Concerning all those angry white married men in pews

It’s mid-term election time, which means that it’s time, once again, for the mainstream press to try to figure out what is wrong with all of those angry white men.

You remember the angry white men, right? Remember the folks who keep insisting on clinging to their — what was that phrase again — guns, religion and antipathy to people who are not like them?

GetReligion readers can probably predict which one of those factors was ignored in the recent New York Times piece that ran under the headline, “Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men.” The key voice up top — in the thesis paragraphs — is that of Frank Houston, a man with working-class roots who is leads the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan.

Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.” …

Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.

It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.

There are several religious and cultural ghosts in this story, but the Times team never really names them.

Instead, the story does a great job — over and over — of telling readers what kind of voters are very loyal to the Democratic Party these days. Readers then have to do the math and try to spot the obvious patterns. Take this quote for example:

No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the so-called rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities. But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.

Carter, of course, did much better in the South and in the Midwest in his first campaign. And what was different that time around? I mean, other than having to run against Reagan?

Also, note another theme in the story: Democrats do much, much better with single adults, as opposed to married adults. In stories that dare to probe this, what usually shows up in that familiar “pew gap” indicating that people who attend worship more tend to vote for culturally conservative candidates. Married people also tend to more religious than single people.

But this is not a story that has the time to look into things like that.

Let’s see. So what else does this story tell us?

Some white men have proved to be within reach: single men, college students and graduates with advanced degrees, the nonreligious, and gay men. But working-class married men remain hardest to win over and, unless they are in unions, get the least attention — to the dismay of some partisans.

No surprises there. Once again, this story is providing a photo-negative of the picture it is trying to describe.

What discourages Democrats is that men’s attitudes shaped over generations — through debates over civil rights, anti-Communism, Vietnam, feminism, gun control and dislocations from lost manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages in a global economy — are not easily altered.

Ah, racism and guns. Check. Check. Has anyone done in in-depth reporting lately on what happens when these conservative white men are offered a choice to vote for morally conservative African-American candidates? Just thinking out loud, here.

Back to the story. Here is a fascinating hint at the larger picture:

Among the Senate races where white men could be decisive are those in Georgia, where a Democrat, Michelle Nunn, is wooing them in hopes that many will favorably remember her father, Sam Nunn, a popular former senator, and in Arkansas, where Senator Mark Pryor, whose father, David Pryor, was also a longtime senator, is fighting to keep his job with frequent talk of his Christian faith.

Ah, and what do we know about the former Sen. Nunn when it came to social and moral issues? He was not a hardliner, but he was among the Senate’s most conservative Democrats when it came to religion, morality and culture. And now Sen. Mark Pryor is urgently playing the God card?

So who can spot the ghosts in this one?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Darren Blair

    Did anyone in any of these newsrooms actually think to speak with any of the “angry white men” being talked about?

    Or is this just another rehash of what happened in 2008 where people who didn’t vote for Obama were automatically written off as “racist” with no regard for their actual stated reasons?

    (In my case, I had concerns about some of his tax proposals and how they would affect my parents; his rather shocking performance in the Saddleback debate, in which he said that it was “above [his] pay grade” to determine when life began for the purposes of a person being protected under the law, sealed the deal. Rather than accept this at face value, however, several Obama supporters told me to “fess up” and admit to being racist.)

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    Interestingly enough, Sarah Palin endorsed T.W. Shannon this week for the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. As CNN described him, Shannon is “the first African American to serve as Oklahoma House speaker and is considered by many on the right as a rising conservative star.”

    http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2014/03/13/who-palin-wants-in-the-senate/comment-page-3/

  • fredx2

    “In stories that dare to probe this, what usually shows up in that familiar “pew gap” indicating that people who attend worship more tend to vote for culturally conservative candidates. Married people also tend to more religious than single people.

    But this is not a story that has the time to look into things like that.”

    This reminds me of all the stories about “Our aging population” where they go on and one about how the population is getting, on average, much older. And about all the difficulties we will have because of our aging population. “Now the ratio is only 3 workers to every retired person!”
    But what they never mention is WHY our population is aging. It’s because we are not having babies.
    And why are we not having babies? Because of contraception. But that would require them to admit that contraception was not an unalloyed good, and that is something they will never do.

  • wmrharris

    Perhaps the fly in the ointment here is that these same married, working class guys are not necessarily in church either. Generally, church plants have concentrated more on their suburban brothers. Speaking from political participation, this group’s religious viewpoint is more of a supporting role than a motivator; it’s “one more thing!” Further making a mess of this, is the rising tide of single parent households — the problems of the lower class are now part of this cohort, as well.


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