Jim Webb and the White Man’s Burden

I’m not sure who is more confused about race and gender issues in the Democratic Party, Jim Webb or his interpreter du jour, Matt Bai. Let’s start with Bai, who says the left wing of the party is complacent about losing working-class white voters:

Go to any activist meeting or liberal dinner party, and chances are you will hear a pretty consistent narrative to explain this trend. Basically, it goes like this: White men, and especially Southern white men, are just inherently racist and afraid of social change, and so they’re easily manipulated by Republicans and have turned their backs on Obama. But that’s really OK, because the demographics of the country are rapidly shifting, and very soon there will be enough black and Latino voters — not to mention women of all races — to tip the balance of any national election into the Democratic column.

I don’t know where Bai is meeting or eating, but in my experience serious liberals are the ones making the same complaint that he (and Jim Webb) are making: Democrats are relying on “demography as destiny” and a coalition of minorities and upscale professionals when they should be crafting a forceful lefty economic pitch aimed at bringing back working-class white voters, who are only voting Republican because Democrats have abandoned them for Wall Street glitter and lucre.

Truth is nobody in the Democratic Party is happy about how poorly the Donkey Party does among non-college-educated whites. Some are more optimistic than others about how easy or difficult it would be to recapture a constituency that has been (relatively speaking) heading for the exits off and on for forty years. One enduringly popular rationalization has been that this is just a southern thing, and if Democrats could just bring themselves to actively and openly hate that Jesus-haunted gun-loving region, the problem would appear less difficult while enabling progressives to focus on winnable WWC folk in less benighted parts of the country. Andrew Levinson has sort of shot down this comforting approach, noting that exurban and rural WWC voters all over the country are voting Republican about as regularly as in Dixie. But in any event, I don’t know any Democrats who are smiling and laughing about not having to deal with so many white men in their ranks. For older Dems who remember (if by reputation rather than experience) the New Deal coalition, the white working class feels like a lost limb.

But one thing that most definitely will not solve the problem is Jim Webb’s approach of angrily identifying with alienated white working class men and championing their cause against other elements of the Democratic coalition.

“I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?” Webb told me. “I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they’re being racist.”

Betcha Webb, a proud historian of the Scotch-Irish, has to really work on saying “they” instead of “we.”

Back in 2010, under a Wall Street Journal headline that referred to the “myth of white privilege,” Webb called for an end to federal affirmative action programs that aren’t need-based, saying they no longer helped African-Americans and only served to embitter white voters. More recently, including in our conversation, he has obliquely assailed “interest groups” that divide the parties by race.

The interesting thing about Webb is that for all of his Fighting Hillbilly self-identity, the one time he ran for office (in Virginia in 2006) he was as dependent on what would soon be known as the Obama Coalition as any quiche-eating derivative-trading cosmopolitan. As WaPo’s Nia-Maliki Henderson notes in a piece on Webb today, he lost white men by precisely the same 24-point margin in 2006 as Obama lost that demographic in 2008. So whatever the Democratic problem is with white working class men, it’s apparently not lack of respect or attention.

I’ve seen no evidence that Jim Webb is doing a whole lot to gear up for a presidential campaign other than talk to reporters in Washington, so the debate he’s trying to have may be tangential to the actual contest. My guess is that in the pursuit of attention, he’s likely to say some things about women or minorities that will make his proto-candidacy about as promising as Brian Schweitzer’s. But if he does move ahead, he could sure use some evidence that reaching out the hand of brotherhood to white men is all they’ve been waiting for.

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.