Republican Decline

07.10.13

Why Whites Will Abandon the GOP

All these conversations about Republicans and the white vote, argues Michael Tomasky, assume that the white working class will always be as conservative as it is today. Problem: it won’t.

As you are certainly aware, the new consensus among most Republicans and conservatives is that they don’t need no stinking Latinos (don’t get huffy on me; this is OK, because it’s a clever movie reference, and in any case it’s aimed not at Latinos, but at stupid Republicans) and will soar to victory on the strength of the white vote. People like me have spent a lot of airtime and ink these past couple of weeks arguing over whether this can work. But what’s interesting is this. There’s an assumption embedded in the argument that no one disputes: namely, that whites will always be as conservative as they are now and will always vote Republican in the same numbers they do now. This assumption is wrong. White people—yep, even working-class white people—are going to get less conservative in coming years, so the Republicans’ hopes of building a white-nationalist party will likely be dashed in the future even by white people themselves.

We already know all about the creative-class white voters, the well-educated and higher-income people who have shifted dramatically to the Democratic column over the past generation. Those voters are increasingly lost to the GOP. True, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama among college graduates (of all races) 51 percent to 47 percent, but Obama won going away among postgrads. Combine that with a Democratic lock on a huge chunk of a growing minority vote, and that’s why the Democratic Party goes into presidential elections now with a massive presumed Electoral College advantage (in recent elections, Democratic candidates have regularly won states totaling 263 electoral votes, just seven shy of the magic number).

Everyone knows and concedes all this. And everyone counters it by saying that the Republicans will just goose the less-educated white vote. As I noted above, everyone agrees that that vote is theirs for the goosing. But what if it isn’t?

Back in March, the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute released a big poll on immigration. Those findings are interesting as far as they go, but the questions and results went beyond that. It’s the first poll I’ve seen that breaks the white working class into four distinct age groups (65-plus, 50 to 64, 30 to 49, 18 to 29) and asks respondents attitudes about a broad range of social issues. And guess what? White working-class millennials are fairly liberal!

Click on the above link, scroll down to page 44, and look at the charts. On most questions, white working-class respondents in all three other age groups yielded results that were pretty similar to one another’s, but the youngest cohort was well to their left.

On most questions, white working-class respondents in all three other age groups yielded results that were pretty similar to one another’s, but the youngest cohort was well to their left.

White working-class young people back gay marriage to the tune of about 74 percent. Another 60 percent say immigrants strengthen the United States (the totals for all three other age groups are below 40 percent). About 56 percent agree that changes immigrants have brought to their communities are a good thing. Nearly 40 percent agree that gays and lesbians are changing America for the better (more than double the percentages in the other three age groups).

They have different views because they’re different people: only 22 percent of white working-class millennials are evangelical, compared with 32 percent as a whole and 42 percent of seniors. And an amazing 38 percent of the group call themselves religiously unaffiliated.

All in all, not your father’s white working class. Sure, their views will become a bit more conservative as they age and have kids and own property. More will start attending church, undoubtedly. But the striking differences between their views and those of the three older groups are consistent, they are uniform, and they are pretty vast. (The poll did not ask about their attitudes toward African-Americans, about which I’m curious; I would expect less though still meaningful departure from the older cohorts.)

Which suggests to me that some views won’t change. These young people grew up in the America of Will and Grace and the relentlessly multi-culti Sesame Street just as surely as children in Berkeley and Takoma Park did. They won’t vote like their counterparts who grew up in Berkeley and Takoma Park, but they—and certainly their kids—just aren’t going to be carrying around a lot of the racial resentments that their grandparents shoulder every day.

So let’s hand it to the Republicans. They make the strategic decision to go all 1980s South Africa on us at a time when a sizable and sure-to-be-growing chunk of one of the most Republican-friendly segments of the white vote isn’t going to want that anymore. So, far from the GOP share of the white vote sailing up toward 70 percent as Sean Trende so giddily predicts, it seems just as likely to decrease as we enter the 2020s and see the sprouting of a more liberal (or less conservative) white working class. Finally, the Republican Party will be the party of true equality, having equally alienated every racial and ethnic group in America.