Beyond Policy: Why Democrats Need to Show White Working-Class Voters Some Respect

When I heard Hillary Clinton refer to half of Trump supporters as “deplorables” during her 2016 presidential campaign, I knew she would lose. Her comment exemplified the arrogant, elitist, dismissive attitudes that make many white working-class voters suspicious of the Democratic Party. Four years later, as Democrats try to figure out how to beat one of the least popular Republican presidents ever, they’re still trying to get over their deplorables problem.

Political advisers suggest two strategies for winning this year. One says that “demography is destiny,” arguing that Democrats will win because of the increasing power of voters of color, young people, and middle-class whites, especially suburban women. If Democrats can secure votes from these groups, they don’t need to worry about the white working class. After all, this theory suggests, white working-class voters didn’t suddenly shift to the right in 2016. They had been moving in that direction since the late 1960s with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of emphasizing racial resentment. Further, some argue that as more people earn college degrees, the working class is getting smaller.

The second electoral strategy argues that many white working-class voters remain “persuadable,” especially those who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then switched to Trump in 2016. And even if the working class, as defined by education, is declining, they still constitute a significant portion of the electorate, and Democrats have to win support from at least some of them in order to win in 2020.

In 2016, Clinton counted on demographics, apparently assuming, among other things, that she could rely on support from voters of color, younger voters, and women, especially those who were well-educated and suburban. That won her the majority of votes but left her vulnerable in the crucial states where most voters are white and working-class.

Some candidates and pundits today argue that the Party needs a candidate like Clinton – a moderate who can appeal both to voters of color and suburban, mostly white educated women and who won’t scare off older or more moderate voters. They point to Joe Biden’s consistently high poll numbers as evidence that voters are most comfortable with a middle-of-the-road candidate with broad appeal, not a more activist leftist who promises big changes.

But as the conservative National Review asked, “Are Democrats Sure Biden Is Different Enough From Hillary Clinton?” He may seem like a safe option, and he has the apparent advantage of working-class roots. But will working-class voters trust Biden any more than they did Clinton? Should they? In 2016, Biden didn’t challenge Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters. Indeed, he made a similar statement of his own in 2018. Speaking before a liberal audience at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, he referred to Trump supporters as “virulent people, some of them dregs of society.“ While dismissive comments like that may play well to the well-educated, well-heeled patrons of a progressive non-profit, they may also come back to haunt him.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will need to win in states where most voters are white and don’t have a college degree – the measure most polls use to identify respondents’ social class. As pollster Ruy Texiera argues, “even a slight drop among white non-college voters could negate”  any demographic shifts, in part because the states Democrats need to win remain whiter and more working-class than the rest of the country. In Ohio, 60% of voters are white people without college degrees. In Wisconsin, they make up 61% and in Iowa, 66%. More than half of voters in Michigan (56%) and Pennsylvania (56%) also belong to this group, as do voters in North Carolina (47%), Maine (66%), New Hampshire (61%), and Minnesota (56%). While Democrats made gains in these states in 2018, that trend needs to grow.

If the Democrats want to secure the gains they made in 2018 and win the 2020 presidential election, they need to win back over at least some of these white working-class voters. What will it take to do that? Democrats may hope that their attention to policies aimed at offsetting economic inequality – like Medicare-for-All, increasing the minimum wage, and free college — will be enough to carry these voters, but Andrew Levison sees it differently. Writing in the Washington Monthly, Levison claims that Democrats must establish “a basic level of trust.” Levison identifies a strong sense of class consciousness among white working-class voters, one that is triggered when Democratic candidates make dismissive comments about people like them. If Democrats want voters to engage with debates about economic and social policies, they first have to persuade them that Dems respect people like them. That’s the basis for trust.

Senator Sherrod Brown at a 2014 rally

There’s evidence that this is a winning strategy in the success of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. He has been re-elected several times in that increasingly Republican state despite criticism from its conservative media because he wins support from white working-class voters. He gained their trust in two ways. First, he offered plans that focused on them and the dignity of their work, including a plan to “restore the value of work in America” headlined by the point that people are “Working Too Hard for Too Little.”  But Brown also meets regularly with working people, and he doesn’t just tell them what he thinks. He listens to them. So unlike many other Democratic politicians, working people trust him.

Many white working-class voters believed in 2016 that they could trust Donald Trump, but some  seem to be losing faith in the President. In January 2017, about 42% of Americans disapproved of him. Two years later, his disapproval rating has risen to 53.4%. As FiveThirtyEight  reports, “Trump is the most unpopular President since Ford to run for reelection.” Unpopularity doesn’t guarantee defeat, of course, but it’s worth noting that Trump’s disapproval ratings have increased dramatically in battleground states like Pennsylvania (15%), Ohio (18%), Michigan (23%), and Wisconsin (15%) as well as in increasingly purple states like Texas(20%), North Carolina (18%), and Georgia (20%), according to the Morning Consult. All of this will help the Democrats.

But they can’t rely on Trump’s loss of trust if they want to win back the White House. They need to make clear that they understand, care about, and respect white working-class voters. To do that, they have to stop demonizing or dismissing Trump’s supporters as deplorable or as the dregs of society. Yes, Democrats need to offer policies to rebalance economic inequality, but as Arlie Hochschild suggested in Strangers in Their Own Land, the grievances that motivate white working-class voters can’t be addressed only through policy.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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