Grande Un-Americano

by Jonathan Chait | March 12, 2008

The warm glow of moral self-satisfaction that white Barack Obama voters like me have been enjoying for months has slightly ebbed in recent weeks, as the press has informed us that we are not real Democrats at all, but a bunch of pampered elites.

The trend has been proclaimed for nearly a year--specifically, since last March, when Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote a highly influential column depicting Hillary Clinton as the "beer track" candidate and Obama as the "wine track" candidate. As the voting has proceeded, and Clinton has held the loyalties of the working class, this analysis has spread and taken on an accusatory tone. "If you have a social need, you're with Hillary," sneered one Clinton adviser. "If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool." A union president introducing Clinton at a recent speech asked the audience if it wanted an "editor of the Harvard Law Review or a fighter for working families." Thus the strange alchemy of the campaign has transformed Hillary Clinton into Jim Traficant.

Before the Clintonites get too smug about their working-class heroism, though, it's worth pointing out that their proletarian tilt seems to have come as a total accident. Indeed, the well-heeled liberals they now deride are exactly the voting base they coveted during the Clinton presidency.

Swing voters, basically speaking, come in two varieties. You've got the downscale swingers, who have liberal, pro-government views on economic issues, but more conservative views on social issues. They tend to lean right on guns and gays and left on things like Social Security and free trade. On the other hand, you've got upscale swingers, who lean left on social issues but right on economics. Clinton, especially during his second term, chose to woo the well-to-do set.

The apostle of the upscale strategy was Mark Penn, a pollster who joined Bill Clinton in 1996. Penn had a way of slicing the data so that it always supported the same conclusion: Democrats should embrace the upscale center. To this end, he devised a series of swing-voter blocs for each election year--"Soccer Moms" (1996), "Wired Workers" (2000), and "Office Park Dads" (2002).

The political preferences of each group bore an eerie resemblance to one another: Wired Workers "tend to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. They like Gore's ideas about gun control, global warming, civil rights and abortion, but they are also intrigued by Bush's proposals for tax cuts, school vouchers and investing Social Security trust funds in the market." (This was Newsweek summarizing Penn's findings.) And Office Park Dads, Penn wrote, "are not the downscale conservative men that unions have been pursuing. They are socially tolerant but entrepreneurially-minded and oriented to economic opportunity."

Penn's view became so predominant that two liberal analysts, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, had to write a dissenting book, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, arguing that blue-collar voters were not destined to be swept into the dustbin of history by Penn's master classes, and should instead be embraced by Democrats as crucial swing voters.

Penn did acknowledge that older, more blue-collar, low-income voters--he called them the "left behind"--did not share the new-economy euphoria. But, well, it was too bad for them. More affluent workers, Penn wrote, were "becoming an increasingly large share of the electorate and ... are on the leading edge of Americans facing the changes of the New Economy."

When Hillary Clinton began her presidential campaign, with Penn as her chief strategist, she displayed no particular animus toward the Starbucks set. Her favorite economic mantra was "fiscal responsibility." She even defended her ties with K Street by declaring that lobbyists "represent real Americans." As the campaign has proceeded, and Clinton's support has increasingly been concentrated among the white working class, she has taken an increasingly populist tone.

But there's no particular reason to think her working-class support has anything to do with policy. Clinton's economic positions are no more populist than Obama's. Her downscale support long preceded her populist rhetorical turn and seems to be an artifact of downscale voters spending less time consuming political news, and therefore gravitating toward the more familiar candidate. Obama has done better with working-class voters in states where he has had time to campaign extensively. His worst loss (aside from Arkansas) came in Florida, where no campaigning took place. In Iowa, where the candidates achieved total saturation, he defeated Clinton among low-income voters.

Clinton's embrace of working-class chic has been a way of making virtue out of necessity. Being the blue-collar candidate has enabled Clinton to portray herself as grittier and more real than Obama, and to suggest that her base is more authentically American than his. During the Bush era, conservatives endlessly gloated that their party consisted of salt-of-the-earth, beer- swilling, NASCAR-loving Real Americans while Democrats represented Starbucks- drinking cosmopolitan snobs. Clinton's campaign has inherited this cultural mythology.

Thus Clinton announced that she is "looking to Ohio and Texas, because we know that those are states where they represent the broad electorate in this country." Her allies have put a finer point on it. Clinton supporter Garry Mauro of Texas used the dreaded appellation "latte Democrats," to describe Obama's voters. Fellow Clintonite Chris Lehane twisted the knife by calling them "latte-sipping Democrats"--a deeper insult, as latte consumption of any kind is decadent enough, but only the truly effete sip their latte, pinky fingers presumably extended. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, another Clinton backer, announced of his state, "we're working-class folks, by and large." (Strickland himself earns $144,831 per year, which probably explains his "by and large" qualifier.)

Even Penn, the most unlikely populist of all, now dismisses Obama supporters as "impressionable elites." This turns out to be not just an epithet but a new demographic category. "Mr. Penn sees the 'impressionable elites' growing in number," The New York Observer reported, "so much so that he has considered turning 'that trend into an entire book someday, because it is becoming more and more evident.'" Sounds like we're the successors to Wired Workers and Office Park Dads. Shouldn't he be sucking up to us?

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