For Democrats, 2008 marks two anniversaries: their party's ascent in 1933 with the inauguration of FDR and its crackup in 1968. Working-class Democratic voters play central roles in the stories of both years--first as members of a vigorous labor movement that animated FDR's New Deal and later, so the story goes, as blue collar conservatives who defected to the Republicans.
But participants in a panel on the usable past of liberalism at the Organization of American Historians convention this week suggested that working-class voters are not the conservatives that many observers make them out to be. And that is good news for the Democrats.
Dorothy Sue Cobble of Rutgers argued that since 1968, the defection of the white working class from the Democrats has been confined to the South: elsewhere, it amounts to a loss of only one percent. And even in the South, the great Republican gains have been among middle class and upper class voters.
Indeed, she reminded us, income predicts voting: lower income voters vote Democratic, middle income voters are mixed in their preferences, and high-income voters tend to vote Republican. If the votes of lower-income voters were all that counted, we would have been spared the Bush presidency.
There's a counterargument to this, of course: that the cultural extremism of the Democratic party (on gay rights, for example, as some see it) drives away culturally conservative working-class voters. Thomas Edsall, who was on the panel with Cobble, makes this point.
The way to reconcile these different perspectives is that they look at two different forms of data: polls on cultural attitudes and voting in elections. Each method of counting produces different results. There is inevitably some statistical murkiness in all of this, but at the end of the day the lower your income the more likely you are to vote Democratic.
Of course, with the percentage of unionized workers at an awful low, it would be a mistake to expect a resurgent labor movement to carry the Democrats to the White House. But the growing and politicized number of Hispanic workers are likely to vote Democratic in the fall.
Just as immigrant, working-class voters helped lift FDR and the New Deal to victory, Hispanic workers can helps send a Democrat to the White House in 2008.