Analysis of the Democrats’ 2014 electoral debacle has again turned toward their chronic and worsening “problem with the white working class.” For the most part, pieces like those in Mother Jones, Slate, The Nation, and even Thomas Edsall in The New York Times have rightly blamed Democrats for failing to offer a compelling progressive economic program that would appeal to non-college-educated whites (as the “white working class” is defined in this ongoing discussion). But while these writers all end up with a healthy emphasis on the deteriorating conditions of working-class life (in all its colors), they and others also rely too much on simplistic social-psychologizing and implicit assumptions that are either false or grossly exaggerated.
Even when commentators avoid blatant negative stereotyping, the cast of the discussion implies that middle-class whites are much less “racially resentful” and completely free of racism based on their voting patterns. Nobody says this outright, but college-educated whites (“middle class”) are generally assumed to be more enlightened than those without a bachelor’s degree (“working class”). If voting for Democrats is taken as a measure of enlightenment, this is a little bit true, but only a little bit. In 2012 middle-class whites gave President Obama 42% of their votes while working-class whites gave him only 36% — a six-point difference, which widened to seven points in 2014 U.S. House races.
Even so, the gaps are typically much larger when we look at differences among white voters by gender (9 points in 2014); region (in 2008 Southern whites of all classes voted from 17 to 22 points less Dem than those in other regions); income (where whites making less than $50,000 a year typically vote more Dem than those making more than that); and religion. In 2014, only 26% of white Protestants voted for House Democrats, 12 points less than white Catholics, and about 40 points less than whites who identified themselves as Jewish or as having no religion. Why is there no discussion of what’s the matter with white Protestants, who are still about 40% of all U.S. voters and much more Republican than working-class whites? Cultural and economic conservatism, often accompanied by “racial resentfulness,” are present (and absent) in all white demographics, and the variation by class is likely less than by gender, region, income, and religion.
Another implicit assumption in these discussions is that the white working class was once the solid base of the Democratic Party. While in Rust Belt and West Coast cities that was probably true, nationally whites without bachelor’s degrees have given Dem presidential candidates a majority only once since 1948 (in 1964). And that makes them no different from all white voters, who have given Republicans clear majorities in 12 of the last 19 presidential elections. Thus, while there have been twists and turns over the past 60 years, in general only between 35% and 45% of the white working-class nationally has voted for Dems (see p. 70 of Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy). Though one of the downturns in white working-class support for Dems was in 1968 and 1972, the dramatic narrative that a racial backlash in those years permanently turned a strongly progressive white working class into Fox News conservatives has no basis in electoral statistics.
More problematic is the social-psychologizing in these articles. Here, these writers contend that “many” working-class whites see Democrats as concerned only about the “welfare poor” – the numbers of which these whites greatly exaggerate, while often assuming equally inaccurate racial profiles — and not about regular “middle-class” working people like them. These anti-welfare, anti-undeserving-poor attitudes are widespread among working-class whites, but in my observation, they are also prevalent among middle-class whites, though perhaps with a little less passion. But they are routinely contested within conversations among working-class whites, who have an array of practical, moral, and religious arguments against these views though they sometimes share the same misinformation. To focus exclusively on one strain of thinking without reference to the other presents a singular white working-class “mentality” that is a stereotype, regardless of the careful phrasing (using “many” rather than implying “all”) and the degree of contextualizing empathy the writer might express for that mentality.
A large third of working-class whites vote solidly Democrat no matter how bad the Democrats are, and as Ruy Teixeira has pointed out, these voters are an important part of what he calls “the Obama coalition,” providing nearly as many raw Dem votes with their low percentages as either blacks or Latinos do with their much higher percentages. Another larger third is solidly conservative and Republican. But this leaves a small third of what Andrew Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.” These are what union organizers call “the persuadables” and political organizers, “swing voters.” They are key to moving the overall white working-class vote from 36% for Obama in 2012 to above the 40% he won in 2008 – a level at which Dems would have a permanent majority, assuming continuing maximum black turnout, growing Latino turnout, and roughly stable levels of Democratic support among all minorities as well as middle-class whites.
I have followed the internal debate among Democrats about how to attract more white working-class votes since Teixeira and Joel Rogers first raised it in their 2000 book, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. In my judgment this discussion has been a net positive in urging Dems to focus strongly on a progressive economic program to win a larger proportion of working-class whites. Even though Dems have not maintained that focus since the 2008 presidential primaries, and they abandoned it altogether in 2014, the discussion around how to win a larger share of non-college-educated whites has helped keep progressive Dems in the intra-party discussion that influences Democratic politicians.
But now that the debate has reached a broader progressive media that is attempting to explore the (singular) “soul” of working-class whites, I fear it will rapidly begin doing more harm than good. A better focus for slicing and dicing the electorate would be the white vote as a whole, with all its gender, regional, income, and religious as well as age and class differences. More important, however, and more difficult to sell to Democratic politicians in the Hillary Clinton mode, is debating what would be a bold enough progressive economic program to give white, black, Latino and Asian workers (with and without bachelor’s degrees) a reason to turn out and vote Dem.
The AFL-CIO has gotten out early for 2016 with its recent National Summit on Raising Wages and a laundry list of 35 policies for doing so. That seems to me the right focus, but from that laundry list Dems need a few big policies to emphasize – policies that can be thoroughly explained and argued for within a larger economic narrative about the unjust causes of income inequality and the damage it is doing to our economy and almost everybody in it. That would be a far more interesting and fruitful search than pundits looking for a shared social psychology among the tens of millions of workers who share nothing but a lack of both bachelor’s degrees and melanin.
Chicago Working-Class Studies