disenchantment in the exit poll with Trump's performance. Those women could be a key constituency for Democrats in 2020 in pivotal Rust Belt states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where relatively fewer blue-collar whites are also evangelical Christians.
Allow me to simplify.
Take all the people called “white working class.” Now subtract all the people called “white evangelical Christian.” From that group, subtract most men, because men are dumb and tribal, and will hurt themselves if that means their side wins. What do you have left? You have a lot of women, because women have good sense. Specifically, as Brownstein said, you have “white non-college, non-evangelical women.”
Democrats performed well during last month’s midterm elections with this group. (Brownstein calls them WNCNEWs but I’m so not going to do that.) For this reason, Brownstein argued that the president’s “coalition is cracking.” That sounds right to me, but Brownstein’s analysis is lacking in a big way: who’s doing the cracking?
The cracks are not due entirely to Donald Trump’s being a terrible president. A full understanding, some time in the future, will include what the Democrats did to wedge apart the white working class. The Democrats are using, and likely will use, bread-and-butter issues—health care chief among them—to chip away at Trump’s base of power. It’s wrong to say the Democrats need all white working class voters. It’s right to say they need some. Health care, if I’m right, is how they are going to do it.
What I’m suggesting is a bit upside down. Health care isn’t something you’d associate with wedge issues, because everybody wants health care. Wedge issues are usually controversial subjects typically involving racism and white identity. Wedge issues are almost always what Republican candidates do to Democrats. Think Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” That’s a example of dividing the opponent’s supporters in order to win.
You could argue that health care is a wedge issue given that Republicans attacked the Affordable Care Act for eight years, and you’d be right. But things changed after Trump won. Once the Republicans had the power they needed to repeal Obamacare, the law all of a sudden became popular, and when I say “all of a sudden,” I’m not overstating. The electorate changed its mind about Obamacare within two months.
That’s one baseline: Obamacare is popular. Here’s another: what held the Trump coalition together was a combination of religion, racism and economics. “Nationalism” is used to describe what animates Trump’s base. “White nationalism” is more accurate. Herrenvolk democracy, as Jamelle Bouie once put it, might be most accurate. That’s a society “in which whites have been favored citizens enjoying principal access to wealth and opportunity and presumptive status over nonwhites.”
But for a herrenvolk democracy to be viable, a president must deliver materially to the herrenvolk, and this president has delivered little more than slogans and lies. Things might have turned out differently had Trump taken Steve Bannon’s advice to press Republicans to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would have provided jobs to millions. But Donald Trump is a lazy president. He didn’t bother. Instead, he allowed an attempt to repeal Obamacare. Not only was he not trying to deliver materially to the white working class. The president was trying to take something away.
With Bannon gone from the White House, there has been no voice to represent, or pretend to represent, the herrenvolk’s material interests. All that remained after Bannon’s exit were religious zealots (e.g., Jeff Sessions), nativists (e.g., Stephen Miller) and corporate thugs (e.g., Gary Cohn). That was fine with big business. They loved their tax cut. That was fine with evangelicals. They loved Trump’s “Muslim ban” and opposition to LGBT rights. That was fine with hard-core (and southern) racists (most of whom are also evangelicals). They love the president’s beating up on immigrants.
But that wasn’t fine for people (who are not also evangelical and southern) who are struggling with bread-and-butter issues like jobs, wages, and, especially, health care.
Health care is so important the issue appeared in 57 percent of Democratic advertising this year, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. It also appeared in 32 percent of Republican ads. Indeed, Republicans candidates, knowing their opposition to Obamacare was a liability, lied to voters, saying the Democrats were going to repeal Medicare. That’s how much health care mattered in this year’s midterms.
It’s going to matter much more. A federal judge in Texas ruled Friday that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. The whole shebang! I won’t go into the details, because it’s a sham decision likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court. My point is that rulings like this by conservative federal judges raise anxiety over health care while focusing voters’ minds of the GOP’s attempt to take something away.
In this context, you can see why health care is a wedge issue, and why the Democrats have every reason to drive that wedge as deeply as they can into the president’s base of power. They don’t need all white working class voters. Just some. With health care, and other traditionally Democratic issues, like wages, they can supplement the party’s liberal base with just enough white non-college, non-evangelical women to win.
Used to be that Republicans would wedge the Democrats using racism.
Now it’s the Democrats’ turn. This time, using health care.
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