I promised to say more about this survey.
In many respects, white working class Americans take a view of our current economic circumstances that lines up reasonably well with conventional Republican wisdom. They are more likely than their college-educated fellow citizens to think that the causes of our current economic problems can be traced to too much government regulation of business (69 percent, as opposed to 59 percent) and to Barack Obama’s policies (64-56 percent). They are less likely to blame our problems on Wall Street (69-80) and on George W. Bush (62-64). To be sure, Republicans would like these last two numbers to be lower, but they do better with the working class than with the college-educated.
Like the college-educated, white working class Americans are not big fans of business exporting jobs; unlike them, they’re more likely to be worried about illegal immigration (57-37). Both of these positions are at least somewhat problematical for a party that seems to be devoted to free trade and the interests of business.
Life gets more complicated for Republicans with this constituency when they’re asked about things like equality of opportunity. A majority (53 percent) of white working class voters assent to the following proposition: “One of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” Only 40 percent affirm that “[i]t’s not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.” By contrast, college-educated respondents break 44-48 on these two propositions. A substantial majority (70 percent) of white working class Americans thinks that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. Finally, by a 46-38 margin, these same respondents believe that capitalism and Christian values are incompatible.
Let me start with this last datum. I have no idea what the questioners or their respondents meant by either capitalism or Christian values If the former is associated with John Galt and the latter with, say, St. Francis, I can see the problem, but I don’t think that capitalism has to be understood that way. Consider, for example, David Green and the Cathy family. In any event, it certainly behooves those who generally favor free markets to point to the ways in which their operation depends upon the decent character of those who engage in them, which character cannot be imposed by governmental regulation, but rather has to be cultivated in the family, the community, and the church. To be sure, we have to pay attention to the ways in which markets can corrode the very institutions on which they depend. There is a role for government to play here, but one that supports and does not substitute for family, community, and church.
“Fairness” is another problem. Connected with working class doubts about fairness is a conviction held by almost half (47 percent) that the American Dream once held true, but does no more. (The college educated are more sanguine on both fronts.) One might ask why those people who mistrust the fairness of markets and society at large don’t turn to government to make things right. Surely they’re tempted to do so. And surely Barack Obama wants them to do so. Their hesitation for the moment might be due as much to the likelihood that government just seems to them to present unfairness in another guise. (By a 60-39 margin, white working class Americans refer to government as “the” government, not “our” government, a significant difference from the college educated, who narrowly adopt–51 to 49–the latter appelation.)
But Republicans have to come up with a compelling way of talking about the opportunities provided by the marketplace. To be sure, they can offer a celebration of freedom and a critque of government intervention as “crony capitalism,” but I’m not sure how far that goes with a working class person who doesn’t see an obvious path to prosperity for himself and his family.
I wish I had a magic bullet here, but I don’t. We have to recognize that in our economy, the opportunities for those who lack skills are very limited. So, as Mitt Romney has noticed, education is extremely important. I think that the tack he takes here should focus more on opening up to all a system that seems to many members of the white working class to be available only to those with money or with government patronage (consider the data in the survey on the perception of discrimination against whites). Republicans should certainly affirm that the role of the government in education is limited, but that limited role should focus on providing opportunity to all, perhaps by “voucherizing” as much federal aid to education as possible–at all levels. If the money empowers indviduals, rather than institutions, the latter have to be responsive to the former, rather than to government bureaucrats and the organized interests to which they tend to answer.
If people mistrust the fairness of the society and doubt that government will do anything other than reinforce that unfairness, then one possible response is to move the resources from the untrustworthy institutions to the individuals they’re supposed to benefit. Schools, universities, and bureauscracies in the hands of the “elite” and apparently beyond the reach of the ordinary working class individual will have to address that person’s needs and concerns if their survival depends upon it.
It’s not a comprehensive solution to the issues the survey identifies, but it’s a start.