Since the Ohio primary, the traditional media has become obsessed with Barack Obama’s alleged failure to win more votes from “white working-class voters” (WWCV). Election coverage has come to identify this group as the most-prized electoral constituency, one said to likely determine the next President. But the media is routinely using the term WWCV without defining who these people are. For example, WWCV are often described as blue-collar, even though most are white-collar service or office workers. Similarly, WWCV are typically placed in the manufacturing sector, even though this is a small percentage of the overall constituency and the unionized portion is staunchly Democratic. To further confuse matters, some of these unionized WWCV are even described as “Reagan Democrats,” even though the union members voting for Reagan in 1980 had returned to the Democratic fold by 1986 (when the Party regained control of the Senate). The media’s sudden concern about a poorly defined constituency whose economic needs have long been ignored should raise suspicions; it appears to say more about the traditional media’s desire to frame the election in racial terms than it is does about Barack Obama’s political strength.
On March 20th
, I wrote a piece questioning media criticism of Barack Obama for allegedly failing to win enough votes from the white working-class. One of my points was that white males formed the core of the Republican Party’s presidential base, and that Obama should not be expected to win majority support from these voters.
Among the responses to my piece was a lengthy message questioning the media’s sloppy use of the term “white working-class voters.” The author, who insists on anonymity, made some very important points that have almost completely been overlooked as the media pursues a racially charged frame for its 2008 election coverage.
Working-Class vs. Blue-Collar
Although the media is using these terms interchangeably, most “white working class voters” are not “blue collar" workers. To the contrary, most are clerical and/or service sector workers, or work in the fast food industry.
Of the 12 percent of workers in manufacturing, many are not white. The unionized segment—such as autoworkers, steelworkers, and mineworkers—vote strongly Democratic and will be backing Obama in November.
So if the media is using the term WWCV to describe non-union manufacturing workers, then we are potentially talking about as small as a 5% voting base. Yet the media’s desire to frame this election in racial terms has led it to constantly focus on this small constituency, while not questioning John McCain’s far weaker standing among African-American and Latino voters.
The media’s message that Obama has trouble appealing to the economic insecurities of non-union white-working class voters is undermined by his support among non-white workers of similar incomes; the media rarely acknowledges that Obama’s problem with these white voters is his race—which he cannot change—rather than his message,
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Alabama Governor George Wallace and other Southern segregationists repeatedly claimed that their problem with federal civil rights laws for African-Americans was not about race, but rather about “states rights.” By arguing that Obama’s problems with a small segment of white working class are based on his weak message, rather than his race, the traditional media is wrongly giving protection and cover to white racists.
Working-Class vs. College Grads
The media has also wrongly equated “working-class” with voters lacking a college degree. Many of the white-collar workers earning working-class wages are college graduates, while many middle-class blue-collar workers—electricians, plumbers and other tradespeople—are not.
While polls have shown Obama doing less well among those without college degrees, this does not mean these voters are the Joe and Jane Six-Packs routinely designated as WWCV by the media. These voters are just as likely to work in the insurance industry or other white-collar field whose politics have long been aligned with the Republican Party.
Working-Class vs. “Ethnic” Voters
In addition to misleading the public about a blue-collar, uneducated “white working class,” many in the media have identified the constituency Obama allegedly has trouble with as “white ethnic working class voters.” In other words, the Polish or Italian blue-collar worker frequently interviewed prior to the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries.
Few of these interviews included information about their subject’s voting history. While the implication was that because these “white ethnics” are registered Democrats their opposition to Obama is troubling, many Democrats do not vote with the Party in presidential races. The media did not explain whether the white ethnics interviewed had happily voted for Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore and Kerry but were turned off by Barack Obama
As for Obama's problems in white-dominated Appalachia, Charles M. Blow reported in the May 17, 2008 New York Times that Kerry won only 48 of Appalachia's 410 counties, and that Gore only won 66, or 16%.
In truth, we know that many factors—particularly race and religious concerns—have led white ethnics and other low-income voters to support Republican presidential candidates. But the media downplays this reality, preferring to blame Obama for failing to “connect” with the economic problems faced by the white working-poor.
The Ongoing Denial of Racism
Over forty years after the passage of the 1964 federal civil rights law, the traditional media in the United States remains reluctant, and even fearful, of ascribing racial motives to voting patterns. When racism is identified, the focus is on Southern states, not on the presence of virulent racism among pockets of voters in such states as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or Indiana (the latter was a former stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan).
As a result of the media’s ongoing denial of racism, it needed an alternative explanation for Obama trailing Hillary Clinton among white working-class voters. This explanation—Obama is as “elitist,” “aloof,” and “arrogant,” and doesn’t understand “kitchen table issues”—allows the media to avoid acknowledging that some white voters, particularly those with low education levels, still view successful African-Americans as “uppity.”
If politicians cared as much about the white working class as they and the media say they do, the minimum wage would not be a fraction of what it was in the 1970’s, universal health care would be in place, and the Democratic Clinton Administration would never have pushed NAFTA.
That’s why the media’s eagerness to now trumpet the political importance of the white portion of this undefined constituency has nothing to do with improving their plight, or the status of low-wage workers of all races and backgrounds. Rather, the media needed a non-racial explanation for what is primarily race-based voting, and inventing an ill-defined “white working class voter” was how they chose to accomplish this.