November 17, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Republicans may have the House, but the Democrats have the respectable white people

They haven’t begun calling themselves Democrats, though.

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The Republicans reached the 218-seat threshold late last night to officially take over the House of Representatives. The vote-counting continues. We don’t yet know how big their majority will be. We do know it will be teensy. (About six races are pending, per the AP.)

We also know the Republicans would have lost without aggressive gerrymandering in Florida and interference by the US Supreme Court in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. The Democrats should have won the Congress. As it is, “voters delivered a split verdict.”

“Despite concerns about Biden’s handling of the economy and the prospects of a recession,” reported Bloomberg, “voters delivered a split verdict over who was to blame and how much weight to put on issues such as abortion rights and election deniers’ threats to democracy.”

Among polemicists like me, it’s fashionable to say that swing voters are extinct and that the key to victory is driving out the base. While the base is important, these midterms should force us to rethink.

But was that split really despite economic concerns? 

As I said Wednesday, “the economy” isn’t only the economy. “The economy” can include abortion, which is, to many, another “kitchen table issue.” “The economy” (inflation, jobs) and abortion are not mutually exclusive. So did the Democrats overperform in spite of it, as Bloomberg reported? Or did they overperform because of it?

If I’m wrong, consider that independent voters determined the midterms. They favored the Democrats by two points. That doesn’t happen. Since 1986, the in-party has lost independents while the out-party has won them. (2002 is an exception.) They said “the economy” was their primary concern. So one of the following:

1. Indies thought of “the economy” as the economy (inflation, jobs) or

2. Indies thought of “the economy” as including abortion.

Either way, they thought the Democrats were better. 

This is important to work out. Independent voters are not merely people refusing formal party alignment. They are that great globular middle of American politics – respectable white people, that is, white people who care about looking respectable to white people, who themselves care about looking respectable to other white people.

I call this class of Americans “globular,” because they can be pushed and pulled, depending on the context at election time. They are fickle. They believe they are immune to the consequences of politics. But they can be shamed, as respectability among other white people, who are the people who really matter, is a key motivator for them.

I suspect abortion is central to their concept of respectability. After all, half are women. I think the other half associates respectability with the social status of businessmen, as this is an affluent class of Americans that identifies with owners more than workers, and while inflation is good for wages, it’s bad for the bosses who pay them.

So “the economy” (abortion, jobs, inflation) is their No. 1 issue.

This is important to work out for another reason. These people determine which party wins elections. I don’t like it either, but fact is, respectable white people have always been a critical voting bloc. 

As David Winston wrote convincingly Wednesday for Roll Call: “Independents were without question the most critical voter group in this election. In fact, they made up 31 percent of the electorate, the largest percentage going back as far as the 1980 election.”

Winston doesn’t call them respectable white people (though that’s who they are). He said indies are more important than “the youth vote” and “angry women.” “We have not seen evidence that either young voters or women voters turned out in greater proportion of the electorate than we’ve seen in other off-year elections,” he said.

Under-30 Americans voted at percentages similar to past elections, he said. As for women, he said that, “Republicans actually improved with women voters, losing them by only 8 points (53 percent Democratic to 45 percent Republican) after a 19-point deficit in 2018.”

Among polemicists like me, it’s fashionable to say that swing voters are extinct and that the key to victory is driving out the base. While the base is important, these midterms should force us to rethink. 

Abortion didn’t win. 

“The economy” (abortion, jobs, inflation) won.

Respectable white people still matter.

And this is important to work out, because respectable white people, wherever they are on the political continuum, represent the center of US politics, which is to say, the center of the political order. 

After the triumphs of civil rights and the failures of the Vietnam War, respectable white people, who had previously been OK with the postwar liberal consensus, found their preferences on the right. 

Where once, before 1965, they had given the Democrats the benefit of the doubt, they now gave it to the Republicans, whose policies privileged markets over governance, and who promised, though obliquely, to prevent democratic politics from competing with them.

Now respectable white people have witnessed some 20 years of shocks: The Iraq War, a Black president’s election, a 2007-2008 panic, a fascist president’s election, a covid pandemic and a coup d’etat. 

Over the same period, the Republicans got worse and worse. They were supposed to prevent democratic politics from competing with respectable white people. They weren’t supposed to blow it all up.

Joe Biden won more votes than any presidential candidate in our history. That suggested to me a shift among respectable white people, away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats. But last week’s congressional elections confirmed it – to me, anyway. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. 

The midterms were supposed to be a “red wave,” not a “split verdict.”  They were supposed to reward the out-party, not the in-party. Respectable white people were supposed to vote for Republicans. (That they didn’t, I think, stunned the GOP as much as anything.)

There’s a reason the percentage of indies is the biggest it’s been since 1980, the last time one political order ended and another began. By degree, respectable white people have stopped calling themselves Republicans. They haven’t yet begun calling themselves Democrats. 

They will, though. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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