Friday, November 5, 2010

How Democrats Lost the Blue Collar White Vote People Worked So Hard to Get in 2008

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

Earlier this afternoon, in a bad mood because of Tuesday’s election, I found myself on the Long Island Expressway driving out to my vacation house in Suffolk County. Around exit 50, I looked in front of me and saw a small red pickup truck with a sticker that said “Tea Party Patriot” on the back. Resisting the impulse to smash my van into his truck, I moved closer and saw another sticker that said T/E.A.- Taxed Enough Already.

All of a sudden my desire to run into his van disappeared, replaced by anger at whoever convinced him that that Democrats in power mean higher taxes for blue collar workers or people who own small businesses. Didn’t he realize that people who made less than $200,000 a year actually got a tax refund last year? Was this man, and blue collar whites all over Suffolk County whose signs supporting Republican candidates all mentioned fear of higher taxes, bamboozled by Tea Party leaders into thinking that the Democrats planned to tax the middle class and working class to pay for expensive government programs that served immigrants and the poor?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question was “no!” He was not bamboozled. Democrats and the Obama Administration gave these people ample ammunition to believe that once again liberals were prepared to sacrifice the “have littles” to help the “have nots.”

Lets go back to the health care bill. The Obama Administration had a noble goal, providing health coverage for the 45 million or so Americans who could not afford private health insurance. However, one of the ways it proposed paying for this was taxing what the Democrats called “Cadillac Health Plans”- health insurance plans that provided comprehensive coverage and access to top doctors through the payment of premiums of more than $8,500 per person for year. Even though the time period for imposing this tax was pushed back until 2017, the very idea that the Obama Administration would be taxing health plans that unions had fought long and hard to get for their members proved to be both a public relations disaster and a telling commentary on the Obama administrations understanding of class in America

In a country with so many wealthy people who are so lightly taxed, it simply unconscionable to tax middle class people for ANYTHING until the wealthy are taxed to the level that they are in other advanced countries, and that they once were in the US(-80 to 90 percent) But here is the Obama Administration, after bailing out Wall Street, and doing little or anything to change the tax code which gave wealthy Americans a fee pass, imposing a tax on health plans which provided top health care to middle class and working class Americans.

Let’s make no mistake about it, it was during the health care debate that white blue collar America-including union members- started to turn against the Obama Administration because they saw that this health plan might hurt them more than it helped them. And they were not wrong. Many senior faculty members at Fordham, who were strong Obama supporters, were flabbergasted to discover that the Cigna Health Plan they were enrolled in, which the Fordham Administration was trying to take away because it was too expensive, was slated to be taxed as part of the new health care plan. To say they were unhappy about this was a great understatement. Since these people were all committed liberals, it was not gong to change their vote, but all anticipated the new plan would entail sacrifices on their part
But what about people who were not committed liberals?. What about white working class people who were persuaded, by union leaders like Richard Trumka, and grass roots organizers like my departed friend Rich Klimmer, to overcome deeply rooted prejudices and vote for Barack Obama in 2008 because they were convinced Obama would protect their interests. Could this tax push them back over the edge into the Republican camp? Would it trigger all their deeply rooted suspicions that liberal politicians would sacrifice middle class and moderate income whites to help racial minorities? Would it bring to the fore all their fears that Obama was really a “Black”candidate rather than someone serving all the people?
The hell with them, you might say! If their prejudices are lurking that closely beneath the surface, who needs them?
I would answer WE do! We cannot build a true coalition for justice consisting solely of educated elites and racial minorities. As we did in 2008, we have to bring white working class and middle class people into that coalition; but we can only do that if we do not increase their tax burden and insure that major new government initiatives help them more than hurt them
The Democratic Party still has an opportunity to win some of that group back. But it can only do so by radically changing course, including modifying the health care bill to get rid of the “Cadillac tax” and refusing to propose any initiatives which tax the middle class to help the poor

Mark Naison
November 6, 2010