« Another civics lesson | Main | The winner of the popular vote is... »

Why old white working-class people voted for Hillary

After eight years of George W. Bush, almost all of us want some kind of change. Unsurprisingly, then, Barack Obama’s campaign theme of change has been more successful than Clinton’s theme of experience. What surprises me is the number of Democrats who have voted for Hillary Clinton nevertheless. One frequently-offered explanation for why these voters have preferred “experience” to “change” is that they remember that things were better for them when Bill Clinton was president, and that their experience of change over the last decade has been mostly painful. This really doesn’t explain much, because many of Obama’s supporters can be described in exactly the same way.

Reading Richard Sennett’s book today, I found an explanation for Hillary’s appeal that makes more sense. It also suggests what Obama must do to appeal to many of Clinton’s supporters.

Sennett describes the new corporate culture that has exercised a disproportionately large influence on the rest of the economy and on politics. This celebrated “new economy” (so familiar to readers of Richard Friedman) puts a premium on short-term relationships and eschews continuity and stability. The days of lifelong employment at General Motors are gone, and with them any expectation that you can count on your employer for a pension and for health care. Firms that try to operate this way are ridiculed by investors as old-fashioned, and are the frequent targets of hostile takeover attempts. The goal for apostles of the “new economy” is to rebuild old stolid companies as a nimble, quick-footed enterprises that can respond quickly to changing markets, and are not weighed down by excessive commitments to particular products, workers, or worker benefits.

Older workers have experienced the transition from the old world of lifetime employment and generous pensions to the new world of temporary employment and no job security. These workers have moved over the course of a few decades from a world of mutual commitment between themselves and their employers to a world where there is no long-term commitment and stability is ridiculed in favor of fast-paced evolutionary change. These workers hear “change” and they don’t think merely of a change from the policies of George W. Bush; they think of the loss of stability and predictability that the new economy has unleashed. What these people want, and rightly so, is to slow this destructive change and to protect a world governed by commitments and characterized by long-term stability.

Younger workers, and to a large extent workers from the professional class who have tended to vote for Obama, haven’t had a similar experience. Either they’ve lived their entire work lives in the context of the new economy, or they’ve worked in jobs that haven’t yet been affected to the same extent by the new economy’s upheavals as the blue-collar jobs have been. For them, Obama’s call for change is nothing less than obvious -- of course we have to change what we’ve been doing under George W. Bush!

The question becomes whether Obama can make himself more appealing to Clinton’s older, whiter, more blue-collar supporters than John McCain can. I think he can if he decides to use the language of stability, safety, commitment, reliability, and trust in the context of the government’s relationship to them. He should remind voters that the Republicans are the ones most eager to extend the culture and values of the new economy into the public realm. The Republicans want to privatize Social Security. The Republicans want to make each individual fend for themselves when they get sick and need health care. The Republicans want to remake government in the image of the new lean, efficient, nimble, but commitment-free modern corporation that has so successfully shed jobs and pension commitments in the name of competitiveness and quick profit.

Obama obviously isn’t going to turn the clock back to 1955, but neither is Clinton. John McCain most certainly isn’t going to do it. Obama must persuade Clinton’s appalachian supporters that he values the kind of stability they’ve lost, and that he’s more likely than John McCain to preserve the reliability of the federal government and its ability to competently perform basic government functions.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)