AMERICA'S FORGOTTEN MAJORITYWhy the White Working Class Still Matters
By Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers
Basic Books -- 215pp -- $27
Blue-collar workers get no respect in political circles these days. To most pundits, the key to recent national elections lies with wired, white-collar suburbanites, especially those soccer moms who won so much attention when they helped Bill Clinton take back the White House from Republicans in 1992 and keep it four years later.
Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers want to change that perception. Their contention is laid out squarely in the title of their provocative new book, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. Teixeira, a polling expert, and Rogers, a social scientist, argue persuasively that this group was actually the swing bloc in recent national elections--just as it was in the days when blue-collar workers who voted Republican were called Nixon Democrats and, later, Reagan Democrats.
Politicians in both parties have largely ignored such boring Old Economy types, assert the authors, who are left-leaning academics. But the pols do so at their peril. "The members of the forgotten majority, the real swing voters in politics today, are waiting for someone who really understands both their values and their economic experience," they write. "Right now, that could come from any political direction."
Of course, their view is not entirely surprising. After all, lefty activists would champion the working class as the heart of the body politic that has been betrayed by centrist New Democrats. Teixeira headed up polling analysis at the liberal Economic Policy Institute before recently jumping to a similar think tank, the Century Foundation. Rogers, a law and sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, pens a column for The Nation. Still, the two do center their analysis on a valid starting point, which is that the Democrats are the ones who have some explaining to do. After all, the big event in electoral politics in the decades since Richard Nixon's Presidency has been the general shift away from the Democratic Party. The Dems have lost both houses of Congress, after controlling them almost continuously since the New Deal. While Clinton recaptured the White House after 12 GOP years, he did so only by adopting many centrist and right-of-center positions. Even Nixon didn't have the nerve to advocate the end of welfare.
The Democrats' central problem, the authors maintain, lies with the flip-flopping voting patterns of the forgotten majority, which they define as whites without a four-year college degree. This group makes up about 55% of the electorate. At $42,000, median annual income lags behind the national average by roughly 10%. Working-class doesn't mean uneducated, however. Most have a smattering of college, even if they didn't complete a degree. A majority work in low-level service, sales, or technical jobs.
Teixeira and Rogers deploy a battery of polling data to further their case. They start with race. The share of whites who voted Democratic in Presidential races from 1960 to 1996 plunged by 13 percentage points, to 40%, in 1996. Meanwhile, the black Democratic vote rose by 4 points. This is why the book focuses on whites: Blacks have never left the Democratic Party. The authors then divide whites by education, finding that support for Democrats by whites without a college degree plunged by 14 points, to 41%, in 1996. Men led the way; their Presidential votes for Democrats dropped by 21 points, while women's slipped by just 9 points. By contrast, 38% of college-educated whites voted Democratic in 1996, a figure that's essentially unchanged since 1960.
So why did white, working-class men ditch the party that had pushed their interests since the New Deal? The authors say it's largely because of the economic pounding these men have taken. From 1979 to 1998, white non-college-educated men have seen their inflation-adjusted wages fall by 15%. Republicans seemed to offer better solutions.
While Teixeira and Rogers often sound critical of Clinton's New Democrats for ignoring the working-class majority, they also embrace a criticism of the Democratic Party that sounds much like that of some New Democrats. Instead of trying to address slow growth, income inequality, and stagnating living standards, they say, Dems until a few years back "focused on liberal social programs to help gays, women, and minorities." The GOP, by contrast, promised money in the pocket in the form of tax cuts, coupled with an assault on a welfare state that appeared not to address the economic plight of working-class whites.
Teixeira and Rogers don't for a minute believe that white workers have actually become more conservative just because they are now willing to vote Republican. Instead, "forgotten majority voters became increasingly convinced that government simply had no answers to their problems."
The rip-roaring economy of the past few years has brought the two parties to something of a stalemate in terms of white workers. GOP tax cuts and attacks on bloated government now seem less important, if not altogether irrelevant. And Clinton has pushed health coverage, job training, and other strategies to help workers, while reshaping his party's image on social issues such as welfare. Neither party, warns America's Forgotten Majority, has a platform that speaks directly to white workers. If they do hold the swing vote, the future is up for grabs.