POLITICS

HuffPost Forum: Should The Dems Love White Guys, Or Dump Them?

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the longer-running and more contentious strategic debates among Democrats and liberals involves the importance of white men -- especially white working- and middle-class men -- to the building of a majority coalition.

Formerly a mainstay of the pre-1960s Roosevelt coalition, these voters have since become a key constituency for the Republican Party.

First, in the 1980 election, white men provided the votes essential for Reagan's victory and the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. Their defection from the Democratic Party was the driving force behind the emergence that year of the contemporary gender gap - much more so than stronger Democratic identification among women.

White males, dubbed "angry white men," were in the vanguard of the Republican Revolution of 1994. From 1990 to 1994, the percentage of high school educated white men voting Democratic in congressional races dropped an extraordinary 20 points (for white, high school educated women, the drop was 10 points).

There are multiple dilemmas posed for liberal and Democratic strategists when considering whether or not it is important to bring white men back into the fold.

On the negative side:

Are white men impossible to win over in greater numbers? Would appeal to those who have abandoned the Democrats require excessively "tough guy" posturing on crime and foreign policy? Are these men now culturally alien to the contemporary Democratic party? Why invest in a constituency steadily declining as a share of the electorate, when others, especially Hispanics, are the source of millions of new votes?

On the plus side:

How can the Democrats claim to be the party of working men and women without the backing of more white men? Would the inclusion of more white men prevent over-dependence on 'identity group' politics? Isn't an appeal to white men an integral part of the broader appeal to centrist, middle-class voters who, arguably, are crucial to Democratic victories?

The Huffington Post has invited some of the participants in this debate to share their views on the subject. They are David Paul Kuhn, a reporter for Politico and the author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation; Thomas F. Schaller, Department of Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Whistling Past Dixie; Todd Gitlin, Columbia Professor of Journalism and Sociology and author of The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals; Mike Tomasky, Editor-at-large, American Prospect; Adele M. Stan, a columnist for the American Prospect Online, program director of the National Women's Editorial Forum, and author of the blog AddieStan; Scott Winship, Senior Policy Adviser, Third Way; Donna Brazile, who has worked as a political strategist on every Democratic presidential campaign since 1984, who managed the Gore-Lieberman campaign, and who is the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics; and Michael Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies, a political consulting firm, and co-founder of Openleft.com.

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DAVID PAUL KUHN, Politico

When the top-tier Republican candidates skipped a debate geared toward African-Americans, the media rightly pointed out that it sent an awful signal to the black community. But for decades Democrats have sent a similar signal to a far larger constituency. More than a third of the American electorate was told the party they once built did not need them.

Democrats have not won more than 38 of every 100 white men who voted since Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. It is no coincidence that 1976 was also the last time Democrats won a majority. Yet this causes remarkably little concern on the political left. One reason is that some liberals are depending upon an ever-diversifying nation. But white men will be at least a third of the electorate for the coming decade. And they will be larger than the Hispanic bloc for far longer.

Hispanics are still vital to Democrats, of course. But perhaps white men are as well. Consider some electoral math. In the last presidential election white men were 36 percent of the electorate. In comparison Hispanic men and women combined were 8 percent.

The extent of the issue is stunning. By 2004 George W. Bush even won a majority of white men in the East (54 to 46 percent), in the non-South (58 to 41 percent), or living in cities with over a half million people (56 to 44 percent). Republicans won white men over Democrats in households making between $15,000 and $29,000 (54 to 46 percent) and those with a post-graduate education (55 to 45 percent).

Democrats win or contest these categories of white women. When I began researching the male side of the gender gap I expected to find some demographic groups where white men voted like white women. Even black men are less Democratic than black women.

It was because the White Male Gap pervaded every possible category in presidential politics that I came to realize there was something particularly white and male going on here.

But it was my drive from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, dipping as far south as New Orleans and Phoenix, which cemented this outlook. For one month between the 2004 party conventions I spoke to perhaps a thousand voters at great length--including hundreds of white men--on their doorsteps, at the bars, during their lunch break.

So many were not pleased with the president or the war in Iraq. But they could not bring themselves to vote a liberal into the White House. Many conservative women felt the same. But the issue was particularly potent with men, if only because they were the history behind the undoing of the Democratic Party.

This led me to write, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. It was unmistakable, however the polling was deciphered, that the White Male Gap was the most consistent reason Republicans won seven of the last ten presidential elections.

Yet it is the future that concerns progressives. Since at least 1984 there has been a perspective that Democrats should focus on winning everyone but white men, targeting white women as the key swing bloc. But look where that has gotten Democrats.

Some liberals can be quite conservative in their outlook. Many still hold passionately to a strategy that has not worked after a quarter century of implementation.

Could Hillary Clinton change that? It's possible. Her strategy is to win women based upon the symbolism of her candidacy, while holding the Democratic base. Polling paints an unclear picture about whether she can accomplish this feat without turning off men who may be open to another Democratic candidate.

Republicans have accomplished the opposite. Over decades they have proved capable of winning men without offsetting the gains by turning off enough women.

Democrats need not be Republican-lite to win back some of these men. Democrats merely must be pragmatic instead of dogmatic. It does not take winning a majority of white men for Democrats to rebuild their majority. This is an issue of inroads.

As I point out in the book, "had John Kerry narrowed the White Male Gap from 26 to 21 percent he would have gained more than 2 million votes, and almost assuredly won the presidency."

This fact is equally true for Al Gore. Had Democrats seriously considered making inroads with the white male electorate in 2000 Gore would have been commander-in-chief on September 11th, 2001.

Elections matter. And so we must consider those behind the making of the president -- even if they happen to be white and male.

It has been those who have stacked their careers on winning women to build an "emerging Democratic majority" that have been most critical of my book. But Gore attempted this very strategy. The 2000 election was narrow when Democrats should have easily won. The Democratic majority has yet to emerge.

Still, there remains a strain of argument that Democrats should let white men walk out. Yet for a moment, consider the alternative.

Montana Senator Jon Tester proved in 2006 that Democrats can make great gains with white men. Tester only lost these men by 4 percent. The 2000 Montana Democratic candidate had lost white men by 21 percent.

But most presidential historians agree that only past White House races are strong indicators of future contests. This is why I favor not putting too much weight on a midterm election that largely proved if Republicans implode Democrats can actually win. But 2008 will be a contest of visions, of character, between two candidates.

Yet Tester's election offered at least a glimpse of what is possible. Instead of arguing for the abandonment of white men, perhaps it might be more constructive for liberals to consider the platform and politician that won many of these men, as Tester, Virginia's Jim Web, or even the 1976 version of Carter illustrated.

Whoever wins the nomination for Democrats in 2008 can decide to ignore the voters who won Carter or Tester their office. That nominee can continue to focus upon white women as the key swing bloc. Possibly he or she may eek out a narrow victory. The odds do favor Democrats this time around.

But at a moment when polling demonstrates Republicans are at their weakest since Watergate, Democrats could also choose to be more ambitious and seek a majority. That means making gains with white men.

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KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, The Nation

Sheer number is one reason why white men are important to the building of a Democratic presidential majority. I don't have the current numbers handy but whites are still about 80 percent of the general US population and white men close to half that of the voting population. Only about 20+ percent of the population has 4-year college degrees. So the "white working class" -- just defined broadly as those without such degrees -- is about two-thirds of the electorate and white working class men about a third. It just doesn't make sense to write off that large a group.

Political opportunity is another. The exodus of whites and white men from the party really only happened in the South--as Larry Bartels has shown. And white guys, at least outside the South (though that's beginning to change, as my colleague Bob Moser is showing in his "Purple America" series for The Nation) have reasonable views on most things. They're concerned about the same stuff as everybody else ... healthcare, job security, education, global warming. They're properly frightened about their futures. A generation of economic decline and failed government response has made them extremely wary of big government and extremely open to sensible progressive policies.

If we don't have something that could appeal to such people and lift them up then we shouldn't be in government.

Ordinary decency is a third. Put the shoe on the other foot. If anybody said "Hey, African-Americans and Latinos are not important to building this majority" (together, about a fifth of the electorate) people would say, rightly, that was racist, stupid and terrible. So why say it about white men? They're hurting and their hostility will hurt you in getting something for other groups; here, it's critical that progressives have an immigration policy that is about lifting up standards for ALL workers--uniting not dividing. And white guys are reachable.

Why on earth wouldn't you want to pay attention to them? The big issue in America right now is inequality and the devaluation of work. These are people who've suffered the most (in 'relative', not absolute, terms) from the increase in inequality and who've been devalued. Understanding them better will help us understand our country better. And healing their condition will go a long way toward healing the country--and building a Democratic presidential majority.

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THOMAS SCHALLER, Dept. of Political Science, University of Maryland

In the past half-century white men fell from about half of all voters to a third, and while that is still a significant chunk of the electorate, in business terms that's called a declining market share. Neither party, at this point, would be wise to invest too much attention or effort cultivating their votes, especially since large swaths of white males are not swing voters anyway.

Because of rising non-white populations and what seems like an ever-growing gender gap in turnout fueled by women out-participating men, white men simply cast a smaller and smaller share of the vote with each passing election. Second, within the white male vote there are large subgroups already voting reliably Republican, like Stan Greenberg's "privileged men" of economic means, or reliably Democratic, like gay men or unionized teachers. The two key swing subgroups are blue-collar cultural voters and white Catholics, which often overlap.

If a corporate marketing executive doing long-term planning recommended to his CEO a massive push to capture white male consumers, she'd tell him to clean out his desk by the end of the day because white men simply are not a "growth market." We ought to be equally skeptical of political advisers making similarly myopic recommendations--especially those advising Democrats, who are advantaged by gender and racial growth patterns.

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DONNA BRAZILE, Democratic Political Strategist

For starters, white male voters must be informed that the Dem party shared their values on so many important issues facing the country. This means the party cannot ignore such tough issues as terrorism, border security and the second amendment.

Secondly, Democrats must appeal to their sense of fairness, inclusion to help raise pocket book or kitchen table issues as important to them raising their family in a safe and secure environment.

Lastly, we can't write off whole chunks of the country and expect two regions to bring the party to victory.

* * *

TODD GITLIN, Columbia Professor of Journalism and Sociology

I think it's important to regain support among white men, there being a lot of them--but not all-important. It's not so important as to pander to southern white men in particular, who (in aggregate) are still disturbingly starred-and-barred with the Confederate flag. Populist economic (and health-care) notes are the proper way to pander--to override the wedges driven by so-called cultural issues. It would be wrong to abandon the right to abortion, or immigrant rights, or all affirmative action. But obviously winning back a few percent of white men would be very helpful toward composing a new majority.

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MICHAEL LUX, CEO of Progressive Strategies, Co-founder of Openleft.com

It is true that when you slice the electorate into four broad categories -- male and female people of color, white women, and white men -- that white men are easily the most Republican of those four groups. After all, men are more Republican than women, and whites are more Republican than any other racial group. But the category is so broad that it is not an especially useful construct.

The two questions Democrats should be asking regarding white men are (1) are there some sub-groups within that demographic that are base-voting Dems that need to be identified and turned out to vote?; and (2) are there swing voters to be found within that demographic? The answer to both questions, of course, is a big yes.

If you are a white man who is Jewish, otherwise non-Christian and/or not a regular church attender, gay, low-income, a big city resident, a union member, unmarried, or young, you are a lot more likely to vote Democratic. There are also plenty of swing voters in all of those categories, but there are also quite a few white male swing voters in other demographic sub-groups as well. White men earning between 30K and 50K a year, that are Catholic, that don't have a college degree and/or work in blue-collar jobs, that live in inner-ring suburbs and in small towns- all are more likely than average to be swing voters.

A generic debate about "shouldn't we be appealing to more white men?" has always struck me as meaningless, or as a veiled substitute for "don't we need to be more conservative?" since most of the people who use that broad argument tend to be from the DLC wing of the party. The question is what kind of message will appeal to the kinds of voters- base and swing, male and female, white and non-white- that we need to win. On that, I've always agreed with Lee Atwater that the crucial swing vote in Presidential politics is a populist vote--and that progressive populism done right also appeals to the base voters we need to turn out.

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SCOTT WINSHIP, Senior Policy Advisor, Third Way

Democratic candidates don't need to specifically prioritize white men, but they won't break-out of "50-50 Nation" elections unless they manage to win more moderates (who are disproportionately white men). With the failure of Bush-era conservatism, they have an historic opportunity to win over additional white male voters and to widen their majority among moderates over recent elections.

To do so, they need to assure Americans they will protect them from foreign threats, they need to respect that Americans will accept only measured cultural change, and they need to reassure them that their domestic policies will reflect the values of fiscal and personal responsibility at the same time that they promote opportunity.

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MIKE TOMASKY, Editor-at-large, American Prospect

Appealing to white men does not have to be an oppositional zero-sum thing. I think this could be one of those "signal" things, like the way Bush sent signals to evangelicals, because I suspect white men in particular pay attention to those kinds of cues. Talk about sports, go to a football game, drink some beer, fly fish, use salty and mildly inappropriate language once or twice.

Of course the candidate has to actually LIKE sports, football, beer, fly fishing, and salty language.

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ADELE STAN, Independent Journalist, who cited this piece by Ann Friedman and Jessica Valenti on Feministing:

A call to male politicians: Stop playing the gender card!

Dear American male politicians,

We've got some advice for you: It's time to stop playing the gender card. I mean, really -- it's unprofessional.

It's just wrong to expect men to vote for you because you smell like Aqua Velva and cigar smoke, because you own a huge ranch and the Western wear to prove it, because you think America needs a "commanding Daddy" to torture the bad guys. Fine, go ahead, accentuate your masculinity by tossing a football around on the tarmac. Puff your barrel chest proudly. Reference the rugged wilderness. Even wear your pants a little tight in the crotch area. But does that telling bulge mean you're going to be the best president? We don't think so.

Elections should be about the issues, not about who has the biggest... uh, lead in the polls.

Read the rest of the post here.

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