By Judge William C. Whitbeck

Henry Olsen writing in The National Review highlighted a recent Pew poll analyzing American voters. The Pew people sliced and diced these voters into eight categories, seeking-as pollsters invariably do--to understand us by dividing us.

One of the Pew categories, and the most interesting, was "disaffected" voters. These voters were overwhelmingly white (77%), and overwhelmingly without a college degree (89%) and in many instances blue collar. Two thirds of them classified themselves as political independents. Getting down to political brass tacks, only 28% of them like President Obama. And most of them view the Republican party much more favorably than the Democratic party.

So, a year and a half before the presidential election, has the Republican party locked up the disaffected blue-collar white swing vote? Hardly. Olsen points to the results in New York's 26th congressional district election where blue collar voters backed a phony tea party candidate and to Wisconsin where blue collar voters swung to Democratic, or Democratic-backed, candidates in the April supreme court elections, after having heavily backed Republican Scott Walker for governor in 2010.

Why? Look at the data that another researcher, Mitch Pearlstein, has compiled and Mona Charon has highlighted. Pearlstein points out that currently some 40% of the births in America are to unwed parents. And the data also show an increasing divergence by educational status. Among the well-educated, marriage rates are quite stable. But 54% of the children of high school dropouts are now illegitimate. Critically, Pearlstein further notes that single parents are quite likely to turn to the government for some form of assistance.

Putting these two sets of data together, the disaffected white lower-middle class--overwhelmingly without a college education and much more likely to have, or to have come from, a broken family--does not does not share one of the core beliefs of the conservative movement, the belief in smaller, lower-cost government.

For reasons personal to themselves, these voters reverse Ronald Reagan's famous formulation. They do not view the government as the problem. They see government assistance as a necessary part of the solution to the uncertainty, turmoil, and conflict that mark their lives. The recession has hit them hard. If they have a job, they regard it as being in peril. They oppose cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. And, Olsen says, they "fear the future as much or more than they welcome it."

These voters are Joe Six-Pack Lite. They support public order. But at the same time, they fear the effects of foreign competition much more than they worry about the spiraling cost of the government and the debt addiction it has spawned. They are not natural conservatives, but President Obama has consistently underwhelmed them

In sum, they are up for grabs and, although Pew has identified them, no presidential candidate has yet caught their attention. President Obama, despite occasional spasms of rhetoric to the contrary, is no populist and we haven't seen an aspirant on the Republican side since Pat Buchanan who has consistently and openly appealed to these voters.

So, while the clock ticks toward a highly consequential election, it is likely that the disaffecteds will remain disaffected, the mindset that now grips them will expand, and the cultural and educational gaps that divide us will widen. This is a far cry from Ronald Reagan's morning in America. It is late afternoon for this segment of our population and the least the candidates of both parties can do is to show them a modicum of attention and respect. But don't count on it; the disaffecteds will also probably remain invisible. At least until the next Andrew Jackson comes along.


Judge William C. Whitbeck is one of 28 judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. A Kalamazoo native, he is a graduate of the Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and of the University of Michigan Law School. He served as chief judge of the Court of Appeals from January, 2002 to January, 2008. He is the past chairperson of the Michigan Historical Commission, a fellow of the Michigan and American Bar Foundations, and a member of the Michigan Law Revision Commission. In 2007, he won the State Bar of Michigan's short-story competition with "In the Market," a story of bootlegging and murder set in Prohibition-era Michigan. He has also completed one novel and is hard at work on a second. He and his wife Stephanie live in a completely renovated 130-year-old home in downtown Lansing. He can be reached at

Published: Fri, Jul 22, 2011