Monday, October 25, 2010

Conservatives and the White Working Class

The white working class in America used to be the politician's darling.

First the Republicans had their votes, starting in the McKinley election of 1896. McKinley had helped out union members accused of rioting when a young lawyer and he was a tariff man, favoring high wages.

Then the Democrats won the working-class vote in the chasm of the Great Depression.

But there's a problem about being the toast of the men's club. Once you lose your youthful good looks the men look for fresher meat.

There's a saying that puts it well, and it's not a new idea: Put not your trust in princes.

The white working class has been wandering around in the electoral wilderness now for about a generation. In 1980 they abandoned the Democrats that had led them into a nasty recession and became Reagan Democrats. But somehow the Republicans didn't do it for them, and so they returned to the Democrats to try and kindle the old flame in 2006-08.

Last week The Economist took a look at the white working class and its fickle voting pattern. It is clearly back in the Republican column. But The Economist does not try to deal with the why of it.

The problem with the white working class is the old one. They exchanged their birthright for a mess of pottage. They threw away the authentic social insitutions they created in the 18th and 19th century, the benefit clubs, the friendly societies, the labor unions, in exchange for the promises of politicians.

The politicians told the white working class that they didn't need to do the hard work of learning to thrive in the city. Politicians would force economic justice for them out of the profits of the employers. They would lower the work week, end the competition of child labor, provide education, unemployment benefits, and pensions.

But there turned out to be one problem with all this. The workers didn't get to own these benefits; they were owned by the politicians.

Unemployment? Very nice, but the money all goes to the government. A worker can't save that unemployment tax and then invest it in his own business. Education? Very nice, but working-class people don't benefit much from a system that is oriented towards the professional classes. They would do better to work in their teens as apprentices and go to school occasionally to pick up the odd skill. Pensions? Very nice too, but the government owns the money. Unions? What good has pro-labor law done except destroy the steel industry and the auto industry?

There's an opportunity here for conservatives to work with the working class and get them out of the clutches of the government, to take the money out of taxes and benefits and give them back to the working class. There must be a way to structure this and sell it. There must be a way for the white working class to thrive again.

There's one thing as certain as death and taxes. Today's politician's darling becomes tomorrow's painted bar fly. Because a politician doesn't care about you. He just cares about your vote.

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