05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats, White Men and the Tea Party Revolt

In his fine book The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, David Paul Kuhn took a hard look at the future of the Democratic party, and it's not good news. Since 1972, white men have voted by well over 60% for Republican or conservative candidates in every single presidential race. The only exceptions were Jimmy Carter, who got 48% of the white male vote, and Barack Obama, who got 41% of white men.

What does this say about the future of the Democratic party and progressives, especially with the rise of the vocal -- though small and disorganized -- Tea Party movement? With the minority and youth vote expected to be significantly lower in the 2010 midterm elections, white voters will likely cast more than 75% of the ballots. And with Obama's approval ratings in the mid-30's among white men, the Democrats' hold on Congress is in jeopardy and Obama's re-election in 2012 is questionable.

While some argue that the more progressive blocs of minorities and women voters can overcome the conservative votes of white men, Kuhn points out the fallacy of that argument. The nearly 100 million white men make up almost 40% of the American electorate, more than five times the total of all Hispanic voters, male and female. And the slight improvement that Democrats have registered with white women voters (over half of whom still vote regularly for Republicans) doesn't begin to match the Republican party's enormous advantage among white men. Add to that the outsized influence of the white male vote in the South (where more than 75% of white men vote Republican) and in rural areas which carry heavy weight in the electoral college (one Wyoming resident's vote equals the vote of seventy-two Californians), the electoral future for progressives looks dim.

In the short term, these dismal demographics argue for an aggressive legislative agenda for the Democrats while they hold the majority in Congress and while President Obama remains personally popular (although the coming months will reveal whether his popularity can be sustained in the wake of the health care bill). Certainly, a focus on jobs is paramount, since men have been the major losers in the current employment landscape. However, even if the White House has a hyper-focus on jobs in the next few months, unless the jobs outlook improves, the midterm elections look bleak for Democrats.

In the longer term, Democrats need to face the gender gap squarely. This does not mean capitulating on progressive causes, nor does it mean competing with Republicans on the macho quotient or reshaping itself as the "daddy" party. What the Democrats - and progressives in general - need to do is revive their conversation with white men, much as they did with African-Americans in the 1950's and with women in the 1960's and '70's. Rather than seeing the world in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or other specific interest, Democrats need to see the world in broader, 21st century terms.

There can be no disputing that white men - like all Americans - are suffering in the most severe economic downturn since the Depression. Men who were able to support their families with good jobs have been thrown onto the street - in some cases literally - through no fault of their own. For the traditional male - and all men have at least some traditional male in them - this is a severe blow to their self-esteem. And while our society has justly recognized the injustices done to women, minorities and other groups in our society, we have been slow to recognize injustices done to white men, who have been viewed as occupying a privileged place in society (even though the vast majority of white men enjoy no such privileges).

As we strive for a post-racial society, where citizens enjoy equal rights and privileges despite their race or national origin, our goal as progressives should be a for post-gender society, where men and women of all races are treated with dignity and respect. And perhaps more importantly, our goal should be a society in which all groups - including white men - are included in the conversation about our future. This is not a simple task, since modern psychology - and our own common sense - tells us that men and women have very different ways of not only conversing, but of relating to the world. Just as Democrats have urged their leaders, beginning with Bill Clinton, to "feel the pain" of the voters as a way to relate to women, so Democrats now should learn how to connect with the emotions of white male voters.

The Tea Party movement seeks to return us to a divisive past by capitalizing on the anger - largely of white men - against the injustices and neglect that they feel. In this way, the Tea Partiers most resemble, in their tactics if not in substance, the leftist movements of the 1930's, which used economic distress to fuel a rebellion against the capitalist system. To his great credit, FDR opened a dialogue with disenfranchised workers, who had been largely neglected and even scorned by much of American society. Even though FDR rarely compromised his policy positions (he was anything but a socialist), he managed to gain the confidence of a large swath of the American work force, and kept them from falling under the spell of political extremism.

FDR not only saved America from extremism, but he also a built a powerful, progressive political movement that was a voice for all disenfranchised Americans - from workers to minorities to women. Democrats have a chance to rebuild that progressive movement, but only if they listen to another disaffected group - white men. This does not mean that progressives must abandon the causes and the groups that they have championed for decades. But it does mean that we should listen carefully to the concerns of white men - urban and rural, North and South - and respond to them within the framework of progressive values. Only then will we be able build a more inclusive future for our country -- one that does not include the divisive hatred and venom of the Tea Partiers.

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