07/26/2010 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sen. Webb Tackles Preferences

Democrats like to think of themselves as champions of economic fairness for working families. But for decades now, working class voters -- especially white ones -- haven't been feeling the love. Even as their economic condition has deteriorated, they persist in voting against their "class interest" by voting Republican.

Few U.S. political leaders have studied this phenomenon more intently than Virginia Senator James Webb. In a thought-provoking Wall Street Journal article last week, Webb took aim at government policies intended to promote "diversity," which he says have marginalized many white workers.

Webb acknowledged Washington's responsibility to redress the wrongs endured by black Americans. But he maintained that affirmative action policies have been expanded to include many people, including recent immigrants, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim to be victims of discrimination. Such policies give a leg up to minorities in competition for government jobs and contracts, broadcast licenses, college admissions and even private sector hiring.

"Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years," Webb wrote.

Excepting programs intended to benefit black Americans, "government-directed diversity programs should end," he added.

Webb's criticism of group preferences is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" approach to reforming affirmative action. Perhaps because of their own humble origins, both men feel viscerally that policies that treat all whites as privileged, regardless of wide variations in their socio-economic background and circumstances, make a mockery of the liberal ideal of equal justice.

That glaring contradiction at the heart of contemporary liberalism offers a more-than-plausible explanation for why non-college white voters spurn Democrats. Liberals generally have preferred other explanations: endemic racism, or the supposed power of cultural issues to trump economic ones. Webb is challenging Democrats to come to grips with the obvious: white working class voters have good reasons for believing the party doesn't stand for economic fairness for them.

All this is highly relevant to Democrats' electoral prospects, in the midterm election and beyond. In last year's big elections in New York, Virginia and even solidly Democratic Massachusetts, only a third of working class whites picked the Democratic candidate. According to a recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, a mere 34 percent of non-college white men and 37 percent of non-college women approve of the job President Obama is doing.

Even among college white men, Obama's approval stands at 42 percent, and 50 percent for women. In fact, the sharp drop in Obama's public esteem [Gallup] seems to be largely due to the defection of white voters, and women in particular, since nearly two-thirds of minority voters approve of his performance.

Obama and the Democrats don't need to win a majority of white voters, but they can't afford to lose them by enormous margins, either. To close the gap, progressives must do a better job of addressing the real economic interests of white working class, which after all are not much different than those of working class blacks, Latinos or Asians.

What's needed is a new agenda for modernizing public infrastructure, expanding access to education and retooling the American economy to win in global competition. The details of that agenda are a subject for another day. But Sen. Webb is right: Progressives should start by tailoring affirmative action policies narrowly to those they were originally intended to help, and let everyone else compete for economic opportunities without government's thumb on the scales.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.

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