Color Me Skeptical

David Paul Kuhn covered the 2004 presidential campaign for CBS News and currently writes for the Politico, the new Washington tabloid specializing in political news and analysis. His new book, The Neglected Voter, has a very simple thesis: If you want to understand the Democrats’ problems over the last several decades, keep your eyes on the white guys; you needn’t worry about anything else. White men decided many years ago that they didn’t like Democrats, and the next thing you knew we had Nixon, Reagan, and Bushes I and II. Kuhn mentions other social groups in passing, but mostly to clarify why white men are so ticked off at the Democrats. There’s something charmingly retro about this approach, and indeed, a great deal of Kuhn’s book reads like it could have been written twenty years ago.

Retro or not, Kuhn’s book does provide a useful service, by highlighting something that is quite realwhat he calls the “white male gap.” It’s true that Democrats perform very poorly among white men. In the last two presidential elections, Democrats have trailed the Republican Party in that demographic; Republicans won 60 percent of the white male vote over the Democrats’ 36 percent in 2000, and 62 percent over 37 percent in 2004. White men comprise a hefty section of the American electorate36 percent in the 2004 electionand it’s difficult to win elections when your party starts out so far in the hole with such a large demographic. And, as Kuhn rightly stresses, this performance is substantially worse than Democrats’ performance among white women (hence the “white male gap”). While Democrats had a 24-point deficit among white men in 2000, their deficit among white women was only 1 point; in 2004, Democrats lost white men by 25 points and white women by 11.

This isn’t a pretty picture, and Kuhn deserves credit for reminding Democrats forcefully of this problem. This is especially so in an era where most prescriptions for Democratic success steer away from demographic analysis in favor of very broad recommendations like appealing to the emotions (Drew Westen’s The Political Brain), kicking ass (Naftali Bendavid’s The Thumpin’), and having big ideas (Matt Bai’s The Argument). Kuhn is right to stress that not all voters are the same, and that specific groups of actual voters have to be reached to ensure success.

That said, the book has some serious problems, beginning with the fact that it isn’t a particularly good read; it is, in fact, a slog. Since the author makes essentially one pointthat “dogmatic liberals” have dissed white men in pretty much every way possible and turned them off to the Democratic Partyover and over again in every one of his twenty chapters, the exposition gets quite repetitive.

But the more serious problem is the story he tells, not how he tells it. Start with his claim that the white male gap is essentially the fulcrum of American politics and the source of the Democrats’ woes. The gap is certainly important, but why is it more important than Democrats’ problems with, say, married voters, religious voters, or (to pick an old favorite of mine) white working-class voters? There are a lot of different ways to slice and dice the American electorate, and a reasonable case can be madeby suitable fiddling with the numbersthat many demographic categories have played a “decisive” role in elections (that is, they can account, in a strictly quantitative sense, for a party’s success or lack thereof). So establishing, as Kuhn does, that white male voters were decisive in this sense does not actually show they were more important than other demographics. Kuhn should have made some effort to address this issue and make the case that his preferred demographic is, in fact, the important one, be it on quantitative, historical, or sociological grounds. But he is too busy beating his drum to do so.

Nor does he grapple with the fact that not all white guys think and act in the same way. In 2006, for example, while white men as a whole voted Republican by 9 points (53 percent to 44 percent), single white men voted Democratic by 15 points, white men with a postgraduate education voted Democratic by 2 points, and young white men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine voted Republican by only a single point. These are important differences, but Kuhn ignores them in favor of treating white men as an undifferentiated mass, collectively abubble with resentments toward Democratic liberals who show them no respect, couldn’t care less about them, and know nothing about their lives. Perhaps this level of generality made the book easier to write, but the lack of detail and nuance about what is, after all, a very large and heterogeneous group also makes it less convincing.

Related to this, Kuhn shows little interest in the important ways demographic trends are altering the very population he’s writing about. Not all white men, of course, are alike: single white men act very differently than married white men, and also make up an increasing proportion of white men as a whole. So do highly educated white men. And the younger generation of white men (the millennial generation), who are much less hostile to the Democrats than their elders, will become the dominant generation within the white male population in the next couple of decades. One would think these changes would have been worth mentioning.

But as I mentioned above, Kuhn has one simple storythe emasculation of the Democratic Partyand he’s sticking to it. That story is rooted in one particular image of white men and their fate, an image that doesn’t allow much room for consideration of demographic and social complexity. It does allow for many chapters with titles like “The Angry White Male: Kicked Out and Charged With Abandonment” and “The ‘Feminine Party’ in Wartime: Bush, Kerry, and Bravado.” Or the entire chapter on “The Value of Grit,” which becomes a repeated trope throughout the rest of the book. For example, why did Kerry lose the 2004 election? He didn’t have grit. Silly me, I thought it had something to do with Bush being an incumbent president in quasi-wartime. But with Kuhn, it’s one size fits all.

Speaking of 2004, one thing Kuhn doesn’t dwell on is that the white male gap narrowed in that election and that it was the movement of white women toward Bush that gave him his (actually rather narrow) victory. How inconvenient for Kuhn’s thesis. More inconvenient is the election of 2006, which seems to suggest that the Democrats’ white male gap can be mitigated and overcome without heroic efforts to get rid of “dogmatic liberals” and embrace the “political culture of white manhood.” In that election, the white male gap was down to 8 points, as white men supported Republicans over Democrats by 9 points (53 to 44 percent) and white women supported Republicans by a point (50 to 49 percent). These figures represented big shifts toward the Democrats among both groups, but particularly among white men. It may be that the Republicans’ days of running up supermajorities among white men are over, a victim of conservative failure to deliver much more than military debacles overseas, and continuing social and demographic change among the white male population, which has made the Republican Party a less congenial home for them.

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