Sean Wilentz: Barack Obama and the Unmaking of the Democratic Party





[Mr. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton and the author of the HNN Book of the Month, The Age of Reagan.]

With her overwhelming victory in Kentucky on May 20, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has completed her sweep of the crucial primary states adjoining the Ohio River -- and the fight for the Democratic nomination has entered its final phases. Having picked up a net gain of nearly 140,000 votes between Kentucky and Oregon, Clinton is now well poised to win the Puerto Rico primary on June 1 - and clinch a majority in this year's popular vote, even if the disputed returns from Michigan are discounted. Under those pressures, the Barack Obama campaign and its sympathizers have begun to articulate much more clearly what they mean by their vague slogan of" change" - nothing less than usurping the historic Democratic Party, dating back to the age of Andrew Jackson, by rejecting its historic electoral core: white workers and rural dwellers in the Middle Atlantic and border states.

Without a majority of those voters, the Democrats have, since the party's inception in the 1820s, been incapable of winning the presidency. The Obama advocates declare, though, that we have entered an entirely new political era. It is not only possible but also desirable, they say, for Democrats to win by turning away from those whom"progressive" pundits and bloggers disdain variously as"Nascar man,""uneducated,""low information" whites,"rubes, fools, and hate-mongers" who live in the nation's"shitholes."

Having attempted, with the aid of a complicit news media, to brand Hillary Clinton as a racist -- by flinging charges that, as the historian Michael Lind has shown, belong"in black helicopter/grassy knoll territory," Obama's supporters now fiercely claim that Clinton's white working class following is also essentially racist. Favoring the buzzword language of the academic left, tinged by persistent, discredited New Left and black nationalist theories about working-class"white skin privilege," a vote against Obama has become, according to his fervent followers,"a vote for whiteness."

Talk about transformative post-racial politics.

In fact, all of the evidence demonstrates that white racism has not been a principal or even secondary motivation in any of this year's Democratic primaries. Every poll shows that economics, health care, and national security are the leading issues for white working class voters - and for Latino working class voters as well. These constituencies have cast positive ballots for Hillary Clinton not because she is white, but because they regard her as better on these issues. Obama's campaign and its passionate supporters refuse to acknowledge that these voters consider him weaker -- and that Clinton's positions, different from his, as well as her experience actually attract support. Instead they impute racism to working class Democrats who, the polls also show, happen to be liberal on every leading issue. The effort to taint anyone who does not support Obama as motivated by racism has now become a major factor in alienating core Democrats from Obama's campaign. Out with the Democratic Party of Jefferson, Jackson, F.D.R., Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, and in with the bright, shiny party of Obama - or what the formally"undeclared" Donna Brazile, a member of the Democratic National Committee and of the party's rules committee, has hailed as a"new Democratic coalition" swelled by affluent white leftists and liberals, college students, and African-Americans.

The Democratic Party, as a modern political party, dates back to 1828, when Andrew Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams to win the presidency. Yet without the votes of workers and small farmers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as a strong Democratic turnout in New York City, Jackson would have lost the Electoral College in a landslide. Over the 180 years since then, only one Democrat has gained the presidency without winning either Ohio or Pennsylvania, with their large white working-class vote. (The exception, Grover Cleveland, managed the feat in 1892, and only barely lost Ohio - but he was dependent on the post-Reconstruction solid South.) Beginning in 1964, when the Democratic solid South dissolved, every successful Democratic presidential candidate has had to carry both Ohio and Pennsylvania, even when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton picked up southern states.

Northern white working-class defections to the Republicans grew steadily in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Republican's Watergate debacle temporarily halted the trend, but the disasters of the Carter presidency, especially its mishandling of economic woes and foreign policy, accelerated the defections in 1980. In his two successful races, Ronald Reagan won the support, on average, of 61 percent of white working class voters, compared to 35 percent for his opponents, Carter and Walter Mondale. (Both times, Reagan carried Ohio and Pennsylvania handily.) As the caricature of"Reagan Democrats" as racist militarists hardened among"new politics" advocates, they strove to make up the difference by creating an expanded base among African-Americans, college-age, and college educated voters. The result was yet another humiliating defeat for the Democrats in 1988.

Bill Clinton's shift to a centrist liberalism stressing lunch-pail issues--"Putting People First"--won back a large number of Reagan Democrats in 1992, enough so that, by the time Clinton won his second term in 1996, Democrats could claim parity with Republicans by winning a slim plurality among non-college educated working class white voters. But the perceived elitists Al Gore and John Kerry lost what Clinton had gained, as George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by a margin of 17 percent in 2000 and a whopping 23 percent in 2004.

This year's primary results show no sign that Obama will reverse this trend should he win the nomination. In West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania, blue collar white voters sent him down to defeat by overwhelming margins. A recent Gallup poll report has argued that claims about Obama's weaknesses among white voters and blue collar voters have been exaggerated - yet its indisputable figures showed Obama running four percentage points below Kerry's anemic support among whites four years ago.

Given that Obama's vote in the primaries, apart from African-Americans, has generally come from affluent white suburbs and university towns, the Gallup figures presage a Democratic disaster among working-class white voters in November should Obama be the nominee.

Yet Obama's handlers profess indifference - and, at times, even pride -- about these trends. Asked about the white working-class vote following Obama's ten-point loss in Pennsylvania, chief campaign strategist David Axelrod confidently told an National Public Radio interviewer that, after all,"the white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections going back even to the Clinton years" and that Obama's winning strength lay in his ability to offset that trend and"attract independent voters... younger voters" and"expand the Democratic base."

Apart from its basic inaccuracy about Clinton's blue-collar support in 1992 and 1996, Axelrod's statement was a virtual reprise of the Democratic doomed strategy from the 1972 McGovern campaign that the party revamped in 1988. The main difference between now and then is the openness of the condescension with which many of Obama's supporters - and, apparently, the candidate himself - hold the crude"low information" types whom they believe dominate the white working class. The sympathetic media coverage of Obama's efforts to explain away his remarks in San Francisco about"bitter," economically-strapped voters who, clinging to their guns, religion, and racism, misdirect their rage and do not see the light, only reinforced his campaign's dismissive attitude. Obama's efforts at rectification were reluctant and half-hearted at best - and he undercut them completely a few days later when he referred derisively, on the stump in Indiana, to a sudden"political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true."

Culturally as well as politically, Obama's dismissal of white working people represents a sea-change in the Democrats' basic identity as the workingman's party - one that has been coming since the late 1960s, when large portions of the Left began regarding white workers as hopeless and hateful reactionaries. Faced with the revolt of the"Reagan Democrats" - whose politics they interpreted in the narrowest of racial terms -"new politics" Democrats dreamed of a coalition built around an alliance of right-thinking affluent liberals and downtrodden minorities, especially African-Americans. It all came to nothing. But after Bill Clinton failed to consolidate a new version of the old Democratic coalition in the 1990s, the dreaming began again - first, with disastrous results, in the schismatic Ralph Nader campaign of 2000 and now (with the support of vehement ex-Naderites including Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West) in the Obama campaign.

Obama must assume that the demographics of American politics have changed dramatically in recent years so that the electorate as a whole is little more than a larger version of the combined Democratic primary constituencies of Oregon and South Carolina. While recent studies purport to show that the white working class has, indeed, shrunk over the past fifty years, as a political matter its significance remains salient, especially in the battleground and swing states--states like Ohio and West Virginia where Obama currently trails Senator John McCain in the polls. One of the studies that affirms the diminishing proportion of blue collar whites in the electorate, written for the Brookings Institution by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abamowitz, concludes[pdf], nevertheless, that"the voting proclivities of the white working class will make a huge difference and could well determine who the next president will be."

Teixeira and Abramowitz estimate that the Democratic candidate will need to cut Kerry's deficit of 23 percent in 2004 to around 10 percent if he or she is"to achieve a solid popular vote victory." By those lights, Obama, if nominated, is almost certainly destined to lose unless he can suddenly reverse the trend that his own dismissive language and his supporters' contemptuous tone has accelerated during the primaries.

In every presidential election they have won, the Democrats have solidified their historic link to white workers, not dismissed them. Obama and the champions of a new party coalition appear to think that everything has suddenly changed, simply because of the force of their own desires. In any event, Obama had shown no ability thus far to attract the one constituency that has always spelled the difference between victory and defeat for the Democratic Party. The party must now decide whether to go along with Obama and renounce its own heritage -- and tempt the political fates.



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Ed Kachmarek - 6/2/2008

What world are you living in?? The idea that racism was not a major issue in PA or WV is flat out wrong. You wrote, "all evidence demonstrates that white racism has not been a principle or even secondary motivation in any of this years Democratic primaries." I grew up in rural PA and now live in WV and I can assure you, regardless of any polls your reading, that racism is alive and quite well in these areas. In fact, to suggest otherwise not only ignores the facts, it prevents us from dealing the the problem of racism and all its ugliness. I have great respect for your academic work, however, you are totally out of touch with real life white rural voters in Appalachia. With all due respect, on this issue, you couldn't be more wrong.


Leonard Steinhorn - 5/29/2008

How fascinating for Sean Wilentz to say that "a vote against Obama has become, according to his fervent followers, 'a vote for whiteness.'" But wasn't it his candidate, Hillary Clinton, who described her core supporters as "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans"? Has Wilentz the historian been blinded by Wilentz the Clinton supporter?


Patrick Murray - 5/28/2008

Wallace got enough votes to "sink" Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (MN) and to elect Nixon in November 1968. Wallace wash shot by Arthur Bremner in 1972 in Laurel, MD.


Jason Blake Keuter - 5/27/2008

The young, new voters are a very unstable part of this "new" constituency, and they're really more attracted to Obama than they are to any particular set of issues that could form a bedrock constituency. Further, Obama's orthodox stands on social security, coupled with his talk of raising capital gains, should send the young - or any other working age or soon to be working age generation - fleeing from Obama. Maintaining social security as it is and pursuing a tax policy that will lead to lower capital gains will assure a less than golden retirement for this generation of workers. As they grow up, more and more will defect from the Obama coalition, which is incredibly shallow and not built for the long term.


Patrick Jones - 5/26/2008

New polling data actually undermines Wilentz/Clinton's talking points:

http://www.slate.com/id/2175496/


Frank Cousins - 5/26/2008

While the good professor has presented a very compelling argument here,he has also conveniently left out numerous historical references that would negate his theory. What is clear here is that he is clearly projecting his own political ideology into the realm of historical fact, which compels me to regard this as little more than "snit fit".


Cary Fraser - 5/26/2008

Wilentz observes that George W. Bush carried the majority of white working class votes in 2000 and 2004. Are we then to assume that the white working class can be held responsible for electing the "worst" president in American history. If so, should the judgment of the white working class be trusted?
Again, Wilentz credits Reagan with winning 61% of the white working class votes. It was the Reagan administration that oversaw the process of gutting the industrial base of the American economy, and facilitated the increasing concentration of incomes and wealth that define contemporary America. Unfortunately, Wilentz is unable to perceive that the 2008 campaign has been made possible by the most disastrous Republican preidency since Herbert Hoover, snd, as a consequence, American politics is moving towards a realignment that is likely to be as significant as that of the New Deal era.
Given the Clinton administration's pursuit of globalization with its dismissive contempt for the American industrial base, it may be useful to see Bill and Hillary Clinton as Reagan Democrats who symbolize the failures of the "Reagan revolution." Hillary Clinton's campaign has provided no evidence that she will be able to step out of Reagan's shadow or that she will be any significant improvement upon George W. Bush.


Gerald Sorin - 5/26/2008

Does Sean Wilentz think John McCain, with his “free” market “solutions” for everything, represents the interests of the working-classes, white or black, women or men? Wilentz suggests sympathy for the exploitation and condescension suffered by the workers, but also implies something else: those working-class people are too stupid or too racist to see where their real interests lay. (And given the policies of the Andrew Jackson administration: anti-reform, pro-state rights, proslavery [which more than insulted all labor], anti-internal improvements [job creation and funding for public schools], Jackson, was no democrat. Expanding the electorate is, of course, crucial for democracy, but at the same time, as Jackson and his party did, to deny funding for public schools, is to define a demagogue not a democrat.
Wilentz is right about the Democratic's party ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and after watching the Hillary-Obama dialogues and the November results, leaders of the party may be shaking their heads as a long winter nears, saying, "why didn't we push for Joe Biden's nomination?" but the Republican coalition is coming apart at the seams; and if we can stop some of the infighting and name-calling we might see that despite the so-called "elitist" prejudices which are carried, consciously or otherwise, by all the candidates (despite the rhetoric), the most IMPORTANT values and goals (reducing inequities of every kind through education and tax policies, ending the unjust war in Iraq, dealing with global warming, rebuilding America's infrastructure) of the Democratic party, including Obama, are the values and goals of the vast majority of the American people including the white-working-classes.
Gerald Sorin


Gerald Sorin - 5/26/2008

Does Sean Wilentz think John McCain represents the interests of the working-classes, white or black, women or men? He suggests sympathy for the exploitation and condescension suffered by the workers, but also implies something else: those people are too stupid or too racist to see where their real interests lay. (And given the policies of the Andrew Jackson administration: anti-reform, pro-state rights, proslavery [which more than insulted all labor], anti-internal improvements [job creation and funding for public schools], Jackson, was no democrat. Expanding the electorate is, of course, crucial for democracy, but at the same time, as Jackson and his party did, to deny funding for public schools, is to define a demagogue not a democrat.
Wilentz is right about the Democratic's party ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and after watching the Hillary-Obama dialogues and the November results, leaders of the party may be shaking their heads as a long winter nears, saying, "why didn't we push for Joe Biden's nomination?" but the Republican coalition is coming apart at the seams; and if we can stop some of the infighting and namecalling we might see that despite the so-called "elitist" prejudices which are carried, consciously or otherwise, by all the candidates (despite the rhetoric), the most IMPORTANT values and goals (reducing inequities of every kind through education and tax policies, ending the unjust war in Iraq, dealing with global warming, rebuilding America's infrastructure) of the Democratic party, including Obama, are the values and goals of the vast majority of the American people including the white-working-classes.
Gerald Sorin


David B Burner - 5/26/2008

Sean Wilentz's piece is so crammed with inflammatory rhetoric that is retrograde for the party. Stop shouting, Dr. Wilentz. Both Clinton and Obama face major problems in running against McCain. So to retain as many Democratic loyalists as possible let's play by the crystal clear rules drawn by the Democratic National Commitee leading most likely to an Obama nomination. For Hillary to act the spoiler goaded on by angry liberal voices demandng lucid rules be changed will only deepen her image of damaged goods she has brought on herself over the last days and years. An Obama candidacy, very possibly a successful one, will once again challenge the racism that has sullied
Amerian history.


Tim Matthewson - 5/26/2008

With such slash and burn attacks on Obama, which seek to stir up white working class resentments, as presented above, what is clear is that McCain is going to win. Not only that but Hilary and the Clinton's generally will be perceived as spoilers who are attempting to destroy Obama and their machine will sink her hopes for any future influence as a senator. Wilentz seems to be saying that if his Democratic candidate does not win, then none of the Democratic candidates will be permitted to achieve the presidency. The Democrats have a long history of infighting. Most recently Ted Kennedy destroyed the second term campaign of Jimmy Carter. Along a related line, don't forget about how Ralph Nader grabbed enough Democratic votes to sink Al Gore and put Dubya in the White House, and one should not forget that George Wallace got enough Democratic votes to sin Mondale and put Reagan in the White House.
Democrats are good at infighting but less adept at winning elections. Here we go again. Wilentz is so certain about his analysis that he is willing to sink Obama, create an internal racial conflict in the Democratic party, and assure the victory of John McCain. Good luck to the people of the American military if McCain achieves the presidency, for that trigger happy former soldier has never met a war he doesn't like and has not got the slightest idea that negotiations can lead to positive ends. And good luck to the increasingly impoverished working class of America, for McCain does not even pretend to have an interest in the American economy or their prosperity.

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