Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Henry Olsen has written a fascinating and important article about the voting habits and worldview of the white working-class. Republicans aren’t doing so well with them. Olsen reports that Obama won non-southern whites who earn less than $45,000. Mitt Romney did a mediocre-to-lousy job of winning over non-southern working-class whites, but it isn’t just a Mitt Romney problem and it isn’t just a white voter problem. The Republican message in 2008 (and it wasn’t just a Mitt Romney message) was tailored to a narrow audience. Olsen writes:

Levinson draws on ethnographic studies to show that for the typical white working class person, family and stability are more important than career and upward mobility. They saw their middle-class bosses as people who “worried all the time,” were “cold and snobbish,” and as “arrogant, very arrogant people.” They saw their work as “just a job,” not a rewarding activity of itself. As befits people who work in teams and do heavy labor, they saw collegiality and practical knowledge to be of greater worth than individual striving and theoretical knowledge. Levinson describes this combination as a “distinct combination of viewing work, family, friends, and good character as central values in life while according a much lower value to wealth, achievement, and ambition.”

This gets to why the “you built that” message did not resonate and why Ted Cruz’s suggestion of a “you can build that” message would not be much of an improvement. Not everybody has started a business and not everybody wants to start a business. And that is okay. A party can be for making it easier to start a business without suggesting that Republicans consider wage earners to be hairy caterpillars who are just waiting to be transformed into beautiful entrepreneurial butterflies. People who go to work, pay their bills and raise their children are building something too. They have legitimate interests and concerns and a limited government politics should have something to say to them.

Working-class nonwhites skew younger than working-class whites and (from looking at this College Republican report), I would guess a larger fraction of working-class nonwhites have entrepreneurial ambitions.  That didn’t seem to help Romney. I would guess it is because nonwhites (even affluent nonwhites) tend to live in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of residents in poverty and likely have more people within their social networks who are struggling. These residential patterns probably influence many nonwhite aspiring entrepreneurs (and probably quite a few business owners) to place a higher priority on the concerns of those with lower earnings and lower education. This would not be a problem if they heard Republicans prioritize the concerns of working-class voters.

The problem is that working-class whites and nonwhites of all classes sometimes hear contempt and resentment of people whose wages are below the median. Last week I was listening to Fox and Friends on the radio as I was driving into work. One of the Fox and Friends hosts (I think it was Steve Doocy) was interviewing one of the Fox business personalities. Doocy said that fifty percent of the people pay no federal taxes. He didn’t even clarify income taxes which would at least have been almost correct. The host wondered about what would happen if the fifty percent who pay for government decided to work less. So what people heard was resentment (actually smearing) of those earning just under the median and a sub-Randian revenge fantasy.

It would be no big deal if it was just one television host, but it all sounds a little familiar doesn’t it? Romney didn’t come up with the 47% talking point on his own. The Wall Street Journal , Ari Fleischer, and Erick Erickson created the climate in which Romney could think that his 47% comment was something other than a political disaster. Versions of the 47% narrative apparently live on. If any Republican candidates start talking the 47% talk in the primaries, it is important that their Republican opponents (and conservatives in general) slap down that talk very fast. If we don’t, then the Democrats and their media allies will do it in the general election to devastating effect. The irony is that the same candidates who are slandering lower-earning Americans as parasites in primaries (or in front of friendly audiences), will turtle up when confronted with those statements in the general election. They will retreat and whine about how they were misunderstood, taken out of context, etc. They aren’t brave truth tellers. They are flattering a segment of the population even as they insult potential allies.

The thing is that the 47% narrative isn’t even that great for Republican primaries. Rick Santorum lacked rhetorical discipline, money and organization. One reason why Santorum finished second in the race for the Republican nomination was that (on the days he was able to stay on message) Santorum was able to articulate the concerns of people who didn’t “build that” (if “that” is defined as a large income), but who lived lives of work and responsibility.

Conservatives have policies that can increase the take home pay and improve the work incentives of parents around the median income. They have policies that could reform health care in a market-oriented way and increase access to health insurance for struggling families at a lower cost than Obamacare. We just need to listen to Henry Olsen and reject all the variations of the poisonous 47% narrative.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift
More on: Politics

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles