Tag Archives: working-class voters

The Crisis of Labour: Class Politics in Scotland After the Independence Referendum

As we saw in the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 19, deindustrialization still affects political loyalties in Scotland. Social class influenced the way many people voted, and this has major implications for the future politics of Scotland and the UK. Although 55% voted to remain within the UK, the campaign for independence, Yes Scotland, won 45% and carried several areas that continue to feel the effects of deindustrialization (exacerbated by UK government austerity measures) particularly acutely — the largest city, Glasgow, the populous areas of North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire in the west of Scotland, and the city of Dundee in the east. In North Ayrshire and Inverclyde, the results were within in a hair’s breadth between the two sides. These former industrial heartlands are also the constituencies that gave the Labour Party dominance in Scotland. As historian Chris Harvie observed in 1998: “It is this unknown Scotland, not in the guidebooks, away from the motorway, seen fleetingly from the express that holds the key to the modern politics of the country.”

All of the parties in Scotland – unionist and secessionist alike – deployed deindustrialization as a key motif in the Independence Referendum. In earlier UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2011 respectively, both the Conservatives and Labour held rallies at the site of the former British Steel strip mill at Ravenscraig, a significant national site of memory. Gordon Brown, the former UK Labour Prime Minister, signaled the importance of old industrial Scotland as a key battleground when he chose Loanhead miners’ club outside Edinburgh to launch his defense of the UK and to promise more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Brown received a warmer reception than his successor as leader of the Party, Ed Miliband, when the latter visited the former mining village of Blantyre, the birthplace of one of the founders of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie. It has an added significance for the labor movement as the site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters. “Labour Tories,” quipped one resident, while another remarked,

We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.

Such comments reflected the growing disaffection of Labour voters in Scotland. The scale of the potential crisis confronting the Party in Scotland is illustrated by the fact that 40 of the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster sit on the Labour benches; loss of these seats could scupper any chance of Labour maintaining a UK majority. The Party is belatedly stirring to this threat. Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for another former industrial town, recently observed, “Unless dramatic measures are taken, and fast, Labour will continue to be punished for the strategic error of neglecting its machinery in Scotland and for taking voters for granted.”

What has prompted this crisis for Labour in Scotland, a country in which it has held a majority since 1945? In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the Party lost long-term members frustrated by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War, privatization of public services, and the financial crisis. Added to this, Labour stood with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as part of the No campaign and supported the UK coalition’s austerity measures and attacks on welfare that further impoverish low income families, disproportionately located in these former industrial heartlands.

In contrast, Yes Scotland – which involved the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), as well as a host of other radical platforms – mounted an explicitly broad based left-leaning campaign, placing social justice at the core of an independent Scotland, protecting the public sector and National Health Service from privatization, expelling the UK’s Trident armed submarine fleet from its base in Scotland, and having an independent foreign policy.

However, Labour’s problems in Scotland also stem from the legacy of deindustrialization in Scotland and the associated shift in political loyalties in these former industrial heartlands. As Jim Phillips and I have argued elsewhere, deindustrialized communities, such as in the coalfields, continue to be plagued by the social legacy of the closures. Deindustrialization and its impacts over time have exercised a profound effect on the shifting working-class political loyalties in Scotland from the late 1960s onwards. Labour has subsequently, and hurriedly, assembled a plan to support development initiatives to regenerate former industrial areas. It is recognizing too late that the heartlands can no longer see a promised land in Labour pledges. As the late Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm observed in 1978:

… If the labour and socialist movement is to recover its soul, its dynamism, and its historical initiative, we, as marxists, must … recognise the novel situation in which we find ourselves, to analyse it realistically and concretely, to analyse the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labour movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done. We should have done this even while we were waiting for British capitalism to enter its period of dramatic crisis.

The thousands of working-class voters who engaged in grassroots debates during the Scottish referendum, and the broad left, have recognized the potential for greater democracy and empowering communities against global capitalism. The Labour Party has not. As a result working-class voters have deserted the Party in droves for the prospect of a more socially equitable society wedded to traditional “Labourist” values. As the Scottish socialist, and one of the leaders of the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in in 1971-2, Jimmy Reid famously observed when opting to support the SNP in 2008, “It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me.” Reid died in 2010, but seven of his fellow leaders from the UCS work-in came out in support of Scottish independence. That says much about where working-class political loyalties now lie in Scotland. While these concerns are surely shared by many voters in England, the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament (unlike Westminster) has facilitated greater representation for the Scottish Greens and the SSP, alongside the SNP.

In the days since the result – with the unionist parties of the Conservatives and Labour reneging on their vow of new powers – there has been a flood of former Labour voters to pro-independence parties; within 24 hours of the result, the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and the SSP, respectively saw 5000, 2000, and 1000 new members join up. Within a week, the SNP added over 39,000 new members, and Scottish Green membership rose by 375% on 2013. Amongst those deserting the Labour Party will also be a section who voted No in the referendum based on the assurances given them by the Party leadership that the Scottish Parliament would be given more power to promote social justice and protect public services. A Yes Alliance of the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP now plan to vote tactically at the UK, and Scottish Parliamentary, elections in 2015 and 2016, to oust unionist party candidates standing for seats in Scotland. Already pollsters are speculating that Labour could lose more than half of their Scottish seats to the SNP in next year’s General Election.

Scottish working-class voters increasingly see their future lying within a separate state and with alternative parties who share essentially “Labourist” values, which the Labour Party has long since abandoned. We may well be witnessing the not so strange death of Labour Scotland.

Andrew Perchard

Andrew Perchard teaches history at the University of Strathclyde and is a member of Academics for Yes.

The Value of Admitting that Raising the Minimum Wage Could Cost Jobs

A few weeks ago I watched Bill Moyers interview conservative economist Arthur Brooks as he mouthed the Republican talking point that the problem with the minimum wage is that “it hurts the people it’s supposed to help” because it eliminates jobs. Moyers politely countered that “some studies” show that minimum wages do not kill jobs. A few days later the PBS News Hour rehearsed an almost identical dialogue between an advocate of living wages and an opponent – a battle of studies about potential job loss. You have undoubtedly heard similar talking-point contests dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

The problem with this debate is that it goes nowhere and educates no one about the relationship between declining real wages for 3/4ths of those employed and the very slow and low economic growth that leaves us with an official unemployment rate above 6%.   By itself an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then adjusted for inflation each year thereafter, as proposed by President Obama, is insufficient to address these problems. But as the leading edge of a broader program to increase worker spending power in order to get the economy growing more fully, it could be the kind of signature issue that rallies the Democratic base of young people, women, and people of color while also attracting a significantly larger portion of the much-prized white working class (defined as whites without bachelor’s degrees).

For the minimum wage to be a leading edge of such an economic program, however, progressive Democrats have to admit that a large enough and quick enough increase in the federal minimum wage does, in fact, threaten the loss of some low-wage jobs. They have to abandon their “studies show” approach to defending a minimum wage increase, and instead develop a larger narrative about how our gross and still increasing inequality of income and wealth is the principal reason our economy is growing so slowly and, therefore, producing so few jobs.

What’s more, it does not take much political courage to exploit this opportunity because increasing the minimum wage is so damned popular. This is clear from the public reaction to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that concluded, as USA Today headlined, that a “Minimum wage hike could cost 500,000 jobs.” Weeks after this news was widely proclaimed, and typically seen as declaring the Republicans the winner in the “job-killer” talking-points debate, a Pew Center survey found that nearly three-quarters of the public supported a $10.10 minimum wage as proposed by the President.

The strongest argument for a substantial increase in the minimum wage is the one President Obama articulated recently, the simple moral imperative that: “Nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” The public, including even a slight majority of Republicans, apparently accepts this imperative even if it might cost a substantial number of jobs.

What the CBO report actually said was that somewhere between zero and 1 million jobs might be lost, settling on the 500,000 figure as an educated guess – and thus granting that Democrats could be right in insisting that no jobs might actually be lost. At the same time, the CBO estimated that at least 16.5 million workers would get higher wages directly (because they make less than $10.10 now) while additional millions making a bit more than $10.10 now might also get raises from a “spillover effect” –including, in the CBO’s words, “a few higher-wage workers [who] would owe their jobs and increased earnings to the heightened demand for goods and services that would result from the minimum-wage increase.” Thus, the CBO thinks there is a trade-off: of the 17 million workers directly affected, 97% would definitely benefit while 3% might lose their jobs.

Equally important, the CBO compared President Obama’s earlier $9-an-hour proposal with the current $10.10 one, and found that many fewer people would benefit from it (7.6 million) but fewer jobs would be put at risk (only 100,000). Thus, by reducing the amount of increase, the trade-off is also reduced: 98.7% would definitely benefit and only 1.3% might lose their jobs, but less than half the number of workers would be affected.

This is the single most important thing about the federal minimum wage: the higher the wage floor, the more people who benefit but the more jobs that are put at risk. For most public policies (or private ones for that matter) something that benefits 97% but harms 3% would be considered an excellent risk-reward ratio. But the loss of a job (even a low-wage one) in our society is such a punishing harm that it makes most people hesitate to “throw anybody under the bus.” Though majority public opinion supports the $10.10 minimum wage anyway, the threat of job loss undoubtedly reduces their ardor and thus the saliency of the issue in elections. The Pew survey cited above, for example, found a large gap between support for the increase and the degree to which that support would affect people’s votes.

If, as Democrats currently do, you want to insist that increases in the minimum wage won’t cost any jobs, you have to keep the increase relatively low. On the other hand, if you grant that jobs may be lost and you are not indifferent to that, then the logical response would be to search for a way to replace the 500,000 jobs that might be put at risk.

Such a way is easily found in another highly popular Democrat proposal: government investment in infrastructure — roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, public transportation, weatherization and other energy efficiency, and green technology. All these are included in President Obama’s current budget proposal before Congress, though at very small levels. The President proposes an increase of just $75 billion a year for the next four years, while the House Congressional Progressive Caucus (all Democrats) wants $130 billion a year over ten years, and the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need $225 billion a year over the next 16 years. Using Council of Economic Advisers’ estimates, Obama’s minimalist plan would create 975,000 jobs, while a fully developed program that would meet our infrastructure needs would provide 2.8 million mostly decently paid construction jobs.

I may be comparing apples and oranges among these various plans, but you get my point. The President’s minimalist plan would create more than enough well-paying jobs to replace any low-wage jobs that might be lost due to increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. If we actually invested amounts like the American Society of Civil Engineers thinks we need, we should be able to offset any jobs lost to an even higher minimum wage – say $15 an hour. Over time, low-wage jobs would be replaced with higher wage ones, greatly increasing worker spending power, reducing inequality, increasing economic growth, and creating even more jobs.

Such an ambitious infrastructure program would have to be paid for, and the President has proposed to pay for his minimal program through a variety of small tax increases based on eliminating loopholes for corporations and individuals. But here our great inequality of wealth and income becomes a distinct advantage, as one of our most plentiful national resources is rich people with much more money than they need. As I have pointed out before, there are any number of ways to increase taxes on the top 1% or 2% without significantly reducing their living standards and life prospects. $220 billion is chump change for a group that each year earns $2 trillion more than they used to when labor unions forced productivity sharing on profitable companies.

You may say this is all pie in the sky, but I offer it as a winning political program for Democrats – one that simply ramps up and connects several existing Dem proposals. A minimum wage that could really make a difference in people’s lives would disproportionately benefit the Democratic base of young people, women, and people of color – giving them a reason to vote. An infrastructure program at a scale we actually need in the 21st century would disproportionately benefit white working-class men, a key part of the Republican base, while also providing opportunities for renewed affirmative action hiring requirements in the building trades. A large tax increase on our oligarchs would satisfy many people’s sense of justice while providing the money to get the economy growing again at a pace that can provide jobs and wages that make everybody’s lives better.

This is a program that could give working-class people of all colors and genders a reason to vote and a reason to vote for Democrats. Republicans are currently blocking small increases in the minimum wage, minimalist investments in infrastructure, and tax increases on the rich of any kind. Why not propose something big enough to make a difference – replacing low-wage jobs with well-paying ones – and then win elections that might allow you to actually do it?

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

The Working-Class Argument for Scottish Independence

On September 18th, the people of Scotland will vote on whether they wish to leave the United Kingdom and become independent, the first time that there has been such a constitutional referendum. This has arisen due to the victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, a pseudo-federal institution with some independent powers over matters of health and education separate from the UK Government at Westminster. Whilst nationalist and class politics rarely go together comfortably, the case for a yes vote in September emphasizes progressive politics rather than bourgeoisie nationalism or Mel Gibson-inspired notions of ‘freedom.’ Working-class radicals are sharing a platform with neo-liberal supporting nationalists because they see the opportunities for the Scottish working class if Scotland gains independence from the UK.

Scottish society isn’t fundamentally different than the rest of the UK. As a region, it shares many similarities with other areas historically dependent on heavy industry, such as the North-East of England and the former mining areas of Wales. On the other hand, Scotland pays more taxes per person than the rest of the UK, oil in Scotland’s North Sea accounts for over a quarter of corporation tax paid in the UK, and cotland’s renewable energy sector has massive potential. Despite this wealth in resources, Scotland’s mortality and poverty rates are higher than UK averages, and Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy of any UK city. Due to UK government attacks on the welfare state, the Scottish working-class are increasingly reliant on charity to put food on their table.

Higher rates of poverty might account for the limited appeal of right-wing politics in Scotland. In the 2010 UK election, the right-wing Conservative Party won just one Member of Parliament in Scotland, out of a possible 59. In Scotland, the centre-right Labour Party dominated the later twentieth-century based on an historical working-class appeal and left-wing politics. But the the British Labour Party has moved further to the right in order to appeal to prosperous voters in the south of England, and the British working-class continue to be hammered. Today, 900,000 more people live in poverty across the UK than in 2010. Labour’s shift to the right was exploited by the SNP, who have repeatedly moved to the left of Labour on a number of social issues, presenting themselves as the most progressive of the main parties in Scotland and winning support from a large section of the working class.

Socialists opposed to independence argue that constitutional change will not necessarily lead to an improvement in the condition of the Scottish working-class. That may be true, but it could protect the few benefits already available in Scotland that don’t exist elsewhere in the UK. Currently, prescription medication and higher education are free in Scotland, benefits not afforded to those in England. The UK government imposed a controversial under-occupancy charge on social housing residents deemed to have “spare” bedrooms in 2012, penalizing the working-class people who rely on social housing.  Following a mass grassroots campaign, the Scottish Government developed a plan to cover the extra charge.

With full independence, Scotland could fully reject the current austerity agenda and take steps to becoming a substantially more equal society than is possible in the existing political system. An independent Scotland would be nuclear-free, with the Scottish Government’s pledge to remove the UK nuclear arsenal from their current base at Faslane, near Glasgow, a position not supported by any London-based party. The Scottish Health Service will continue to be free at the point of need, as the service in the rest of the UK is becoming increasingly privatised. University education will be free, while students in England pay £9,000 per year.

Whilst some prominent Scottish socialists, such as George Galloway, have spoken in against separation, the campaign has support on the Left from several lifelong socialists, including s Tommy Sheridan, Tariq Ali, and Billy Bragg. A range of working-class and left-wing grassroots organisations, such as Radical Independence, The Green Party, and the Reid Foundation, are also involved, demonstrating the appeal of the campaign based on class issues and progressive politics. On the other hand, right-wing and reactionary groups such as the Loyal Orange Lodge, the right-wing populist UK Independence Party, and the fascist British National Party are actively campaigning against independence.

Instead of offering a better future for the working class, the campaign against independence has emphasized the political upheaval that this change would cause over issues of currency, membership of the European Union, international treaty agreements, and other ‘high politics’ which have little impact on the day-to-day lives of the Scottish working-class.

A vote for independence for Scotland is an important step in the country’s working-class struggle. A “yes” vote not only opens up the potential for a radically more progressive Scotland. It also represents the best immediate opportunity to improve the condition of Scottish working-class society. To paraphrase James Connolly, hoisting the St Andrews flag over Edinburgh Castle is not the end result for Scottish socialists campaigning for independence. It is merely a start.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy.

 

Can Democrats Win the White Working-Class Vote?

Winning greater support among white working-class voters is critical for Democrats in presidential elections, and it often provides a critical margin for Democratic candidates in statewide races.  For example, in Ohio, loss of white working-class support in 2010 resulted in a Republican landslide, but in 2012 a modest level of support among white working-class voters helped President Obama win the state.

Consequently, with midterm elections coming in November, the electoral politics of the white working class has become a central concern for Democrats and their supporters. Last month, The Washington Monthly and The Democratic Strategist held a roundtable discussionto consider the state of working-class politics and what progressives and Democrats could do to gain greater support among white working-class voters.

To tackle the issues, the roundtable organizers asked prominent pollsters Stan Greenberg, Ruy Texiera, and John Halpin to review demographic and polling data.  While many pundits have claimed that the white working class has shifted its allegiance to the Republicans, Greenberg, Texiera, and Halpin found that the shift occurred primarily in the South and Mountain West states. Further, in these red state regions, white working-class support was weakening not so much because of changing political views but because of demographic changes.   Simply put, white working-class support declined because the white working class had shrunk, while other groups that tended to vote for Democrats – those with more education, younger voters, metropolitan residents, secularists, immigrants, and racial minorities – had grown. Furthermore, research showed no growth in Republican support among white working-class voters in other regions of the country. But even though the white working-class has become less important demographically, the pollsters warned, it remains critical in electoral politics. This is particularly true in preventing the election of Republican supermajorities in off-year elections.

The roundtable organizers then asked a group of “leading progressive and Democratic thinkers and strategists” (including two regular contributors to this blog) to answer this question: What do you think is the most important single step progressives and Democrats can take to regain support among white working-class Americans? Here’s what the commentators concluded.

Within the white working class, Harold Meyerson argues, the Federal government has been discredited in response to repeated Republican attacks on programs that supposedly target racial minorities and on the government’s failure to effectively address the long term economic decline of working people. In part, this is due to Republican obstructionism and the resulting political gridlock. But it is also because Democratic candidates have repeatedly promised the working class more than they deliver. As a result, many in the white working class have lost faith in the Democratic Party.

At the same time, contributors argue that white working-class voters support a range of Democratic policies — minimum wage increases, infrastructure projects, trade policies that limit offshoring, bank restrictions, anti-plutocrat tax reform, and support for domestic manufacturing. This suggests that when white working-class people think of themselves in terms of class rather than race or gender, they are likely to support Democratic social and economic programs.

The current economic situation helps in this regard. Some contributors point to white working-class support for the Affordable Care Act in red state Kentucky, where working-class people benefit regardless of their race or gender. In her roundtable contribution, Joan Walsh points out that the economic crisis has been diverse, and this has moderated white working-class resistance to some social programs.  She suggests that so-called “women’s issues,” like family sick leave, have become important economic issues for struggling families, appealing to voters regardless of gender. Likewise, Medicaid benefits are crucial for many working-class families suffering from economic hardship.

One strategy for tapping into the class and economic concerns of the white working class is to “reposition” Democrats on social issues, especially affirmative action and welfare. Republicans have ridiculed Democrats over these and other social issues, suggesting that liberals favor racial minorities and gays at the expense of the white working class.  Richard Kahlenberg suggests that Democrats could gain working-class support by shifting support away from racial preferences in college admissions and employment to preferences for the economically disadvantaged.

Other commentators, however, warned Democrats against simply repositioning themselves or reframing issues. Andrew Levinson explains that “fine tuning of platforms and narratives” has not helped Democrats win or retain support. In fact, he argues, white working-class voters are already suspicious of political rhetoric. All too often, candidates talk the talk during elections but then fail to walk the walk afterward.

Finally, some contributors suggested that the white working class lacks a group consciousness. Community organizations and trade unions have lost their effectiveness as translators of public policy, creating a vacuum that has been filled by the media. As a result, working-class voters don’t hear coherent arguments from the left.  Short-term organizing efforts, as I have noted before, aren’t sufficient.  We need community institutions that do not appear during campaign season only to disappear following the election. At the same time, social and economic discussions during campaigns should not be didactic. Rather, public policy discussions must explain the benefits of progressive policies for individuals rather than addressing them in broad economic terms.

The roundtable didn’t reach a consensus, but it provides thoughtful observations for the Democratic Party to consider for future elections. The key may not be tracking changes among white working-class voters but rather to understand more fully that thewhite working class has always been more complex than the term implies. While Democrats often saw the white working class as a well-defined and reliable part of an enduring progressive coalition, the white working class never saw itself politically as a single group. Today, perhaps more than ever, the working class is diverse, divided not only by race or gender but also by region and religion. If Democrats want to win this November or in the future, they must build a strategic partnership with the diverse working class.

John Russo

Welfare Reform and NAFTA: The Democratic Party and the Politics of Inequality

In January 2014, we celebrate two anniversaries – the beginning of the War on Poverty (1964) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA 1994).   So it is a good time to consider how these two programs affected the working class and how they continue to shape working-class political attitudes towards the Democratic Party.

The War on Poverty was President Johnson’s attempt to address economic inequality and poverty in America, in part in response to the Civil Rights movement, including the March on Washington, which identified both jobs and freedom as its goals. The War on Poverty included legislation to establish food stamps, the expansion of Social Security to include Medicare and Medicaid, the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (Job Corps, VISTA, Head Start, Legal Services), and various educational initiatives all geared to reducing economic inequality.  But just how much progress has been made? Public assistance did help reduce the poverty rate, and since the early 70s it has vacillated between 12% and 15%. But a recent Pew Study found that income inequality is currently the highest since 1928, leading conservatives to channel President Ronald Reagan’s claim that “We fought the war on poverty and poverty won.”

Over the following six decades, the War on Poverty was increasingly fought within a broader context of globalization and neo-liberal policies, and free trade has been a highly contested element. For example, 20 years ago, using a blizzard of research and marketing, NAFTA proponents claimed that the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico would be a boon for U.S. exports and create high-paying American jobs. Opponents argued that NAFTA would cost jobs (that “giant sucking sound”), erode labor and environmental standards, and undermine national sovereignty. The debate was fairly even until President Clinton became a champion of NAFTA to the dismay of labor and working-class supporters, who saw his support as evidence that the Democratic Party had embraced neoliberalism.

Now, it is safe to say that the opponents were correct on all accounts. NAFTA’s expansion of investor privileges promoted offshoring. Instead of bringing the new jobs promised by corporate and government apologists, NAFTA has resulted in massive job losses — over one million jobs– especially in manufacturing, and export growth has slowed.  NAFTA has also led to lower wages for the jobs that remain in the U.S., so that even with cheaper prices for good and services, workers struggle to get by. Manufacturing communities have been especially hard hit, since the loss of industry and jobs eroded the tax base for schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. NAFTA contributed to increased inequality, and low-paid workers have suffered further from policies that benefit multinational corporations by undermining consumer health and safety, environmental laws, financial regulations, and public interest requirements.

Just as the poor and working class began to feel the impact of NAFTA, President Clinton’s welfare reform initiative began to dismantle a core element of the New Deal Welfare state that the War on Poverty was built upon. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) aimed to increase labor market participation while reducing “welfare dependency,” particularly Aid to Families with Dependent Children. While proponents insisted that welfare reform would promote the work ethic, they also blamed the unemployed and the working poor for their own difficulties. As many middle-class Americans have learned through recent experiences with job loss, unemployment and poverty are often the result of a weak job market and low wages and benefits – conditions created, or at least exacerbated by, NAFTA and other trade agreements. Public assistance would not be necessary if people were paid a living wage and there were Fair Trade Laws.

Ideologically, like NAFTA, welfare reform conformed to neo-liberal principles, and in supporting both policies the Democratic Party broke faith with its historic New Deal principles. Together, NAFTA and welfare reform give poor and working-class voters, and the community and labor groups that advocate for their interests, good reason to feel betrayed by the Democratic Party.

In Ohio in 1992, for example, labor and community groups engaged in massive organizing efforts to get President Clinton elected. Yet within four years, Clinton’s trade and welfare policies had undermined both good paying jobs and social and economic support structures.  Because of this betrayal, it would take more than a decade for Democrats to regain enough support to win statewide offices in Ohio. Meanwhile, at the national level, the Democratic Party seemed somewhat surprised that many trade unionists and community members would not support their presidential candidate in 2000, even though he promised Democratic support of their economic interests. Instead, many chose to vote their “social values” — “guns, gays, and God” — or just stayed home, seeing little difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. While support for Democrats reemerged nominally in 2006 and 2008 in Ohio and nationally, that support remains fragile and often relies on voters suspending their disbelief in Democratic Party politics.

So where are we today? I would like to believe that we are entering into a new era where past welfare and trade policies will be contested.  There is some evidence to suggest a growing critique of the role of neoliberal policies and trade agreements on poverty. For example, Pope Francis’s latest treatise has drawn attention to the emptiness of neo-liberal economics, globalization, and its contribution to global poverty.

As in the 1960s, civil rights groups, community groups, and labor unions are organizing grassroots initiatives and state and local movements to increase the minimum wage and, in some cases, establish a living wage. President Obama has testified that he takes income inequality “personally” and intends to make it a focus of his remaining years in office. Some U.S. Senators are even bucking the Democratic Party’s Wall Street establishment. For example, Elizabeth Warren denounced the Wall Street-backed think tank, The Third Way, for its attempt to undermine Social Security.

But there does not seem to be much movement on trade deals, especially by the Democrats.

The new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently under consideration has been called a supersized and nuclearized NAFTA. The U.S. Senate is having trouble even getting basic tracking information about the TPP, which will dramatically impact both trade and public policy. It seems unlikely that outspoken critics, like Senator Warren, will be able to move fellow Democrats on emerging trade policy. Neoliberal trade policy remains the third rail for Wall Street and their legislative supplicants.

But if they are to regain the solid support of poor and working-class voters, Democrats must take a stronger populist approach and drop their commitment to neo-liberal economics. That is, they must return to the social and moral principles of the War on Poverty.

John Russo

How They Think: The Complexity of White Working-Class Voters

Since the late 90s, political pundits have debated how to define the working class and how to explain their voting patterns. Prior to the 2000 presidential election, a standard definition of the working class combined income, occupation, and education. But Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers made the case for using education as the primary element for political analysis, in part because exit polls didn’t ask for occupation. They noted that 45% of voters were white and working-class, and, when all working-class voters were included regardless of race, the working class was an absolute majority. Political scientist Larry Bartels agreed, though he used an income-based definition and subdivided the working class to show that the bottom third of the white working class by income was strongly Democrat. On the other hand, Thomas Frank argued that the white working class was becoming more conservative and moving away from the Democratic Party, voting their moral interests rather than their economic position. In response to George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, The Nation magazine asked, “Who Lost the Working Class?”  A few years later, Bill O’Reilly claimed that 60% of the country was now working class, based on occupational indicators defined by Michael Zwieg, and he promised that he and other conservatives were “looking out” for them. More recently, Charles Murray argued that the white working class supported Democratic polices involving government and the social safety net because they had lost the “founding virtues” of family and hard work. On the other hand, Salon’s editor, Joan Walsh, explained that the white working class had lost confidence in government and that liberal Democrats had alienated the white working class.

The shifting definitions and perceptions of the working class and its politics often obscured a fundamental issue: racial polarization. As Ron Brownstein has observed about recent Presidential elections, Obama needed 80% of all minorities and 40% of whites to win election. While the working class as a whole gave Obama majorities in both 2008 and 2012, within the working class, whites voted nearly 2 to 1 against Obama.  Because of these patterns, discussions of working-class voting have focused on white working-class voters.

In his new book, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, Andrew Levison tries to move the discussion forward. He points out that most definitions of the working class focus narrowly on educational attainment or on some configuration of income and/or occupation. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and surveys of attitudes, Levison finds that the working class is quite large and urban, and a significant majority is white.  But he also reminds us that there is no one working class, and definitions of the working class that use education, income, or occupation alone have limited value. He argues that political scientists and pundits may do better to consider the political diversity of the working class.  They should pay attention to “how ordinary workers think—how they process, store, and organize political ideas and opinions.”

Looking at political values, Levison finds a diverse range of views among the white working class, ranging from conservative to liberal/progressive to “open-minded.” This echoes the way political operatives think about potential voters: those who are against us, those who are with us, and those who could be persuaded. Most important, Levison suggests that we should see much of the working class as pragmatic – that is, as voters who could be persuaded to support either side — rather than as ideologically committed to specific economic or moral values.  For those pragmatic voters, what matters is policy, not party.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Levison does not believe that shifts in and geography have changed the political orientation of the working class as a group.  Rather, he thinks that the working class should be studied in more individualistic terms in light of shifting values. He concludes that working-class value systems are largely shaped by four institutions — church, education, the military, and small business. Yet this “cultural traditionalism,” as Levison calls it, translates into both conservative and progressive political views.  Both draw upon the same framework, but importantly, different life experiences lead working-class people to different political positions.

Levison also shows that the majority of white working people are not strongly conservative, as some might believe. In polls, less than 50% expressed “strong agreement” with conservative propositions, and on some questions conservative support was as low as 20%.  This suggests that a significant proportion of white working-class voters are sufficiently open-minded that they could be persuaded to support progressive politics and candidates.

Here Levison becomes more partisan and suggests that the Democratic Party should appeal to the large “open-minded” working class through economic and social policies. It can do this in several ways. First, it must eliminate the Party’s elitism and condescension toward the working class. But the Democrats must also replace approaches based on identity politics with a more pragmatic populist rhetoric focused on policies that the working class participates in formulating.  That means rebuilding working-class community and labor organizations and giving the working class more opportunities to participate in policy formulation. None of this will be easy, but it is necessary to counteract the Republicans’ money, pointed critiques of liberalism, counter-narratives, and their own grassroots institutions.  

The White Working Class Today is an important book that should be read by journalists, political scientists, and political operatives. But I have several concerns.  First, I would have liked to see something about how the white working class differs from the white middle class and from people of color of all classes. That more complex analysis might help Democrats solve a core puzzle: how to appeal to the white working class while also mobilizing the young people, educated white women, LGBT voters, and people of color who helped Obama win reelection? This will be particularly important in the upcoming midterm state elections in 2014.

Second, Levison also puts too much emphasis on messaging while largely ignoring specific policies. He recommends ways to talk to working-class voters but offers few suggestions about what to do about the problems they face. Yet Democrats have rightly been criticized for the gap between their populist campaign rhetoric and their often-neoliberal policies. While Republicans are responsible for most recent legislative inaction, Democrats too often get blamed. That frustrates working-class voters and makes them susceptible to Republican appeals to “libertarian populism.” At some point, the Democrats must address the policy gap.

Finally, Levison assumes that Democratic politicians and apparatchiks are committed to improving the life chances of working-class people.  I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, most politicians conspicuously avoid even using the term working class. Rather, their messages subsume the working class under aspirational terms — middle class or working people. Most Democratic politicians understand that while they need working-class support, they cannot alienate their more elite donors.  And too often, that shapes their political behavior.

John Russo

The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

I’ve had it with “the white working class.”  Not the actually existing part of the working class that is white, which is composed of complex and interesting people most of whom don’t vote like I think they should, but rather the fictional character who got so much attention during this year’s election campaign.

The fictional character is a white guy who works in a decrepit factory or drives a truck.  He drinks boilermakers (not wine and never a latte) and is good at bowling rather than golf.  Depending on political point of view, he is a “culturally confused but good-hearted racist” or a “salt-of-the-earth real American who loves God and guns and hates both gays and Wall-Street bankers.”

As a demographic category that divides white voters without bachelor’s degrees from those who have that “middle-class” credential, the “white working class” concept makes sense to me, but only if its use fulfills two conditions that the political media apparently cannot manage:

  • First, that we always keep in mind that “white working class” is a demographic category that clumps together more than 45 million voters who share two characteristics and only two – race, as conventionally defined, and the absence of a bachelor’s degree.  The category includes women and men of all religions (and varying levels of religious commitment) and regions. They come from big cities, suburbs, small towns, and isolated shacks in all parts of the country.  It includes Bill Gates and other fabulously rich people who never completed bachelor’s degrees, and it leaves out the many factory workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and retail clerks who did. That is, like all concepts, “white working class” is a convenience for getting a hold on the big picture, but it grossly simplifies a much more complex and varied social reality.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is not now, never has been, and never could be a “typical” white working-class person.
  • Second, that as a demographic category for the purposes of electoral analysis, “white working class” is valuable only as part of a comprehensive discussion of the white vote in U.S. elections.

I’ve made the first point before, more than once.  Here let me concentrate on the second by detailing my conclusions about how the concept has played out in the 2012 presidential election.

After much pre-election discussion of how the “white working-class” would vote, the major news media who commissioned the massive election-day exit poll have not reported on their websites how this group actually voted.  In fact, the websites listing that information — voter-category by voter-category, state by state — in 2012 have less than 1/10th the information that CNN had (and still has) on its web site for 2008.   But here’s what I can report based on what is available on Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times, plus some numbers from reporters who have access to the poll’s internals – most importantly, “The Obama Coalition in the 2012 Election and Beyond” by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin.

  • Class in itself had almost no impact on how people voted for president in 2012.  The middle class (folks of all shades and colors with at least a bachelor’s degree) voted 50/48 for President Obama, and the somewhat larger group of voters with no bachelor’s degree, the working class, voted 51/47 for the President.  Thus, because the middle and working classes voted basically the same, class by itself did not matter.
  • Race, on the other hand, makes a huge difference in how people vote.  Nonwhites (Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other) voted a little more than 80% for Obama while only 39% of whites did that – a difference of more than 40 percentage points.  Both the middle class and the working class gave Obama slight majorities based primarily on nonwhite voters who offset his 20-point loss among whites.
  • Among whites, the white working class is far from unique in giving Mitt Romney substantial majorities.  Nationally, working-class whites gave Obama only 36% of their vote, but middle-class whites, though slightly more favorable at 42%, also gave Romney a large majority.  Other demographics within the white vote show similar patterns.  Though there are important differences among white voters, most white demographics vote strongly Republican.  For example:
    • Women gave Obama a 55% majority, but not white women, who voted 56/42 for Romney.  White men, on the other hand, were even more strongly for Romney (62/35).  The gender gap is actually bigger among Blacks and Latinos than it is among whites.  Black women voted 9 points more for Obama than their male counterparts; Latino women, 11 points more, and white women, 7 points more.
    • Obama won a bare majority among Catholics (50/48), but lost white Catholics by 19 points – which, however, is a lot better than he did among white Protestants who he lost by 39 points.  On the other hand, Obama won substantial majorities among whites who self-identified as non-Christian or as having no religion.
    • Obama also famously won big (60/37) among young people aged 18-29, but the majority of whites in this age group voted for Romney (51/44).  On the other hand, no other white age group gave Obama more than 39% of their vote.
    • Where whites live matters a lot.  There were no exit polls in some states this year, and so far there is no breakdown of voters by both race and education (as there was in previous years).  From what we have, however, it is clear that the national white vote of 39% for the President hides a lot of variation – whites in Vermont and Alabama vote very differently (66% vs. 15% for Obama in 2012), as do whites in Iowa and Missouri (51% vs. 32% for Obama).  Likewise, whites in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 and above) vote more Democratic than whites in the small-town and rural areas of the same states.

Though shrinking as a proportion of the population and thus of the electorate, whites are still a very large majority (72% of the 2012 electorate), and the 39% of us who voted for President Obama provided the bulk of his votes in 2012 (36 million vs. 29 million from nonwhites). But our voices would not have been heard without strong turnouts (against formidable efforts at voter suppression) and lopsided votes for Obama among nonwhites.  On the other hand, their voices would have been drowned out – and worse – without us.  That’s what a multiracial coalition looks like.  Though its weakest link, the white working class is a significant portion of the coalition, and not just in the Midwest battlegrounds.  Of Obama’s 65 million votes in 2012, 30% came from whites with bachelor’s degrees and 25% (more than 16 million) came from those without them.

Part of the reason progressive Democrats have focused on the white working class over the past decade is that among whites, they are much more likely to benefit from progressive economic programs than middle-class whites – programs like universal health care, enhancements of earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment benefits and food stamps.  This has not worked yet to produce more white working-class voters for Dems, at least not at a national level, but the logic is good because all these programs disproportionately benefit working-class Blacks, Latinos, and Asians as well.  And that basic approach, as qualified and compromised as it has played out in practice, is working so far politically, if not economically.  As Teixeira and Halpin conclude:

President Obama and his progressive allies have successfully stitched together a new coalition in American politics, not by gravitating toward the right or downplaying the party’s diversity in favor of white voters.  Rather, they did it by uniting disparate constituencies – including an important segment of the white working class – behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

I find the Democrats’ obsessive use of “middle class” irritating, and I’m not sure they’ve articulated anything I want to call “a populist, progressive vision” (as opposed to some of their actual programs), but it is worth appreciating the enormous accomplishment, however fragile and flawed, of what Teixeira and Halpin call “a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition” that put Barack Obama in the White House for a second term.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies