Wednesday, April 30, 2008

(Not) Angry White Males

Those guys that Obama says “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” — aren’t they the same as the “angry white males” of nearly 15 years ago?

Back then, angry white males were lionized by the hard right, after their votes in the 1994 midterm elections supposedly helped Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946.

It was the year of Proposition 187, when immigration — legal and illegal — was as big an issue as it was in 2007. Paleoconservatives, like Pat Buchanan, thought they were fighting a culture war (ah, for the pre-neocon days of pretend wars). And two years of Bill and Hillary in the White House seemed more than red-blooded Americans could bear.

So, people wore T-shirts that bragged they were angry, white and male. AWMs claimed they were simply taking back their country (“this once great country,” they loved to say) from liberals who wanted to ban guns, teach evolution in classrooms and flood America with foreigners.

Like someone put it recently, they clung to guns, religion and antipathy to people who weren’t like them.

Except that angry white maleness was, and still can be, a boast. In contrast, Obama had to apologize.

Is that wrong? Obama and the 1994 Republicans were talking about the same group of people: working-class, white, non-Hispanic Americans who felt threatened by changes that made this society more liberal and more ethnically diverse.

One difference is what each meant about that group. Republicans of the Newt Gingrich era believed AWMs were correct to feel threatened. Obama feels Ivy League contempt for the same crowd: small-minded small-towners.

Another difference is born of political necessity. Gingrich Republicans had no need to differentiate between truly angry blue-collar whites and blue-collar whites who did not feel very threatened — Republicans had the former group all to themselves, and there was little they could have done to drive away the latter, who, in that election, would have voted Republican no matter what.

Meanwhile, Obama needs to work harder at not driving away working-class Americans who are not black, and who do not walk around in a rage. He gives the impression that he thinks blue-collar white equals racist white.

And blue-collar whites don’t like it.

In the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Clinton won 64 percent of high-school graduates who did not go to college; 62 percent of gun owners; 59 percent of voters in union households; 57 percent of voters earning $50,000-75,000 annually.

Bowling gutter balls and drinking beer did not help.

And look who his opponent was. In what other election could Hillary Clinton win the gun-owners’ vote?

It will be a major weakness in the general election, assuming Obama wins the Democratic nomination.

If Obama cannot hold on to a reasonable number of white, working-class voters in a race against Clinton, he will do much worse against a Republican. It’s not a matter of expecting Obama to win a majority of that electorate, it’s a matter of Obama not letting McCain squash him.

Likewise, Obama has been having trouble with Hispanic voters, while McCain is the Republican less likely to drive Hispanics away. McCain himself surely knows he won’t win the Hispanic vote outright. But the way things are now, an Obama candidacy is McCainbest shot at coming close to the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that Bush got in 2004.

Hispanics, and those non-angry white males, may be the key to the 2008 election.

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