Maybe White Voters Just Aren't That Interesting
For the record, I believe that the modern Republican Party is a disastrous mix of xenophobia, decaying Nixon-era Southern-strategy dog-whistle racism, and white Christian cultural grievance (see the Christmas that Breitbart is fighting to preserve). I have opinions about the nature of the modern Republican Party that are often hard to argue to people who still support it (though, for some reason, I continue to do it). To me they’re self-evident, but people who have identified with the less toxic parts of its ideology for a long time often wonder why they should abandon it for something different.
I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of question, but I also don’t identify with any of the Republican policy positions so maybe it's easy to see why I'm readily dismissed. That’s not to say I’m incapable of finding meaningful common ground with conservatives. I often can. I’m passionate but I’m not a zealot. The Republican Party, however, has become something other than what I used to understand to be “conservative.” I have often wondered, however, if there might be someone who could speak better to those conservatives who are having a harder time cutting the cord. It turns out there are many people who can do just that.
There is a demographic group made up of individuals who are generally deeply religious, have views on abortion and same-sex marriage that are moderate but more conservative than the country as a whole, and who are overwhelmingly working and lower-middle class – but vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Not mainline Protestants. Not Catholics. Not Mormons. Not suburban voters. Not working-class voters generally. Not midwestern voters. Not voters without college degrees. Not voters with college degrees, with dogs, without dogs, with beards, with children, without children, or with green eyes. The demographic group to which I refer is made up of black protestant adults.
A large minority of black protestant voters (42%) believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases while barely half (52%) believe the opposite with the remainder undecided. The country as a whole is somewhat to the left on the issue with 57% being pro-choice and 40% pro-life. Only 44% of black protestant adults favor same-sex marriage generally compared to 62% of all American adults. In 2016, Donald Trump supposedly appealed to the forgotten white working class who had been left behind in the Obama economy. In fact, exit polls showed that the income brackets in which he outperformed his opponent were $50k-100k, 100k-200k, and 250k or more – losing $200k to 250k, 30k-50k, and below 30k. More than three-quarters of all black protestant adults fall into the two least affluent income brackets (77%) and only 8% in the most affluent three combined.
According to exit polls, these voters broke 89% for Hillary Clinton in 2016 with only 8% casting votes for Trump. What's the point of obsessing over the supposed disconnect between liberals and the conservative working poor when one of the most conservative demographics in the country makes up one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies? It likely has much more to do with the voters pundits are eager to explain and sympathize with than it does with a struggle to understand the voters who are most likely to decide an election or whose votes better explain the fundamental differences between the two parties.
When we talk about how different people vote, we’re almost always talking about white voters. It’s taken as self-evident that voters of color vote for Democrats. Pundits don’t particularly care why, or – equally likely – assume, consciously or otherwise, that they already know why without asking. For three decades, the term "swing voters" has referred the white “Reagan Democrats” of political lore. Coal miners and Appalachian voters are whiter than America as a whole. When pundits talk about "suburban voters," their meaning is given away by the geographic context – Philadelphia, Atlanta, Northern Virginia – that places emphasis on suburbs that are historically white and surround historic centers of black organization and political power. These terms are used as subdivisions of white voters, as are most of the groups of interest to political punditry in the last year (and the decades prior).
That phenomenon is evident in the utterly laughable idea that Donald Trump won a campaign against elites on the force of working-class voters. He lost the voters at the bottom third of the economic distribution by a landslide. When we opine about Donald Trump’s “working class” support, we speak specifically about his white working class support, and in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “one adjective in that phrase is doing more work than the other.” When we talk about Trump winning conservative Christians, we mean that he won white conservative Christians. And again – one of those adjectives is doing much more work than the other.
No matter how we try to interpret the shifts among college-educated voters or working-class voters, the results are the same. Until we dig into geographically specific, demographically selective minutia, white voters vote Republican by overwhelming (and generally expanding) margins. In 2016 the Republican candidate’s performance among white voters outpaced his performance overall by 23 points, in 2012 by 24 points, in 2008 by 19, in 2004 by 14, and in 2000 by 13. Is it possible that the voting patterns of white voters are just not that interesting? At what point should we decide that there might be something to learn from asking a voter of color why she voted for a Democrat instead of a Republican who might have lined up with her on a slew of socially conservative positions?
I disagree with almost everything the Republican Party stands for at this point, so perhaps I’m not the best person to convince a conservative why conservative values are a poor reason to cling to their partisan home of forty years. Asking why conservatives keep voting for a party that is utterly toxic is not terribly productive. Perhaps it’s conservatives who should be asking their Christian brothers and sisters of color why nine out of ten vote for a party that makes liberal cultural positions an enormous part of their national platform. It’s far from anyone’s duty to answer and those answers – should they come – would certainly be diverse and varied. I certainly won’t claim to know what those answers even are. It might be a start, however, if some of the eight in ten white evangelicals that voted for Trump – or even the political pundits so fascinated by Trump’s voters – at least had enough interest to ask.