Why White Male Voters Went the Other Way


Washington -- Like any other culture, that of white males is not universally shared nor supported only by white males. But those whom the shoe fits cheerfully wear it.

It is a culture like any other, with its own shared values and beloved icons: Rush Limbaugh broadcasts, Tom Clancy novels, Steven Seagal movies, commentaries by the late Lewis Grizzard, stock-car racing, heavy metal, pay-per-view Howard Stern cable TV specials, monster-truck rallies, the National Football League, National Rifle Association membership and Elvis impersonators, to name a few.

But there's more to it than that. It is a culture into which Republicans effectively tapped on November 8, enabling them to take over Congress and most of the nation's state governments. White males voted Republican 2-to-1, sparking front-page news stories and excited media commentaries about a white-male revolt. What happened?

Blaming it on racism or sexism, as some sore losers were quick to do, misses the point. People vote their interests. When the interests of women, minorities and white males coincide, they put personal prejudices aside and vote in common. When interests and attitudes diverge, so do voting patterns.

In the 1960s, when the nation's economy was humming along, it was easier for working-class and middle-class white men to allow that, yes, women and minorities deserve a break after all those years of abuse. But then the same calamity that famously divided black Americans between a new upwardly mobile middle class and a new downwardly mobile "underclass" spread to the general population, damping the sympathies of mainstream whites to the plight of poor folks.

White men have good reasons to feel angry, and they aren't alone. Corporate downsizing, international labor-market competition and the coming of the "information age" have eroded America's high-pay-low-skill jobs. Blue-collar white men with no more than high school diplomas have seen their incomes in real dollars decline. Higher-skilled "new collars" and middle managers are experiencing job insecurity and seeing their children graduate from college only to be lucky to find a minimum-wage job at a local shopping mall.

With male pride evaporating (Oh, how we men do link our sense of self-worth to our work) along with employment security, many white men understandably vent their anger at Washington. But, once angered, many white male voters have been distracted by scapegoats, instead of focusing on the true source of their misery, changing economics.

Women and minorities, insulated by the gains many have made thanks to help from (conservatives would say "dependency on") government, gave most of their votes to Democrats again in November. White men, stoked by demagogic politicians and talk-show hosts, have been encouraged to feel increasingly like "disempowered," put-upon victims, whose problems can be blamed on other groups.

It's an old story. For centuries, poor Southern whites put up with the lowest standard of living in exchange for the right to drink from separate water fountains from black people. When the politically realistic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed away that privilege with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he boldly declared that he had just signed away the Southern vote from his party for a generation.

It has been longer than that. Conservative Republicans have found new paper threats to enrage white malehood, including illegal immigrants, welfare mothers, Limbaugh's "feminazis" and an ever-widening circle of exaggerated definitions for "liberals."

Thus, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's victorious GOP, more mindful of votes than the nation's financial future, promises conspicuously to slash Aid to Families With Dependent Children (a $16 billion price tag in 1993) but to leave the much larger and vexing matter of Social Security ($302 billion) untouched until, oh, sometime after the 1996 elections. Or maybe sometime in the next century. Why? One constituency votes, the other doesn't. Frugal Newt knows.

"Me, too," says a shell-shocked President Clinton to an ill-advised tax cut. So much for his highly successful, if under-appreciated, deficit-reduction package. With the economy humming along again, polls show more voters prefer deficit reduction than support a tax cut.

In 1992, white males split their votes about evenly for Mr. Clinton, whose centrist stance scored better with white voters than any other Democrat since Johnson in 1964. Mr. Clinton spoke effectively to the way structural changes in the domestic and global economy have buffeted America's middle class, "people who work hard and play by the rules" since the early 1970s.

I wrote then that he was "the first Democrat since Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 to bring the Bubbas, the Brothers and the Bunkers together." (That's Southern whites, urban blacks and Northern ethnics, if you're not quite following my wit.)

Now, at a time when white men are telling focus groups that they appreciate politicians with backbone, the president's seems to have turned to mush. If ever there was a chance for him to show some spine, this is it. He has little left to lose.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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