01/25/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Why Working People Don't Like Democrats

If the election were held today, I believe American voters would back the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney or even Newt Gingrich. Why is this so, given the dismal record of the last Republican Administration on jobs, deficit spending, and costly mismanaged wars? Primarily because white middle class Americans, especially men, just don't like Democrats anymore. More of them voted for Obama in 2008 than would now because the economy was collapsing and a Republican Congress and George W. Bush were in charge. Their antipathy to those they see as "liberals," however, is so deep that they did not stay with Obama for long. Within a year of the election almost all of his support from that part of the electorate was gone. Again, the question is why.

The key to understanding blue collar antipathy towards Democrats was captured in early 1996 in a study called "The Economy Project," by one-time Clinton pollster, Stan Greenberg. He interviewed so-called Reagan Democrats, blue collar working people and their families around Detroit, and came to striking conclusions. These blue collar men, he found, see themselves primarily as breadwinners -- almost beasts of burden. They believe the patriotic narrative that says that in America everyone has the opportunity to do well. During bad times they are haunted by the belief that they would be succeeding if they had listened to those who told them it was important to do well in school. Deep in their souls they believe that they are falling short because they blew the opportunities America offers.

Democrats remind them of the people whose advice they did not take. We are seen as the "scolders," the ones who frown at guns, beer and muscle cars, who remind them of what they could have done if they had worked harder in school. The Republican narrative builds on this. It is never even subtly critical of white males. It provides them with scapegoats -- the government, liberals -- who Republicans tell them help minorities and women but not blue collar Americans like themselves. Gingrich's riffs on "food stamp president" and "janitors in schools" play to this and we would do better to take them in rather than ridicule them

Republican attacks on Obama's "failed economic policies" in this deeper context provide an outlet for the blue collar anger that is rooted in self-criticism and disappointment. They will keep saying that Obama's economic policies have failed, but what they really offer blue collar voters is license to attack a politician who is not one of them, and the scolding liberals they can hate instead of themselves.

It is not important to these blue collar voters that "fact based" people believe that the Great Recession was caused by Republican policies. It does not matter to them that the collapse of housing prices that reduced their nest eggs and the devastating job loses that are impoverishing many in addition to undermining their image of themselves -- took place during the last six months of the Bush administration and the first few months of 2009, long before Obama could be held responsible.

So what that Bush and the Republican Congress added far more to the deficit than Obama has with tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and an unfunded Medicare drug program. Facts offer no emotional relief. The attacks on stimulus, government spending, and "Obamacare" are outlets for rage that give people targets outside of themselves.

To reach these disaffected people, Democratic "plans" for the economy have to speak to their grievances. We have to say out loud that white men have problems that deserve to be addressed, just as minorities and women do. Obama knows this. He has spoken to it. But does he really feel for these people and can he show it?