Obama’s Confrontation with Conservative Whites

by John Sides on February 6, 2013 · 2 comments

in Political Parties,Public opinion

Ron Brownstein:

With his suddenly aggressive second-term agenda, President Obama is recasting the Democratic Party around the priorities of the growing coalition that reelected him—and, in the process, reshaping the debate with the GOP in ways that will reverberate through 2016 and beyond.
On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them.

I can see some truth in this, but it’s worth noting that Obama may not be simply catering to the “coalition of the ascendant” and more to, well, a larger majority of Americans.  Let’s take the issues Brownstein cites:

  • Gay rights.  Large majorities of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians in various areas—employment, the military.  Gay marriage is of course more divisive, but it is becoming less so.  This slideshow makes clear that support for gay marriage is increasing among nearly every group.  It has the support of a narrow majority of political independents, for example.
  • Immigration reform. Large majorities of Americans support most every dimension of immigration reform that Obama has proposed, including increased border security and a path to citizenship.  The path to citizenship attracts the support of most Democrats and liberals, the majority of independents and moderates, and large numbers (if not quite majorities) of Republicans and conservatives.
  • Gun control.  Large majorities also support many different gun control policies.  Indeed, the ones arguably most likely to be enacted into law—like enhanced background checks—are even supported by half of Republicans.  Even 40% of conservative Republicans say they support a ban on military-style assault weapons.
  • Withdrawing from Afghanistan. Majorities of Americans support this as well.  Pessimism about the war has been prevalent for some time, and has arguably increased.  For example, in a May 2011 Pew Poll, 49% said that the U.S. should remove its troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.  In an October 2012 poll, 60% said this.
  • Women in combat. A large majority of Americans supports women serving in combat roles.  This includes majorities of many subsets of Americans, including Republicans, seniors, and veterans.

Climate change is somewhat of an exception.  An increasing number of Americans believe that the earth is warming, but there is more disagreement as to whether human activity is the cause.

In short, it’s not clear to me whether Obama’s actions on these issues are really about catering to his Democratic base—and thereby rejecting these “right-leaning whites”—or just catering to broad numbers of Americans, including many outside his base. Part of the reason that my conclusion disagrees with Brownstein’s is that the public opinion data he presents in his piece—see the “Thinking Alike” box and graphs—speak only to broad opinions on these issues, such as whether it’s more important to control guns or protect the rights of gun owners or whether immigrants “threaten American customs and values.”  When you get down to the brass tacks of policy, there is much more consensus.

Brownstein also notes that Obama’s move may make it more difficult to “recapture culturally conservative whites.”  (Brownstein refers to these voters as “Reagan Democrats” at one point, but Reagan Democrats were not actually more blue-collar or more culturally conservative than other Democrats.  What they were was more disapproving of Jimmy Carter, especially with regard to the economy.)  Measuring “culturally conservative” over multiple elections isn’t easy.  But I will note that for many years Democrats haven’t won many votes from—or needed to win many votes from—“right-leaning whites” conceived broadly.  From 1984-2008, they won no more than 15% of whites who called themselves “conservative” according to the exit poll data compiled by Dimpled Chad. (Brownstein has a chart showing the same thing, though not isolating whites.) But even given the slippage between being “culturally conservative” and simply self-identifying as conservative, it doesn’t seem to me that Democrats have needed many of these votes for a long time.

To be sure, Obama’s emphasis on issues like gun control and climate change represents a departure from his first-term priorities.  But I don’t see it as a “confrontational course.”  Obama is confronting minorities of Americans on these issues—and minorities that really haven’t been Democratic votes for some time.

{ 2 comments }

Scott Monje February 6, 2013 at 5:47 pm

“Climate change is somewhat of an exception. An increasing number of Americans believe that the earth is warming, but there is more disagreement as to whether human activity is the cause.

“In short, it’s not clear to me whether Obama’s actions on these issues are really about catering to his Democratic base—and thereby rejecting these “right-leaning whites”—or just catering to broad numbers of Americans, including many outside his base.”

Doesn’t the inclusion of climate change suggest that he’s basing policy, at least in part, on what he sees as objectively necessary rather than (or in addition to) catering to the preferences of one or another group? After all, the determination of the sources of global warming can’t really be construed as a values issue in the way that gay marriage can.

Kylopod February 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Part of the problem is that so many political commentators are in the habit of viewing these things as static–hence they’re still talking about Reagan Democrats and Clinton Democrats decades after both presidents left office, without recognizing that the country as a whole has grown a lot less culturally conservative (at least on these particular issues) than it was in those eras.

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