A gloomy new individualism augurs badly for the Democrats

February 16, 1996|By John Judis

WASHINGTON -- Before Democrats get too complacent about Republican bloodletting, they should look at Stan Greenberg's report on white working-class voters.

Mr. Greenberg, Bill Clinton's pollster in 1992, has actually done his best work explaining why Democrats lose elections. In 1984, he revealed the racial calculus that underlay the Democrats' defeat, showing how blue-collar voters in Macomb County, Michigan, had come to identify Democratic promises of fairness with favoritism toward blacks.

His latest study, commissioned by the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, shows how the voters who once made up the core of the Democrats' New Deal coalition have rejected the party's emphasis on collective, governmental solutions.

As Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers demonstrated in an article in last fall's American Prospect, white, non-college-educated workers, who suffered sharp wage declines over the last decade, deserted the Democrats in droves in 1994. Democratic support declined 20 percent among men and 10 percent among women. In current polls among under-50, married, white, non-college-educated workers Republicans enjoy a 23 percent edge among men and a 15 percent advantage among women.

When Mr. Greenberg ran focus groups among these voters last fall, he discovered that their hostility to Democrats was rooted in how they perceived their economic situation.

Doing better than average

When he asked them to rank their own standard of living on a scale of 0 to 10, the men ranked themselves at 5.5 and the women at 5.8. Then he asked them where they thought they would be in five years. The men thought 6.7 and the women 7.3. In contrast, they thought that the ''average American'' was now at 4.7 and in five years would be only at 5.0. In short, they viewed their own situation as better than that of the average American and as likely to improve.

They didn't think their wages would increase, nor that politicians, government or unions would come to their aid. Instead, they rested their hopes on taking second jobs, working overtime, getting training for a new job or starting a small business of their own. They saw their success depending entirely on themselves and their family. It's American individualism, but with an unusual twist.

American individualism has always been shaped by ''millennial'' hopes about America as a promised land. An American worker of the 1950s would never have distinguished his fate from that of the ''average American.'' Americans believed that they could achieve a rising standard of living not just through their own labors, but because they were citizens of a new Eden where everyone was destined to prosper.

The current individualism is post-millennial. It's deeply pessimistic about the nation's future. The workers Mr. Greenberg interviewed believed they would succeed in spite of where their fellow workers and the country were headed. They defined success itself merely as a ''stable'' and ''secure'' retirement without debt rather than as a ''better life.''

These working-class voters thought the biggest threat to their success came from government spending and taxes. The next greatest threat, ironically, was the dismemberment of Social Security and Medicare, programs they saw as essential to their secure retirement.

Few of these voters regarded business or corporate managers as the enemy. They saw society divided in classic Jacksonian terms between virtuous, responsible producers, who included business owners as well as workers, and unproductive parasites, who included illegal immigrants, welfare recipients and government bureaucrats.

Although Mr. Greenberg failed to make the connection, this division of society into productive and unproductive classes reinforces the racial perceptions that he uncovered in his studies of Macomb. Many down-scale white workers think minorities make up most of the irresponsible, freeloading class.

This kind of individualism is profoundly inhospitable to Democratic politics. The great rift in 20th-century American politics has been between a Democratic liberalism (or Republican progressivism) that has emphasized collective restraints on and modification of the market, and a bedrock Republican conservatism that has placed its faith entirely in the market's invisible hand.

Democratic ''handouts''

The workers Mr. Greenberg surveyed retain a commitment to earlier achievements of progressivism, but they have moved dramatically away from collective and institutional approaches. They see the Democrats as a party of ''handouts.''

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