04/13/2014 08:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


The Democratic Party must embrace, fight for and enact economically-progressive policies. It must be the party of Main Street, not Wall Street, of the 99 percent, not the one percent. In particular, it must fight for a strong safety net to protect those of us who fall on hard times. There is good reason to criticize many of today's Democrats for not being, in short, progressive enough. It's important to say these things at the start.

There is another, related argument out there -- often connected to the call for Democrats to be more progressive -- that does not stand up to scrutiny. That argument focuses on the failures of Democrats to win the votes of the white working class. The notion that Obama has "abandoned" the white working class has been espoused by conservative critics, trying to drive a wedge between working-class voters of different races, but that's a different argument. For the progressive take on this, let's look at a recent column by Michael Lind, someone I respect a great deal (he's all over the footnotes of my book, and he has influenced my understanding of American national identity as much as any other writer), who offered the following:

The social programs that enjoy the greatest level of support from white working class voters are universal, non-means-tested programs like Social Security and Medicare which reward work by being funded with payroll taxes... FDR and LBJ offered white working class voters universal social insurance programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- and were rewarded with huge Democratic majorities in Congress and presidential elections, even though the white working class was far more racist and culturally conservative than it is today.

That all sounds intuitively right, and it definitely works as part of a call for Democrats to embrace economically progressive policies. However, if you read the caption to the photo above, you know that there are serious holes in that narrative, starting with the crown jewel of the New Deal, the Social Security Act.

As originally enacted, the Social Security Act was by no means a "universal" program. Because various occupations were excluded, only about half of American workers were covered. In particular, approximately two out of three African Americans were not covered, a percentage that rose to three out of four in parts of the South. The NAACP initially criticized the law as "a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." Not exactly universal.

It's worth noting that welfare (originally called "Aid to Dependent Children" and created by the Social Security Act) similarly excluded blacks at the outset, i.e., under FDR. The fact that there was significant local control over how these programs were administered especially hurt Southern blacks. A study by Richard Sterner (cited here by Ira Katznelson) found that, in Georgia, just over 14 percent of eligible whites got aid compared to 1.5 percent of eligible blacks.

Here's the other point worth making: From 1935 to 1938, when the Social Security Act became law, FDR had what Emory sociology professor Alexander Hicks described as "rare, non-Southern Democrat majorities -- 270 non-Southern Democrat representatives and 71 non-Southern Democrat senators" backing his Second New Deal. Although African Americans certainly benefited from the New Deal in many ways, one can ask whether FDR could have done more to ensure equal treatment. That's a polite way to ask that question. We can certainly say that the New Deal was not applied, to return to Michael Lind's point, in a "universal" way. We'll never know how white working-class voters, in particular those in the South, would have reacted to FDR had it been.

In 1965 LBJ passed Medicare. It didn't exactly guarantee Democratic dominance in subsequent decades. This leads to the larger point that pushes back against Lind's argument. The Democratic Party didn't abandon the white working class, nor did the white working class abandon the Democratic Party. The Southern white working class abandoned the Democratic Party, and they did so because of civil rights, and they continue to do so because of race and other cultural/social issues on which the South diverges from the rest of the country. If you haven't read Elisabeth Jacobs' study on the politics and voting patterns of the American white working class, you should:

On average, Democratic presidential candidates prospects with self-identified white working class voters have diminished somewhat over time... Yet, the downward trend in Democratic presidential vote choice between 1956 and 2008 is concentrated amongst the Southern white working class... White working class presidential party vote choice for non-Southerners is remarkably stable over time; if anything, the period between 1984 and 2008 has been one of improvement for the Democrats amongst this group. The opposite is true in the South. Prior to the 1960s rights revolutions (including, most notably for the South, the major upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement), a strong majority of the Southern white working class voted for Democratic candidates. Southern white working class voting appears to have settled into a basic equilibrium with Reagan's 1984 election, with the notable exception of an uptick for Clinton's first election in 1992, and again for Obama's 2008 election gambit....

Third, and perhaps most importantly because it is so often overlooked in popular analysis, the defection of the white South from the Democratic Party plays a central role in driving the overarching story of white working class politics. As Bartels succinctly summarizes: "Democratic presidential vote share has declined by almost 20 percentage points among [S]outhern whites without college degrees. Among non-southern whites without college degrees, it has declined by one percentage point. That's it. Fourteen elections, 52 years, one percentage point." The same basic relationship holds across all income groups of non-college educatedwhites: a 20-point-gap between the South and the rest of the country. This is Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy come to life, not a widespread national defection of white working class voters from the Democratic Party. Case in point: in 2008, Obama won 54 percent of whites with incomes under $50,000 outside of the South, while he secured just 35 percent of this group in the South.

It is important to note that these are presidential election years, and the 2010 midterms went a different way for Democrats. Of course, other mid-term elections have not been bad at all for Democrats in recent decades. Furthermore, it doesn't make sense to ignore the stark difference between the non-Southern and Southern white working class vote in presidential years, and put this all on the general so-called abandonment of the white working class. The numbers are simply too strong.

To return to the broader argument of Lind and others who contrast Obama to FDR and LBJ, he criticizes Obamacare because it is not "universal" like Social Security and Medicare, and suggests this is why working-class whites aren't responding by voting Democratic. First of all, Social Security and Medicare are aimed at a population that is not expected to be working, a significant difference from the population at which Obamacare is aimed. But that's irrelevant, critics say -- why didn't he fight for single-payer?

Great question. I support single-payer. I believe single-payer is preferable to Obamacare. But before we condemn Obama for not passing it and criticize him as falling short where FDR and LBJ succeeded, let's remember some facts. As I cited previously, FDR had huge Democratic majorities. LBJ had majorities almost as large, and, as this memo makes clear, a filibuster of Medicare was not even a possibility, as opponents would not have considered one. President Obama's "filibuster-proof" majority of 60 senators included "Democrats" like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman -- the latter of whom promised to filibuster the whole package if it included a public option, let alone single-payer. Single-payer never even stood a chance. Finally, a review of a large number of polls shows that single-payer is not that popular compared to private health insurance. That surprised me, frankly.

And here's the other thing to remember about Obamacare and Social Security: Social Security is a hell of a lot better program in 2014 than it was in 1935, as I've described above. Well, if Social Security improved, maybe Obamacare will as well. Noam Scheiber has predicted, in fact, that it will ultimately pave the way toward single payer. But the thing is, you know who else -- in addition to Barack Obama -- failed to pass single-payer, universal health care? FDR and LBJ. And Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. So maybe Obama's not such a bad liberal after all.

My point here isn't to talk down FDR and LBJ, but rather to counter the idea that Obama "failed" in comparison. Lind's larger point -- that Democrats should embrace liberal, populist positions that would appeal to the white working class that too often votes Republican -- is totally right. But the idea that Obama failed where the great liberals succeeded (you should see the things those who criticized FDR from his left called him), and that that's why white working class voters aren't voting for Democrats, just doesn't hold water.