the national interest

A Working Class Hero Is Something to Be

US President Barack Obama (2nd R) talks with unemployed construction workers over beer at the Harp and Celt Restaurant and Irish Pub in Orlando, Florida, October 11, 2011.
Obama is about to abandon these people, probably just before the check arrives. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/2011 AFP

A week ago, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, analysts at the Center for American Progress, wrote a paper that triggered an especially absurd game of telephone. The paper laid out the demographic options for the Obama reelection effort. In a nutshell, the growing proportion of minorities and college-educated white in the electorate means that Obama can lose the white working-class vote by even higher margins – almost as high as Democrats lost them in 2010 – and still win a majority.

That’s when the game of telephone kicked in.

Tom Edsall wrote an analysis for the New York Times describing “preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.” Conservative media took it the next step. Former Bush speechwriter William McGurn wrote a Wall Street Journal column headlined, “Obama Abandons The Working Class.” Fox News reported the story as a “plan” by Democratic operatives to abandon the white working class.

This is a case of bad faith meeting a common and extremely simple fallacy afflicting political analysis. The fallacy is to think of demographics like the electoral college. The electoral college is made up of winner-takes-all units. If the Democrats can’t win Utah, and the Republicans can’t win Vermont, there’s no point in investing resources in those states, because getting anything less than half the vote in those states is as good as zero.

Obviously, demographic categories don’t work like that. Halpin and Teixeira are perfectly clear about this. Obama can lose the white working-class vote by 15 or even 20 points and still win, but he can’t lose the white working class by thirty points. One less vote in any cohort is one more vote you need to make up elsewhere. To concede that a candidate won’t win a majority among a demographic cohort is obviously not the same thing as “abandoning” it. A huge proportion of political analysis about demographics actually rests on the extremely silly error of treating voting blocs like winner-takes-all units.

Edsall took the further step of describing a paper by liberal analysts who do not work for the Obama campaign as a Democratic plan. That set the stage for heralds of conservative identity politics, ever vigilantly scanning the landscape for any hint of liberal disrespect for regular white people. The right-wing media turned the paper into Obama’s plan to abandon the white working class, which is mana for operatives always on the prowl for any hint of a wedge issue. Cue up Bernie Goldberg shaking his head at those snobby Democrats peering down their noses at blue-collar Joes. And the idiocy-fest was complete.

A Working Class Hero Is Something to Be