What woman would want to marry a man who’d leave her if she chose to get an education and a job? Sounds like a real jerk, doesn’t he? Unfortunately, that guy—the stubborn, insecure, socially conservative misogynist—is the man David Paul Kuhn wants the Democratic party to bend over backwards to please.
No matter that his ideology is essentially incompatible with modern liberalism. Ignore the fact that white men are demographic losers, composing just 33-36% of the US electorate, and quickly being overtaken by the burgeoning population of college-educated single women and people of color, both groups that prefer the Democratic party. To Kuhn, the white man is the “standard” American voter; or, as he put it in the Politico last week: “White men matter most.”
Once upon a time, Kuhn writes in his new book, The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, white men voted for Democrats because they understood the importance of progressive economic policies. But since 1980 no more than 38% of white males have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. The problem? As civil rights and women’s liberation became part of the Democratic platform in the 1960s and 1970s, white men, “Like the rejected husband . . . walked out on liberalism for good.” The suggestion is that uppity women and minorities drove their white male providers away.
To win white men back, Kuhn suggests, Democrats should back away from key issues such as supporting global access to reproductive health care and abortion, bridging the pay gap between men and women and alleviating the urban poverty that disproportionately affects people of color.
But if Democrats don’t stand up to those challenges, who will? If some white men can’t deal with the changing face of the Democratic party, it’s OK to let them go.
That’s particularly true because supporting liberal social policies doesn’t actually pose the risk to the Democratic party’s electoral prospects that Kuhn suggests. In 2008, the Democratic presidential nominee is likely to pick up new voters from every demographic group, due to widespread frustration with the Iraq war and economic insecurity. These are the issues voters cited as their primary concerns as they elected Democrats to Congress in November 2006, overlooking “values issues.” In the 2008 presidential election, married white women are shaping up to be a key swing constituency; they supported President Bush by 11% in 2004, but favored Republicans by only 2% in the 2006 midterms, as they became more opposed to the war and suspicious of Republican corruption.
In addition to picking up votes among political moderates, the Democratic party is also increasing its base among college-educated professionals, women and people of color. Unmarried women, 66% of whom voted for Democrats in 2006, now account for the majority of adult women, and hold progressive views on social issues, economics and foreign policy. Today minorities account for 21% of the US electorate, and they will make up 25% by 2015. More black and Latino voters means more Democrats, since those groups favor Dems by 89% and 69% respectively. These trends will continue into the future: The Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, for example, the US population will be 23% Latino and 16% black, compared to about 14% Latino and 13% black today.
That doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t try to win all the working-class white male voters they can. National elections, after all, are won on broad-based appeals.
But in crafting an electoral strategy, Kuhn envisions the Democrats not transcending divisive cultural politics, but playing into them through appeals to “traditional masculinity.” White male voters, he writes, are in a perpetual “search for the paternal,” infatuated with the “gritty,” “macho” character of Republicans like George Bush and Rudy Giuliani. To truly compete at the presidential level, Kuhn counsels, Democrats must realize that “the personal manhood of presidents directly affects the support they earn.”
Of course, if “personal manhood” is a prerequisite for the presidency, then women need not apply. That’s a retrograde and counterfactual argument to make as polls show senator Hillary Clinton winning a potential race against Giuliani in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
And, far from being mired in 1960s-era culture wars, the leading Democratic candidates are focused very much on appealing to hard-working Americans who, as Kuhn writes, prefer “empowerment” over “handouts”. Clinton travels through Iowa on a “Middle Class Express” bus and has softened her stance on free trade. John Edwards rails against skyrocketing CEO pay. Barack Obama talks about “promoting responsible fatherhood.”
All three frontrunners have managed to do so while remaining staunchly committed to a woman’s right to choose and appropriately outraged over the fact that 47 million Americans live without health insurance.
We shouldn’t go back to a world in which manhood or whiteness defines a person’s eligibility for public office. It took 87 years from the advent of women’s suffrage for America to celebrate its first woman speaker of the house and serious female presidential candidate. Less than 17% of Congress is female, and only three African Americans have served in the senate since Reconstruction. There have been six Latino and five Asian-American senators in American history, none of them women.
It’s difficult to see how white men could be neglected by such a political system. Rather, it is women and people of color who are severely under-represented in our government and who make up the majority that is the key to the future electoral success of any presidential candidate—Democrat or Republican.