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Is white pessimism all about race?

White middle-class folks are less optimistic than any other group. Maybe they have non-racial reasons to be


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Joan Walsh
August 23, 2012 11:33PM (UTC)

I talked to Chris Matthews about my book Wednesday night on "Hardball," and typically, he wanted to zero right in on a crucial question: What if anything can Barack Obama do to win the white working class for the Democrats?

I don't think there's anything Obama can do to win back a majority of the white working class – once the bedrock of the Democratic Party – or white voters generally. But I think he can make inroads. As I say all the time, in 2008 Obama won a higher share of the white vote, and the white working-class vote, than white Democrats John Kerry, Al Gore or Bill Clinton (in his first term, anyway). That's something worth building on (even though his approval ratings have declined with white voters since 2009).

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I had a four-point plan for Obama and Democrats to boost their standing with working-class whites – but I think we only got to two (the video is below).

  •  Democrats must double down on their message of economic populism, which Obama has sharpened in the last six months. Democrats lost the white working class only partly over race and culture issues; they also became the party of Wall Street and corporate interests generally, giving struggling whites less reason to believe they'd represent their interests.
  •  Take their concerns seriously; don't dismiss all of them as racism.
  •  Finally, remind them that the slackers and moochers and "welfare queens" the GOP rails against now includes a whole lot of white people. A lot of white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Ohio went for John Kasich and Scott Walker and then found their unions targeted, as cops, firefighters, teachers and other public workers became the new "welfare queens." When Paul Ryan talks about the "makers" vs. the "takers," he's actually talking about a lot of the white working and middle class.

Significantly, the same day as our "Hardball" discussion the Pew Research Center released a study on the economic status and attitudes of middle-class voters. It was devastating. The size of the middle class has dropped from 61 percent of all adults 40 years ago to a bare majority now. Median middle-class income has fallen from $72,956 to $69,487 since 2000, Pew found, while median net worth declined 28 percent, wiping out two decades of gains. Pew called it "a lost decade for the middle class." Meanwhile, the upper-income group increased its share of the nation's income and makes up 46 percent of the total, as opposed to 29 percent in 1971.

The study also found that white middle-class voters polled were more pessimistic about the future than black and Latino middle-class people. While 75 percent of whites said it was harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago, roughly 6 in 10 middle-class Latinos and blacks said the same – even though the white middle class is still doing better than other groups. Some observers have suggested the gulf is due to whites' fear of racial change, and that may be part of it. It's also clear that because of the legacy of racism, black and Latino families may advance more than white families over the next 10 years – because they started further behind. But as I note above, white working- and middle-class people have lost the belief that government plays a role in helping them, and see no reason to be optimistic about change.

I'm more struck by the fact that more than 60 percent of every group thinks it's harder to get ahead than it was 10 years ago. And they're right. President Obama leads middle-class voters, as the candidate whose policies will help them most, 52-42 percent (that question wasn't broken down racially). They're right about that. Mitt Romney is perceived as the best candidate to represent their interests by the upper income group, 71-38 percent. They're right, too. Finally, 62 percent of the poor believe Obama will help them most, to just 33 percent who believe Romney will. It turns out everyone's right. Unfortunately, folks at the top vote in higher numbers than those at the bottom, making it even more crucial that the Obama team turn out low- and middle-income voters.

Here's my "Hardball" discussion from Wednesday, with a bonus clip: My book segment on MSNBC's "Now With Alex Wagner" from today.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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