When you think of liberals do you primarily think of economic issues or social issues? Do you think of issues such as gun control, abortion, gay rights, the environment, or do you think of issues such as trade, access to health care, union organizing, and the minimum wage? It seems that since the 1960s the word "liberal" has become associated primarily with social issues while in the 1930s through the 1950s it was associated primarily with economic issues.
This trend started in the 1960s with the advent of the civil rights movement, followed by the anti-war movement, the movement for women rights, and finally the movement for gay rights. During this time period the media identified liberals as being primarily concerned with social issues as opposed to being primarily concerned with economic issues.
During that same period white working class male voters began to leave the Democratic party. In 1968 millions of them voted for Wallace, particularly in the South, and millions voted for Nixon. While Watergate led many to go back to Democrats in the 1976 election, by 1984 the media was talking about the birth of Reagan Democrats, Democrats who sided with their party on economic issues but deserted their party over social issues such as abortion.
Republicans have used these issues to convince millions of Americans that liberals and the Democratic Party don't represent them or reflect their values. Republicans engage in what Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas, calls cultural populism. Cultural populism is the use of issues to convince working class whites that liberals represent an elite group determined to impose their values on the rest of society. Republicans present themselves as the defenders of traditional values against this elite.
This works as long as social issues are at the forefront of the political discussion. It doesn't work when they try to advance a conservative economic agenda. The same voters that agree with the Republicans on abortion and gun control don't necessarily agree with them on economic issues like trade, social security, and access to medical care. The reaction to the Bush plan for privatizing Social Security is a recent example of working class white voters parting with the economic conservative agenda of the Republicans.
The way to avoid for Democrats to avoid this problem is to start advancing economic programs that benefit working class voters. Programs such as universal health care, increased vacation time so families can spend more time together, fair trade agreements that don't outsource jobs to other countries, and an affordable college education. White working class voters will vote for Democratic candidates provided those candidates speak to their concerns.
It is important for Democrats to start doing this because some Republican activists are beginning to talk about the birth of "Wal-Mart Republicans." This phrase, which was the title of an article in the conservative magazine The National Review, describes socially conservative Americans who value Democratic programs such as Social Security, Medicare, access to medical care, and protection of the environment.
The problem for the GOP is that their coalition depends on white working class voters voting for Republicans because of social issues, rich people voting for Republicans because of tax cuts, and small government advocates voting for Republicans because they want a smaller national government. This coalition, which was started by Nixon and continued by Reagan, is already showing signs of strain. It is up to Democrats to find ways to advance the interests of white working class Americans on economic issues and bust it wide open.
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