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.