Working-Class White Men and the Election

By Chris Pepus

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that George Bush leads John Kerry by a comfortable 13 percentage points among white men (52%-39%), compared to Bush's three-point lead among white women (47%-44%). The "gender gap" is not as big as it was in 2000, when Bush outpolled Al Gore among white men 60% to 36%, but it may be enough to head off Kerry's challenge. These polls do not tell the full story because they do not break down their results by income group -- an oversight caused by the widespread assumption in the media that all white men are the same. But a look at the 2000 electoral map shows that the image of the "NASCAR dad" has some truth in it: GOP victories in the South and West would have been impossible without significant levels of support from working-class whites, and especially the men in that group.

Never has a political party received so much undeserved support from a segment of the population. Over the past quarter-century, corporate policies have deliberately eliminated many high-paying blue-collar jobs while Republican tax and budget cuts have redistributed wealth upward. Yet at the same time, conservatives convinced many white workers that their declining fortunes were the fault of minorities, immigrants and government regulations. The budget cuts actually made right-wingers' propaganda job easier: As the quality of social services declined, it became harder for workers to see benefits from their tax dollars. Traditional racial stereotypes completed the distorted picture by making it appear that only urban minorities benefited from government programs. The classic case was Ronald Reagan's stump-speech story about a (non-existent) welfare queen from South Chicago who used dozens of aliases to become a Cadillac-driving millionaire. Public perceptions of government (and of African Americans) are still warped by such scapegoat tactics. Republicans and the corporations they represent made the mess in which working Americans live, but they have proven extremely good at making political hay out of the rage caused by their destructive policies.

Under Bush Jr., however, it is becoming increasingly clear that light skin and a Y-chromosome do not offer immunity from downsizing and outsourcing. The president claimed that his tax cuts would benefit everyone by spurring growth, but Census Bureau data show that families with incomes over $100,000 are the only group to gain from Bush's policies. Likewise, not only does the president insist on letting companies keep their tax breaks when they export jobs to low-wage countries, but his labor secretary spends her time trying to think up legal means to deprive American workers of overtime pay. Workers everywhere are losing ground but poverty has increased most in the South. Also, it was suburban and rural whites who accounted for the first big increases in the poverty rate under Bush, and they still have not recovered.

So how has Bush managed to keep the support of so many white men in the below-$100,000 income group? Partly because liberals have played into Republicans‚ hands. Last year, Phil Donahue devoted several episodes of his brief MSNBC series to the subject of "angry white men." Since he assumed that all white men were privileged, Donahue was genuinely baffled that any of them might be upset. Others who should know better also fall into the same trap. Michael Moore's book Stupid White Men should have been called Stupid Rich People (why let the likes of Katherine Harris and Ann Coulter off the hook?), and the lately released How to Get the Stupid White Men Out of Office also conveys the wrong message with its title. When a white, male factory worker or family farmer sees Michael Moore or some expensively dressed liberals on television tossing off easy generalizations about "white male privilege," he concludes that they do not understand his experience. And he'll be less likely to trust them later, even when they offer concrete proposals that would benefit him and his family.

A working-class white man who isn't angry about his worsening economic prospects truly is a stupid white man. The issue is not anger but who is to blame. Bush's disastrous economic record is making it harder than ever for Republicans to escape responsibility for their policies. Progressives have a unique opportunity to take their case to workers of all ethnic backgrounds and both sexes -- if they don't let outdated labels get in the way.

Chris Pepus is a writer in St. Louis, Mo.

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