The White Working Class

AP Photo/Eric Gay

A worker uses a lift to move rolls of sheet metal at LMS International, in Laredo, Texas. 

With our partners at The Democratic Strategist, The American Prospect is co-publishing this series of articles on one of the most contentious topics in today’s political discourse, and one of progressives’ and the Democratic Party’s most vexing problems: the white working class (WWC).

The need for such a discussion is both obvious and twofold. First, the white working class—the bedrock of the long-vanished New Deal Coalition—has largely and increasingly been abandoning the Democratic Party, even when that has meant voting against some of its economic interests. While Hillary Clinton’s loss of such presumably blue-wall states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania dramatized the extent of the Democrats’ problem, it was also just the latest stage of an epochal shift. Wisconsin, after all, has a wall-to-wall reactionary state government, with Scott Walker having won three elections placing and then keeping him in the governor’s office. Michigan also has a Republican governor and Republican control of both houses of the legislature, while in Pennsylvania, Republicans control the legislative branch as well.

Second, every economic and public-health index of how Americans are faring has been turning up alarming news about the white working class during the past several years—a cascade of data showing how their incomes, employment opportunities, and labor-force participation have been falling, while their rates of drug, alcohol, and opioid abuse have been rising, and their very lifespans have been growing shorter.

Nonetheless, some in the Democratic camp argue that the party can win without making any special overtures to white workers. The premises behind these arguments, however, are shaky at best. The first premise is that the Rising American Electorate of minorities, women (especially unmarried women), millennials, and increasing numbers of professionals (especially those with post-graduate degrees) is sufficient in itself to win elections.

Several of the articles in this package, by the very pollsters, demographers, and analysts who coined and popularized the notion of the Rising American Electorate, dispel that premise, however. Most prominently, the article by Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin, and Robert Griffin points out that winning control of the House of Representatives becomes very difficult absent a respectable Democratic performance (which needn’t mean a majority) among white working class voters. As they document:

The WWC is very well distributed geographically for the purposes of political influence. They are disproportionately concentrated in swing states. … But they are also disproportionately concentrated in swing congressional districts. And they are especially concentrated in swing congressional districts within swing states. In Rust Belt states, for example, the typical swing congressional district was 11 points more WWC than the average congressional district across the nation and 16 points less minority. In short, they live where it counts.

And that’s just the House. Winning control of the Senate, not to mention winning the 60 seats still needed to pass major legislation there, will require Democrats to ring up victories in states where the white working class will loom large numerically for some time to come. That includes most of the states of the post-industrial Midwest, to which immigrants have not been flocking precisely because of the limited economic opportunities those states have to offer.

Moreover, as Ed Kilgore points out in his article, if the Democrats don’t win enough white working class votes to retake some of the state legislatures they’ve lost in recent years, the next decennial redistricting could lock in Republican dominance at the state and national level for yet another decade.

The second premise of the argument opposed to the Democrats’ making a major effort to do better among white working class voters is that it’s a hopeless cause: that they’re either so ideologically conservative or so culturally estranged from today’s progressives and Democrats that it would be a wasted investment. But as pollster Guy Molyneux documented in the Winter 2016 issue of the Prospect and as Andrew Levison and Matt Morrison, the author of the Working America survey, demonstrate in this package of articles, the white working class not only contains its share of progressives, but also, and crucially, a bloc of swing voters that is not ideologically conservative on economic questions and not so estranged from the Democrats on cultural issues that they constitute a lost cause when Democratic candidates and progressive canvassers come calling. That bloc, these authors show, is large enough to produce Democratic victories—if and when, and with what policies and candidates, Democrats know how to reach out to them.

The third premise of why the Democrats shouldn’t reach out to white working class voters is that it will compel Democrats to jettison positions—some of their support for minority rights, cultural liberalism, and climate change mitigation—that have become much of the ideological bedrock of contemporary progressivism and today’s Democratic Party. To this, our contributors offer a range of counter arguments. Pollsters Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake demonstrate how a more aggressive and substantive economic populism not only can win the allegiance of some swing white working class voters, but increase Democratic margins among minority voters as well. Greenberg and Guy Molyneux caution, however, that progressives must also tap into the anger against political elites, whom white working class voters (and lots of other folks, too) see as favoring the interests of the wealthy and corporations over those of their own constituents. Andy Levison argues that Democrats need to entertain a degree of cultural pluralism when mounting candidacies in predominantly white working class districts, while still adhering to the party’s culturally progressive norms nationally.

A cautionary note is sounded by Joan Walsh, who argues that all the economic populism in the world may not help the Democrats win the votes of many within the white working class whose racism and sexism present insuperable barriers to building progressive or Democratic majorities. Walsh doesn’t reject the substance of a pro-working class economics—but that’s because she believes these are policies the nation needs to embrace, not because she holds out much hope that they’ll sway many white working class voters.

Something of a counterargument to Walsh’s is presented by Justin Gest, who explains how statewide Democratic candidates, including Governor Steve Bullock, keep winning in Montana even though it’s overwhelmingly a white working class state, and one that went heavily for Trump. Like Levison, Bullock writes that candidates who embody their constituency’s cultural values are a sine qua non for electoral victory. He acknowledges that finding a candidate who can do that nationally—finding candidates who can embody the culture of Montana ranchers and, say, theater-industry workers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—is an impossibility. What a national candidate can do, he concludes, is acknowledge the legitimacy of various cultures, and stress the common economic interests of such diverse groups by battling the financial and corporate elites that have stripped those groups of both income and power.

In addition to the articles co-published by The Democratic Strategist, we also offer an overture and a coda that the Prospect alone is publishing, The first—a kind of overture for the package—is a reminiscence by Stephen Franklin, the longtime labor reporter for The Chicago Tribune—on the despair of the Midwestern working class. The second is an article by Tom Zoellner that looks back at how both John and Robert Kennedy endeared themselves to West Virginia voters, and the gap that has opened between Democrats and the children and grandchildren of those voters today. Zoellner’s piece, along with Gest’s, serves as a coda to the strategic analyses we herewith present.

The Editors

Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats. 

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