There is one clear lesson from President Barack Obama’s win: Latinos, African-Americans, and young people have become the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. And white men, especially those without college degrees, have become the mainstays of the Republican party.
According to a summary of exit polls assembled by Fox News, hardly a Democratic bastion, non-whites made up 28 per cent of the electorate on election day, up from 27 per cent in 2008. And they overwhelmingly backed President Obama: 71 per cent of Hispanics voted for him (it was 67 per cent in 2008), and 93 per cent of blacks. In addition, the share of votes cast by whites was lower (72 per cent) than it has been going back to at least 1992.
Meanwhile, 60 per cent of voters under age 30 also strongly backed the President. Young people were 19 per cent of all voters, a point higher than the 18 per cent in 2008.
All this is good news for Democrats and a troubling omen for Republicans. Latinos, African-Americans, and young people constitute a growing percentage of the voting population (young people eventually become the entire voting population).
The challenge for Democrats will be to hold these groups in the future. All have been attracted to the Democratic Party in recent years mainly because Republican policies have turned them off – policies like the GOP’s draconian responses to undocumented workers, its eagerness to slash Medicaid and food stamps for the poor, its misogynistic approach to abortion, and its demand to cut federal spending on education and student loans.
But if Democrats want to keep their loyalty over the long term, the party will need to do more than rely on Republican electoral stupidity. After all, the GOP might learn it has to become (or appear to become) more inclusive.
Democrats will need to champion policies especially important to these groups – for example, immigration reforms that take account of how long someone has been in the United States and how much they’ve contributed as workers and citizens; paid family and medical leave for women (as well as men) who must care for their families in emergencies; expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing larger income supplements to lower-income workers; and income-contingent college loans, allowing them to be repaid as a fixed percentage of full-time jobs over a limited number of years.
All these have the added advantage of being good policies, regardless of their political attractiveness. Yet to create an enduring coalition, Democrats also need the white working class. They used to have it. In 1960, 57 per cent of blue-collar whites identified themselves as Democrats, and only 26 per cent as Republicans.
But that support began to erode dramatically. By 1980, 57 per cent of the white working class voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter; in 1984, 65 per cent backed Reagan over Walter Mondale; in 1988 60 percent voted for George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. And even though Bill Clinton managed to win back white working-class women, the shift of white men to the GOP continued.
Mitt Romney won among white voters by 20 percentage points, according to Fox News. That’s significantly higher than John McCain’s edge of 12 points in 2008.
It’s tempting to point to race as the major reason the white working class has shifted to the Republican party over the years. Southern whites began deserting the Democratic party after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And since then the GOP has on occasion played the race card – whether in the “Willie Horton” ads of 1988, or the more subtle racial message of “state’s rights” in 2012.
But that explanation leaves out the bigger story. The wages of white men without college degrees began falling in the late 1970s because of globalisation and technological changes that corporations were all too eager to take advantage of. Today, the typical white male worker without a college degree earns less than he did 35 years ago, adjusted for inflation.
Yet the Democratic party has done little to reverse this trend. (It pains me to say this because I was Secretary of Labor in the 1990s and didn’t fight hard enough.)
Democrats could have enacted labor law reforms that made it easier to form and preserve labor unions – which in the 1950s and 1960s gave the working class bargaining power to get a fair share of the profits. Democrats could have pushed for a nationwide system of productivity bargains, as in Germany, through which employees get a share of the gains from productivity growth.
They could have insisted all trade-opening treaties require that America’s trading partners have a minimum wage equal to half their median wage — and have set America’s own minimum wage to this standard. And Democrats could have reduced taxes on the middle and working class, and raised them on the rich.
By turning its back on white working-class men the Democratic party created a political vacuum Republicans have been all too eager to fill. Whether through racism, xenophobia, or homophobia, or by means of right-wing evangelical Protestantism, the GOP have found scapegoats. Blacks, immigrants, gays, and women seeking abortions aren’t responsible for the declining real wages of white men without college degrees, of course, but they are convenient targets of their anger.
Modern-day Democrats would do well to recall the core principle of the Democratic Party when President Harry Truman summarized it in 1948: We need a government, he said, “that will work in the interests of the common people and not in the interests of the men who have all the money.”