Too Much Color, Not Enough Culture

Clarence Page argues that Barack Obama’s failure to connect with white “working class” voters has more to do with culture than color.

Democratic nominees have not won a majority of working-class white males at the ballot box since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, when Obama was still a preschooler. Since then, Bill Clinton came closest in 1992 by connecting culturally, not just politically. When he said, “I feel your pain,” a lot of people believed him.


Ironically, despite Republican attempts to paint Obama as a liberal, he is in many ways a cultural conservative. The Democratic National Convention speech that launched his rapid rise on the national stage, you may recall, was grounded in values that made him the Democratic Party’s answer to Colin Powell and Bill Cosby.

People from across the political spectrum hoped Obama might transcend the nation’s racial divide. That effort that was brought rapidly down to earth by the inflammatory sound bites of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But Obama’s image as a unifier can rise again if he speaks to issues that connect with people’s daily lives beyond the narrow world of politics. One example has been embedded in his biography: The breakdown of the American family.

The rise of out-of-wedlock births is one the thorniest issues facing the black community today. But the issue reaches beyond race. Out-of-wedlock births have risen to almost 70 percent in black America, almost half of Hispanic births and more than a fourth of white births. In 1950, the rates for all three were about 10 percent. Add in the high rates of divorce and other parental break-ups, and you have large numbers of American children growing up in single-parent households. Some 24 million children live apart from their fathers, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. As Roland Warren, the initiative’s director, has said, “Kids have a hole in their soul the shape of their dad.”

As Page notes, Obama knows that from personal experience but he hasn’t done much to take this issue on and that doing so would be an entree into a “national conversation” that could close the cultural gap.

The problem, however, is that Obama isn’t Powell or Cosby. His proposed solutions are very much out of the Great Society playbook. Raise the minimum wage. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Expand paid sick days. Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act. Expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. And so forth and so on. These are all Big Government wealth transfer solutions, putting the burden on society and private businesses rather than individuals.

That’s not how Colin Powell, Bill Cosby — or, indeed, Barack Obama — got to where they are. Their common path? Parents stay together, providing a stable home life and role models for kids. Kids work hard in school and get a college education. Including, eventually, graduate degrees. Work hard and make something of yourself in a career. Marry and raise your own kids. Rinse and repeat.

There’s a huge cultural divide between these competing models.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. floyd says:

    I don’t know what Clarence was smoking , but he could have put more truth to the page by striking keyboard keys randomly.
    Conservatism is an absolute anathema to Barack Obama.

  2. Pug says:

    I agree Obama would be better off to stress staying married, raising your own kids and getting an education. He has done that, but he should do it more. Those three things would go a long way toward solving many of the problems of all Americans, and saying so would help him with more conservative and religious voters.

    I don’t have any problem, though, with expanded tax breaks for the working poor. Basic economics tells you to encourage things you want with lower taxes and tax breaks and discourage things you don’t want with higher taxes, like the tax on tobacco. That’s not necessarily a liberal solution, and even if it is it’s still a good idea.

    I find it hard to understand why conservatives argue in favor of preferential treatment for capital gains, and I’m not saying that is a bad idea, but argue against tax preferences for poor working stiffs. Aren’t capital investments and poor people working both good things?

  3. glasnost says:

    Among your more preposterous work.

    Your hypothesis is that southern low-income voters don’t like Barack Obama because his message to them does not involve more “grow up! get a job! deal with your own problems with individual responsibility!”

    Bill Cosby is not running for president. Voters of all stripes don’t mind listening to Dennis Miller telling some other poor, random schmuck to get a job. We’re happy to listen to it from a comedian, but, That’s completely different from looking for info on how the head of your country is going to help you solve your problems.

    Even Republicans understand this. That’s why they campaign on tax cuts – in which you vote for someone and then get to recieve get extra dollar bills – rather than on slogans like “John McCain: telling America to suck it up”. and “John McCain: I don’t want the government helping you. I want you to solve your own problems. I’ll be playing golf”.

  4. Mithras says:


    I see how well Republicans are doing politically by scolding people about their family life, and more importantly, cutting social programs in order to punish people they don’t approve of. Clearly, this is the smart play. Maybe Obama could sponsor a Senate resolution honoring Terri Schiavo. That would make him real popular.

  5. Fence says:

    I don’t like “wealth transfer solutions” either, but I don’t think that is the reason blue-collar voters haven’t supported national Democrats.

  6. David Shor says:

    Barrack Obama’s home life was not stable(Abandoned by his Dad, his mother divorced twice, he switched countries several times), he was a constant recreational user of drugs, etc. I think your path to prosperity is a 19th century protestant-work-ethic fantasy more than anything else.

    Of course “Hard work and dedication and sacrifice will pull you ahead”, but in any population, rich or poor, most people are not going to do that, and no words from a politician are going to change that.

    The problem is, that a slacker born in a housing project to poor parents will have trouble even getting a job at Walmart. A slacker born to rich parents in the suburbs can easily become a mediocre lawyer with a decent income.

    This is a huge problem, both socially and financially, and frankly, appropriately designed “Big Government wealth transfer solutions” are an important tool to fix it.