The Demography Trap

Democrats have got to find a way to talk to ordinary white folks.

| February 07, 2013

In light of the shellacking the Democrats took in 2010, you can't blame them for wanting to revel in the changing demographics that contributed to their 2012 win. But their belief that demography is destiny may cause them to ignore partisan realities.


It is one thing to win the White House due to a growing electorate of nonwhites. It is quite another to govern, especially when the GOP is spending every ounce of energy on the gerrymandering and vote-suppression efforts that have helped to create and sustain the New Solid South. To achieve any significant legislative victories, progressives must win the white working class, and to do that, they must answer the question: Why do so many of them vote against their self-interest?

A hint lies in an email I received not long ago. In it, the new leader of the Democratic Socialists of America, formerly an organizer with the SEIU labor group, explained why she was heading up the new faction. Among her reasons: a desire to battle "patriarchy and white supremacy." C'mon guys — really?

No decent person thinks gender and racial discrimination is a good thing. But you cannot enlist the natural constituency of the white working class by insulting them, which this woman managed to do in a single phrase.

This tired "victim class" rhetoric only exaggerates the caricature of an egghead liberal from the big city. As a progressive, I find this woman's language silly and offensive, not to mention lazy and anachronistic. If my female, college-educated, solidly middle-class eyes glaze over when I hear this liberal blather, imagine the reaction of a male laborer with only a high school diploma.

There are, no doubt, white people, some of them men, who would love to discriminate against those who do not share their skin color or gender. But there are far more who fear the future because the people in charge look different than they used to. That doesn't make them racists or sexists — it makes them human. Just ask an evolutionary biologist.

Long before the development of language and mass communication, human beings appear to have been wired to be suspicious of those from outside their tribe. Evolutionary biologists believe this was a necessary trait that increased a group's chances of survival. Since evolution tends to lag behind social forces, living in a more enlightened age hasn't altered our deepest survival instincts.

But political operatives on the left, bless their hearts, appear to be incapable of tailoring their rhetoric to an audience which sees "change" not as something synonymous with hope but with fear. Fear that what little they have will find its way into the pockets of those who do not look like them.

This emotion is what the KKK exploited in the years during Reconstruction, when they made chumps of desperately poor white Southerners by convincing them that desperately poor black Southerners were their enemies.

Today's oligarchs and their mouthpiece, the GOP, are simply running the same divide-and-conquer play in an effort to keep their stranglehold on power.

If the left has any chance of winning nonminority working-class folks, they're going to have to craft messages that resonate with white people who didn't go to Harvard and who think The Feminist Mystique is some kind of drugstore hygiene product.

Appealing to self-interest is not selling out or "flip-flopping"; it's what skilled politicians everywhere do. It's what Madison Avenue has made its bones doing and what the political right has honed to a fine edge. 

When a whole lot of beleaguered, white working-class folks are convinced that rich guys who have never worked at a job that dirties their hands or bends their backs are the best men to protect their interests, we cannot continue to think racism is the only cause.

No one is going to make Ivy League liberals throw away their old copies of Ms. or their Malcolm X T-shirts if they learn a little from Mad Men. They just need to hire an agency that can create political ads that appeal to Mike the mechanic.

The alternative is to be strident ideological purists, reciting old shibboleths that do nothing but alienate those who should rightly be on the left.

Only days after their own shellacking, otherwise out-of-touch Republicans got on a cruise ship and started crafting new messages aimed at Latinos. When are Democrats going to hop on the clue bus to Madison Avenue?

Ruth Ogles Johnson is a frequent Flyer contributor.


Comments (35)

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When are they going to get rid of their slave mentality??

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Posted by Leftyasc on 02/07/2013 at 7:39 AM

True, Republicans are trying to rework their message to rewrap and sell the same old tired ideas to a new crop of rubes, but where they're playing the long game is in education. To be precise, in doing everything in their power to make certain the general public can continue to be swayed by appeals to very tribalism mentioned in the article, by destroying the mechanism by which people are able to socially evolve beyond the tribe - education.

The answer for Democrats isn't finding our own tribal appeals that are more appealing. Lovecraft stated that the oldest and strongest human emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown. In the long run, Democrats have to focus of providing a superior education to everyone, not only for the future of their political party, but also for the future of America. Only education can make the unknown known, thus removing the oldest and strongest fear and the Republican party's oldest and strongest selling point.

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Posted by Jeff on 02/07/2013 at 8:05 AM

Republicans have a stranglehold on power?

Who knew?


Dang. When I saw all those commercials with Ryan cutting old folks Medicare and even throwing granny over the cliff, and how those evil Republicans were going to take away your Social Security, and how they were going to repeal abortion rights, I could have sworn those fear tactics were the product of the Democratic Party.

Thanks for setting me straight that they were Republicans all along.

BTW, how is that world-class educational system promoted by Democrats on the County Commission and on the BOE working out so far?

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 8:18 AM

Pop, Ryan's plan did offer to replace Medicare with an inadequate voucher system, and how many times have Republicans tried to sell their plan to save Social Security by transfering it all to the stock market. Don't try to tell me repealing Roe V Wade hasn't been on their platform for decades. If there's a maneating lion in the village, it's not fearmongering or tribalism to warn everyone there's a maneating lion in the village. Saying it's not true, he's not a maneating lion because he's only ever devoured women, doesn't make it any less true.

I didn't say Democrats are working on quality education for all, I said they should be. Republicans have been focused for years on remaking the educational system into one that better supports the election of Republican candidates. Their greatest success has been in the south where, lo and behold, they currently have their strongest political support. Coincidence!

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Posted by Jeff on 02/07/2013 at 9:09 AM

Republicans are in favor of forced transvaginal ultrasounds, Moon colonies, and torture. How can Democrats possibly compete with such a sound agenda!

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Posted by Memphomania on 02/07/2013 at 3:47 PM

When he signed the Civil Rights Act LBJ said "I have given the South to the Republican Party for a generation." When people are easily persuaded to vote their fears/hate, and against their socio-economic best interest then all logic goes out the window. Case in point would be our Magnolia State neighbors to the South. Poor public education outcomes, regressive taxation, piss-poor public health stats, and a solidly red state. Go figure.

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Posted by jrgolden on 02/07/2013 at 3:52 PM

The article is flawed. It is partially correct except that it completely leaves out the 2,000 lb. elephant in the room. That elephant is the fact that, in 2007-08, the presidential was a man named Barack Hussein Obama, a black man. This fact skewered the rule of politics that this article talks about.

The 2010 republican revolution was not the result of democrats not messaging correctly, but, it was a manifestation of Obam being president. Had it not been for this, the gop may have still picked up congressional seats, but, it wouldn't have been near as bad as it was.

The gop has a natural built in fear. That fear is that this government will be taken away from them by people that do not look like them. Only time and seeing that, having someone other than one of them in office will not destroy them, is the only thing that will make a difference. This thought of mine is backed up by the fact that in statewide elections in 2010 and 2012, the senate was held by the democrats.

There is no slave mentality held by African Americans and other racial groups in America. They are just pushing for the same thing that everyone has pushed for since the declaration of independence, a more perfect union, based on fairness and equality for everyone. But, le's face it, if a people that was in power from the beginning abused other races, treated them as second class citizens and did these things through force of law, which, as the majority, they controlled, it is human nature that they would fear retrobution if that minority that was mistreated ever became the majority. Until this rising minority fully take the reins of power and the defunct majority becomes the minority and see there will be no retrobution taken against them, then, and only then, will messaging and policy make a difference in elections. This is where we are at today in politics.

Human nature tells us that when a majority has gained an advantage over other people by reason of involuntary servitude, biased laws, etc., there is an innarte fear that they will be punished if those people ever get into power. The other human nature thing is the math game. If 4 is the sum total of the game and one party has the advantage in the game, unjustly, that allowed them to get 3 points of the game, if the party that has the 1 gains power and tries to equalize that game, 4 being the total, the only way they can even it up is to take the 1 from the majority and give it to the minority. It is simplistic, however, people think in those terms. The same with jobs. If a company has 100 total jobs and all of them belong to the majority and you decree that there has to be affirmative action to balance the jobs between the 2 groups, the only way you can do so is to take 50 jobs from the previous majority and give them to the new majority. Sorry to say, but, I think, that is how the average white person thinks.

Nice article, but grossly lacking in the real reason behind the red-state-blue state thing.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/07/2013 at 4:27 PM


Whether or not Ryan's plan was inadequate is a matter of opinion.

The Republican plan to offer private Social Security accounts did not involve transferring it all to the stock market, and you know that. It did plan to offer people the right to take a portion of their payout and invest it themselves, with ownership and survivor rights. I don't need to tell you that the rate of return on invested SS funds at that time was around 2%. Long term rates, which the individual could get by investing himself, was much higher than that. In addition, most are aware that if you die before reaching Social Security age, your money is lost. Bush's plan would have let that money be passed down to the next generation, which I would have thought should be particuarly attractive to minorities, since their life expectancy is less. Seemed like a pretty good way for minorities to build family wealth.

But, then we got the "lockbox" argument fron the Dems, and that was that. Of course, they didn't tell anyone that there was nothing in the lockbox but IOUs from the government. Of dubious value, too.

As far as I know, Bush only proposed that one time. Is your information different?

I think Republicans have pretty much accepted that Roe v.Wae is the law and will not be changed. Didn't hear any noise about tht from anybody except the Democrates this election as part of their fanciful "War on Women" theme.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 9:03 PM

The author's attack on DSA 's new national director is puzzling. How is opposing patrarchy and white supremacy a bad thing? And how is that offensive to white working class males?

Jim Maynard
Memphis DSA

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Posted by Jim Maynard on 02/07/2013 at 9:34 PM

@ Jefff,

BTW, that lockbox business was pretty scary to the average guy who did not understand how the SS system works:


Fearmongering at its best. Worked, too.

Need I remark on Democratic talking points last year about the US defaulting on its debt (it wasn't about to do so) or the "fiscal cliff" which never existed in the first place? I think your party got great mileage out of scaring the shit out of uninformed Americans with those two little gems.

I think the latest thing is President Obama telling us how downright terrible and scary it will be if the Republicans don't give in and do something to stop sequestration, which the President will be delighted to stop, but only if the Republicans agree to more tax increases.


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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 10:07 PM

As an anarchist, I find this woman's language silly and offensive, not to mention lazily progressive.

But seriously, three big problems with this piece:

1) It flies in the face of the far more salient trend that White Americans are losing significant political power. See the short post linked below for snapshot.


2) At no point does Ms. Johnson use any evidence of anything said or done by the Democratic Party. Either she couldn't be bothered to (at the very least) quote some "straw man" Democrat out of context, or she doesn't realize that Democratic Socialists are very, very different from the Democratic Party! All the socialists I know would cringe if you called them liberals. If any of my middle school students wrote something with such sparse supporting evidence, I'd make them re-write it.

Also, I'd love to know who said "victim class," and in what context, since it's in quotes!

3) Finally, does the author really believe that those who hope to improve our country through government need to stop talking about racism and sexism? Really? These social injustices are less problematic than politicians who don't pander enough to White people? I don't know what your experience living in Memphis is like, but I think our community might want to talk a bit more about that White supremacy and patriarchy "liberal blather".

Ms. Johnson, I believe this piece is out of touch with current electoral results, it lacks any shred of evidence from the party in question, and it misjudges the urgent social problems of our time.

Memphis Flyer, I love reading your paper and website, but this is the laziest and most ignorant piece I've ever seen you publish.

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Posted by Nick Welna on 02/07/2013 at 10:12 PM


For a minute there, I thought you were describing Illinois, but you left out the gun violence, and the fact that the state is bankrupt, so I suppose you were not. And Illinois remains solidly in Democratic hands.

Go figure.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/07/2013 at 10:13 PM


Cut the bull!

It didn't matter if it was all of the social security money or just a portion, THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS DID NOT WANT THE RYAN OR BUSH DEAL.

Government IOUs are counted as money, for it is insured by the full faith and credit of the U. S. Government. If that is good enough for countries around the world to lend money to the U.S., it is damn well good enough for social security. As far as the worth of those IOUs, they have the same value(the dollar) to the social security fund as to payments, with dollars, to China, Japan, etc. So if the IOUs owed to the social security fund are worthless, then the debt owed to foreign countries is worthless too.

You are just not telling untruths, you are bordering on being a liar!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/07/2013 at 10:16 PM

As a working class white person who didn't go to college, I find your presumption that you need a degree to care about racism or sexism to be pretty offensive. It might surprise you, but poor uneducated people don't need political issues rewritten as feel-good childrens stories in order for us to comprehend them.

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Posted by Count Dracula on 02/08/2013 at 3:47 AM

AP, I won't both explaining those IOUs to you, since OTP has already done an admirable job of it. Needless to say, if you have a pension through your job, you probably have some of those IOUs in your lockbox.

The rest of what you say is pretty funny. The efficacy of the Ryan plan to replace Medicare with a inadequate voucher plan also called Medicare was a matter of opinion? So is the flat earth theory.

The Bush plan to allow you to invest your own Social Security dollars would have so defunded Social Security as to bankrupt the Social part of it, which was, of course, the entire point. It was a major part of his platform and had wide Republican support until a few progressive bloggers and prominent economists pitched enough of a hissy fit that the real effects of the plan could no longer be "messaged" in a positive way and the Congressional Republicans had to abandon it and their president.

But let's just pretend, for a moment, that the Republican party had got their way and millions of Americans had reinvested their Social Security dollars in the stock market in 2006. The same thing that happened in 2008 to their 401Ks would have happened to their Social Security, leaving them with nothing. 2% returns ain't bad, compared to -40%.

I will give you credit, though. There is no Plot to Destroy Social Security. That would, indeed, be poor messaging. However, the plot to divert Social Security dollars into the stock market is ongoing and evolving. Hey, they already convinced you and slightly less than half the Democrats and 90% of the media. They're just waiting for enough of the olds to die to make mentioning it in public feasible again.

The fiscal cliff and the sequestration and all that other nonsense is a direct result of the Republican House playing chicken with the debt ceiling. The Republican House, by law, produces the Federal budget and sets the spending for the year. The President, as the executive, is tasked with spending the money given to him by the Congress. By refusing the raise the debt ceiling, the Republican House of Representatives has, in effect, told the president he can't spend the money that they have ordered him to spend. Sike! If they were really concerned about deficits, they would do something about the deficit in the budget, but as you know that's politically impossible. However, budgeting a gazillion dollars, then refusing to authorize the loans needed to pay for that gazillion dollar budget, while blaming it on the Democratic president, makes for awesome histrionic television. Especially if they can get you to believe it's the president's fault.

As for abortion, I feel like that pig on the airplane. Seriously, you didn't just say Republicans have accepted Roe v Wade. Seriously?

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Posted by Jeff on 02/08/2013 at 7:53 AM


Answer the poster!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/08/2013 at 8:05 AM

Count Dracula, I'm not of the opinion that you need a degree, just a proper education. Education comes in many forms, not all of them in a building called a school. Plenty of schools offer the opposite of an education, which how we end up with highly-educated racist buffoons.

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Posted by Jeff on 02/08/2013 at 8:13 AM

Jeff, you are on a roll!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/08/2013 at 8:55 AM


Jeff, Jeff, Jeff,

I would really have thought that you were more educated about government bonds, and basic economics, than that. I guess my first clue was when you agreed with OTP about such things. Those bonds are worthonly what the dollars they promise are worth. IOUs in the "lockbox" are only useful when purchased back from the SS system and converted into cash. If the value of that bond is less because the interest rate is s low, the less cash it becomes, and if the money suppy is inflated at the same time, that cash is worth even less. All the talk about these IOUs being back by the "full faith and credit of the US" ignores that basic fact. Of course you will get back the full amount of the bond. So what? it is only worth what it will buy. If you would like to check me out on this, I refer you to the latest report of the Governors of the Social Security System, which can be found on line.

The majority of Republicans do not like abortion, and I am one of them. I suppose we could shout past each other all day on the subject, but others do that already. What I am saying is that Republicans may express their views on the subject, but the issue has been decided , not only by law, but by the majority of the American electorate. Thus, it is not an issue in national politics anymore, except by Democrats who fearmonger and try to convince women that Republicans, who are powerless to do so, will most certainly take their abortion rights away.

One more thing about the individual accounts thing. If you read my post carefully, i was positing that a meager 2% return on those funds was pitiful at the time and that a better return could be had. Other, very safe bond funds were offering 6% or better. What we had in mind was to offer a limited number of options, investing in riskier stocks was not one of them. I still think offering that as an option only, not a requirement, with the added benefit of creating passable, intergeneration wealth, is a pretty good idea. I got a big laugh out of that part where 90% of the media supports partial privitazation of Social Security. If it s a Republican proposal, they couldn't get 90% of the media on theri side for any reason.

I could have sworn that the Democrats were part of the bipartisan agreement on the sequestration, but perhaps you could post the vote. I did not know those evil Republicans managed to hornswaggle the Democrtats on sequestration. What is happening is that Mr. Obama is no longer on the offensive, is he? He didn't see this one coming.

Now the Republicans are going to call the tune.

BTW, I do wish you would bone up on how the government operates. The House alone is not charged with producing a budget. Congress as a whole is. That includes the Democratically controlled senate, which has failed in its constitutional duty for about four years now. The House, however, has produced its budget every year. All revenue bills must originate in the House, is that what you meant? Any spending must be approved by both houses of Congress.


I was talking with Jeff. I would appreciate you keeping your nose out of it until invited in. Frankly, you do not have the chops to talk about complicated subjects with any authority. When you call other poster a bodrerline liar, without much deep understanding of the subject matter at hand, it makes you look sillier than normal. Which is really saying something.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/08/2013 at 11:58 AM


I might add one other thing, just for your benefit.

About those bonds we sell to other countries, the same ones in the 'lockbox":

Why do you think there is all the talk about those other countries either refusing to continue buying our debt, or demanding a higher interest rate, thus running up the cost to the government. You have seen that in the media, have you not?

Can you tell us why there is concern?

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/08/2013 at 12:16 PM



"Thus, it is not an issue in national politics anymore..."

is flat out wrong.

The GOP convention just last year called for a constitutional ban on abortion. Not to even get started on all the garbage that has been going on in Texas, Mississippi, and North Dakota recently. Proposals to limit abortions in all cases except rape an incest. Oh, and Todd Akin. And the planned parenthood stuff. Not an issue in national politics my ass! Hell, birth control has been getting attention in national politics recently. In 2013. Boggles the mind.

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Posted by clegg on 02/08/2013 at 12:32 PM


Really? Was that part of the Republican platform?

I missed it.

I really do think you should learn to differentiate between legal reality and political theatre to placate the base. For goodness sake, your party is expert at it. Need I mention the hysteria being generated by President Obama and Vice Preident Biden over gun control? Gets your base all riled up: " We must act now! We must do something!" Political theatre at its best. Legal and political realities, they will find, are something else. So, we use social issues to fire up our base. But, in the end, nothing is going to be done about abortion. Thus my statement.

Also, there is a difference between birth control and abortion.

I do appreciae the necessity of fearmongering on part of the Democrats.

Keep 'em frightened, keep 'em voting your way, right?

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/08/2013 at 12:51 PM

Pop, I'd love to see all the talk about those other countries demanding a higher interest rate or threatening to stop buying US bonds because, despite all the fearmongering about runaway inflation, we're still shipping out the bonds by the boatload, even though their return is, for all pratical purposes, negative. The bond vigilantes still aren't striking, despite everything Fox News has told you over the past four years. US Government debt still remains one of the safest investments around.

A bond is a bond, by the way. It must be honored. I'm glad to see you understand this, because the usual conservative spiel is that they are "worthless IOUs," pieces of paper, etc. The same pieces of paper that fund all other forms of government debt, including military spending and tax breaks for billionaires and Exxon.

Social Security would be funded as far as the eye could see, and could even afford to increase benefits, by removing the cap on earnings. But your average conservative, your average Democrat, and even the current president (apparently - see Simpson/Bowles) would rather save Social Security by cutting benefits. The only thing that keeps them from doing it is AARP and a few noisy liberals. Try watching a Sunday show sometime and finding someone who is not Paul Krugman telling the truth about Social Security funding. But I see you still buy into the myth of the liberal media - 90% of which is owned by huge multinational corporations not generally known for their support of liberal ideologies. I suppose you think ultraliberal David Gregory thumbs his nose every Sunday at the economic interests of his bosses at GE.

Yes, Pop, sequestration, fiscal cliff, all this jackness is a result of the president and the Senate trying to stop the House Republicans from tossing a lit cigarette into the economic powder magazine. And yes, I meant the House initiates the budget process. The Senate has failed, as you put it, because the House has yet to send a serious budget to Senate, because it is filled with Republicans who funamentally do not believe that government should work in the first place, so why in the world would they work to make it work? Tell me again how the Senate is supposed to negotiate with people who write budgets with the express purpose of having them rejected by the Senate?

Also - seriously? Take a look at the Tennessee legislature. Look at what the GOP is doing in Mississippi right now to get around Roe v Wade and remove the last abortion option in that state. Look at South Dakota. Look at Kansas. Look at all the states trying to pass personhood amendments. Pinch yourself, man. You need to wake the eff up.

As a last note, I love the way you tell OTP to butt out, then dare him to answer your question.

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Posted by Jeff on 02/08/2013 at 1:02 PM


I will post anythime and on any subject that I so well please. We are not on the plantation anymore.

As far as chops, My chops are mine and I choose to use them at anytime. It is not up to you or anybody elese to say who is qualified to post on any subject. Your post may have pretty good grammar, however, the content is no better than anyone elses. Your posts are your opinion, the same as anyone elses.

For you to even write such a post shows how small your mind is and how low your integrity is. You will not silence me, so you can either ignore or respond, that is strictly up to you.

So, just can the elitest bullshit! If you want a personal dialogue with someone, do it on the phone or some other private forum. This is open to the public and I will damn well use it, within the rules, as I please to.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/08/2013 at 1:03 PM


See the section entitled "The Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life":…

This amendment would ban abortion. "...the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed." That's pretty clear to me.

I might consider your claim that it's hot air if republicans we making no efforts to curb/outlaw abortion, but considering the "person hood" bills, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, successful efforts to de-fund planned parenthood, ad infinitum, I have to say you're way way off base. I'm shocked you're trying to say that republicans have no real interest in this issue. Usually republicans are proud to support bans on abortions.

I only point out the birth-control thing to illustrate how backward republicans are when it comes to reproductive issues. It's different in that it's generally much much less controversial than abortion, among voters.

For the record I have been very disappointed in democrats for a long while and rarely vote for them; not for the same reasons as you, of course, but still.

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Posted by clegg on 02/08/2013 at 1:54 PM
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