The Demography Trap 

Democrats have got to find a way to talk to ordinary white folks.

In light of the shellacking the Democrats took in 2010, you can't blame them for wanting to revel in the changing demographics that contributed to their 2012 win. But their belief that demography is destiny may cause them to ignore partisan realities.

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It is one thing to win the White House due to a growing electorate of nonwhites. It is quite another to govern, especially when the GOP is spending every ounce of energy on the gerrymandering and vote-suppression efforts that have helped to create and sustain the New Solid South. To achieve any significant legislative victories, progressives must win the white working class, and to do that, they must answer the question: Why do so many of them vote against their self-interest?

A hint lies in an email I received not long ago. In it, the new leader of the Democratic Socialists of America, formerly an organizer with the SEIU labor group, explained why she was heading up the new faction. Among her reasons: a desire to battle "patriarchy and white supremacy." C'mon guys — really?

No decent person thinks gender and racial discrimination is a good thing. But you cannot enlist the natural constituency of the white working class by insulting them, which this woman managed to do in a single phrase.

This tired "victim class" rhetoric only exaggerates the caricature of an egghead liberal from the big city. As a progressive, I find this woman's language silly and offensive, not to mention lazy and anachronistic. If my female, college-educated, solidly middle-class eyes glaze over when I hear this liberal blather, imagine the reaction of a male laborer with only a high school diploma.

There are, no doubt, white people, some of them men, who would love to discriminate against those who do not share their skin color or gender. But there are far more who fear the future because the people in charge look different than they used to. That doesn't make them racists or sexists — it makes them human. Just ask an evolutionary biologist.

Long before the development of language and mass communication, human beings appear to have been wired to be suspicious of those from outside their tribe. Evolutionary biologists believe this was a necessary trait that increased a group's chances of survival. Since evolution tends to lag behind social forces, living in a more enlightened age hasn't altered our deepest survival instincts.

But political operatives on the left, bless their hearts, appear to be incapable of tailoring their rhetoric to an audience which sees "change" not as something synonymous with hope but with fear. Fear that what little they have will find its way into the pockets of those who do not look like them.

This emotion is what the KKK exploited in the years during Reconstruction, when they made chumps of desperately poor white Southerners by convincing them that desperately poor black Southerners were their enemies.

Today's oligarchs and their mouthpiece, the GOP, are simply running the same divide-and-conquer play in an effort to keep their stranglehold on power.

If the left has any chance of winning nonminority working-class folks, they're going to have to craft messages that resonate with white people who didn't go to Harvard and who think The Feminist Mystique is some kind of drugstore hygiene product.

Appealing to self-interest is not selling out or "flip-flopping"; it's what skilled politicians everywhere do. It's what Madison Avenue has made its bones doing and what the political right has honed to a fine edge. 

When a whole lot of beleaguered, white working-class folks are convinced that rich guys who have never worked at a job that dirties their hands or bends their backs are the best men to protect their interests, we cannot continue to think racism is the only cause.

No one is going to make Ivy League liberals throw away their old copies of Ms. or their Malcolm X T-shirts if they learn a little from Mad Men. They just need to hire an agency that can create political ads that appeal to Mike the mechanic.

The alternative is to be strident ideological purists, reciting old shibboleths that do nothing but alienate those who should rightly be on the left.

Only days after their own shellacking, otherwise out-of-touch Republicans got on a cruise ship and started crafting new messages aimed at Latinos. When are Democrats going to hop on the clue bus to Madison Avenue?

Ruth Ogles Johnson is a frequent Flyer contributor.

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