Much has been made about Barack Obama’s difficulties attracting the votes of conservative Democrats. Some say his problems go back to his race. Others cite his comments about guns and religion. Still others say his social liberalism turns off conservatives in both parties. Obama, and liberal Democrats in general, do have a cultural problem with conservative Democrats. But the problem goes well beyond guns and God.
Americans on the whole are optimistic and expect their elected leaders to promise a better future. Americans are generally optimistic because they believe in personal responsibility and the rewards of work. Individuals are in charge of their fates and not the victims of impersonal forces.
In 2005, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 68 percent of the general population agreed that “Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.” They also found that about 80 percent of Americans agree that “everyone has it in their own power to succeed.”
Some Americans, however, are not optimistic. In 2005, the Pew Research Center identified a group called Disadvantaged Democrats. This group is important to Democratic presidential candidates. Voters from this group made up 22 percent of John Kerry’s total vote in 2004.
DISADVANTAGED DEMOCRATS differ from most Americans on personal responsibility. Only 14 percent think that people can get ahead by working hard. Seventy-nine percent say that hard work does not guarantee success, and 76 percent hold that view strongly.
The Pew researchers also note that only 44 percent of Disadvantaged Democrats say that everyone has the power to succeed, while 47 percent take the fatalistic view that success in life is determined by forces outside one’s own control. Not surprisingly, this group strongly supports more government spending on the poor. For these voters, wealth comes from government largesse rather than individual effort.
Disadvantaged Democrats may not have read John Rawls, but their attitudes are quintessentially liberal. The poor are victims of society, and government does justice by redistributing wealth from the rich (who don’t deserve it) to the poor (who do). Hope for a better future comes from the tax man, the social worker, and the guaranteed income.
Culturally Conservative Democrats do not buy this part of liberalism. Pew found that 83 percent of conservative Democrats believe that most people can get ahead if they are willing to work. About 68 percent of the general population shares that view.
The attitudes of Conservative Democrats on personal responsibility are the mirror image of those espoused by Disadvantaged Democrats, even though both groups have similar economic situations. Conservative Democrats are also no more likely than the average person to think government should increase welfare spending.
CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS are also important to Barack Obama’s presidential effort. Pew reports such Democrats compose 15 percent of registered voters. Sixty-five percent of Conservative Democrats voted for John Kerry.
John McCain may appeal to Conservative Democrats. Conservative Democrats may see in McCain a fellow traveler on the question of personal responsibility.
Barack Obama has tried hard to avoid being labeled a liberal. However, he has also continually blamed Republicans and business corporations for all the economic challenges faced by voters.
In part, Obama is just running against the status quo like every challenger. But he is also seems to say Americans are victims of the fates and that hope comes from the government. “Yes, we can” is becoming “No, you can’t” followed by “here’s a program.” That inclination could be fatal in the fall.
Yet another path lies open to Sen. Obama who has promised a new politics that transcends the failed ideologies of the past. His claim to be the harbinger of a new politics would be more credible if he jettisoned the liberal shibboleths of victimhood and dependence, a change that would appeal to the culture of Conservative Democrats.
In doing well in this way, Obama might also do good. His endorsement of work, optimism and personal responsibility might encourage Disadvantaged Democrats to adopt the dominant culture of work, success, and real hope.
A politics of “Yes, you can” from the Democratic presidential candidate would be change everyone can believe in, conservatives included.
John Samples is the director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and author of The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform.