The Ghost Vote, and Six Days on the Road

A chronic flaw in political analysis is the tendency to forget that yesterday’s demographic cleavages and political allegiances have not been frozen in amber. The periodic talk of putting the “New Deal Coalition” back together always makes me wonder where and how we are going to get the white ethnic urban bosses and southern segregationists who were important parts of that coalition. For many years after the turbulent days of the 1960s and 1970s, you’d hear references to the “Wallace vote” in discussions of southern politics, long after many actual “Wallace voters” were dead and buried. The same is even more true of “Reagan Democrats,” still around to many writers even though Ronnie has long since passed into hagiographical status.

That’s why I found it interesting to read AEI vice president Henry Olsen’s essay (at National Review, of all places, where Rickyphilia is rampant) suggesting that Rick Santorum’s appeals to white-working-class voters represent a doomed effort to revive a sort of ghost vote, based on “Reagan Democrat” stereotypes that are at least two decades out of date.

Today’s white working class, says Olsen, is no longer characterized by stay-at-home moms and fathers working in stable factory jobs, attending neighborhood churches and embracing sturdy folk virtues. Their lives are often chaotic and surrounded by intense economic pressures, and they are as likely to look to government as anywhere else for relief. Here’s the nut graph:

A political strategy for today’s working class would address its current mindset. To begin with, it would recognize that Reagan Democrats are no longer Democrats. Those who are not already Republicans are likely to be independents convinced that big government is not the answer to their problems. But they do not support Republican economic policy, because they think that an unfettered market is not the answer, either.

Interestingly, Olsen thinks the economic nationalist themes the president hit in his State of the Union Address are a lot more in touch with white-working-class sentiments than anything Santorum and other Republicans are talking about.

You can read the whole thing, but I will warn you: Olsen veers off into discussion of the trucking industry and truckers as voters about every third paragraph. I found myself humming “Six Days on the Road” at one point. I don’t know if the dude made his bones in Washington doing transportation policy, or just never got over a childhood Tonka obsession, but it’s a little distracting. Still, it’s interesting to read the occasional conservative who doesn’t seem to believe laissez-faire economics is the answer to every political question.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.