Can Liberals Embrace the White Working Class without Abandoning Important Values and Allies?

“SHOULD THE PARTY continue tailoring its message to the fast-growing young and nonwhite constituencies that propelled President Obama, or make a more concerted effort to win over the white voters who have drifted away?” asked The New York Times.254 In anxious emails with my friends, the most common fears are that all the talk about the white working class will come at the expense of groups who have been at the center of the progressive imagination: people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, women. A class migrant who made a career as a partner in a large law firm wrote that after Trump’s election, her younger brother and others were “thrilled that they do not need to be PC in public anymore.” When she got “very upset,” her brother said, “boy, you really do live in a very different world.”

My strongest message is this: business-as-usual isn’t working. Is the LGBTQ community better off with Jeff Sessions as attorney general, who as a senator received a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign?255 Are people of color better off with a president who was endorsed by the official newspaper of the KKK?256 Are immigrants better off with a president who has described them as criminals and rapists? Are women better off in a world with a president that sexually assaults women and brags about it?

This is where class cluelessness has brought us.

It’s inaccurate to assume that connecting with working-class whites necessarily entails abandoning progressives’ traditional allies. Take people of color. In the 2016 election, communities of color split. Only 8% of African-Americans voted for Trump, but 29% of Latinos did,257 and the Hispanic voting bloc keeps expanding.258 Why did almost a third of Latinos vote for Trump, more than voted for Romney in 2012?

Many Latinos are “values voters,” offended by the shock-the-bourgeois avant-garde element of elite culture. “For many Hispanic Americans, the cultural changes of the past 15 years have been very hard. Trump, for many, is a return to the mother’s womb,” said Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, who runs a Spanish-language talk show in South Florida. Some Latino citizens fear that undocumented immigrants will take their jobs; roughly a quarter of Latinos favor Trump’s wall. Polls show that Latino voters care about many of the issues the white working class cares about, notably jobs and terrorism.259 Learning how to talk respectfully with the white working class will help Democrats reach Latino voters, too.

Ending class cluelessness also would help Democrats better connect with working-class black people. Working-class black people share with professional-class liberals the view that social disadvantage is deeply structural, but in most ways they are more similar to working-class whites. When sociologist Michèle Lamont made a table comparing black and white working-class men, most values overlapped: Hardworking, Responsible, Providing, Protecting, Personal Integrity, Straightforwardness/Sincerity, and Traditional Morality (see Table 1).

The guiding principles of the progressive coalition reflect what the PME wants, not what the broad range of African-Americans want. Wrote a friend, “The truth is most blacks are pretty conservative socially—something that is seldom discussed. But I think our history is such that while we may not support abortion, LGBT and other social issues, we believe that liberals will hurt us less than other groups. Sad but true.”

Ending class cluelessness will also help a small but important group of people of color: class migrants. While on a book tour in 2010, I discussed how education can drive a painful wedge between upwardly mobile class migrants and their families. The students who came up to me after my talks at universities, some in tears, were chiefly students of color. “No one’s ever recognized this about me,” was the general sentiment. Of course, if you think about it, many students of color at elite schools are undergoing the angst-filled process of choosing between the traditions of their families and those of the professional elite. Ending class cluelessness will make it easier for class migrants of all races to get their share of the American dream.

Many challenges lie ahead, including tensions between the goals and values of the white working class and the existing progressive coalition. Let’s begin with an important principle: a coalition is not a mind meld. We can work together without agreeing on every single thing.

During one of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, I went to help get out the vote for the Democratic candidate in Ohio, where substantial tensions existed between African-Americans and the LGBTQ community. Many black churches were urging voters to vote against ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gays. Democrats, of course, did not throw black voters out of their coalition because many are social conservatives. The party supported both gay rights and African-American rights. In Ohio, we did not back down from gay rights. But neither did we rub gay rights in African-Americans’ faces at every turn.

A coalition is like a family in two ways. First, it involves trading. If you get your way on this, I’ll get my way on that. That’s the glue that keeps a coalition together. A coalition’s like a family in another way, too. We need to cut one another some slack. When you show up for Thanksgiving dinner, you don’t shove your political views down Aunt Josie’s throat; that would signal to her that you don’t value your relationship with her. And it would signal to your family that you don’t value your relationship with them.

I recognize that it’s hard to cut anyone slack when what you’re arguing about is perceived as a human rights issue. This is true in the abortion debate (for both sides); the debates over LGBTQ rights; the debates over race and religion and gender and so many other debates in American life today. While framing these debates as human rights issues has been effective in many ways, it has also come at a cost. Human rights rhetoric was invented originally as a language to communicate that genocide and crimes against humanity are always immoral.260 That’s what gave the rhetoric its “there’s no compromise possible here” tone and carried the message that human rights should always have top priority.

But this Manichean construction holds substantial risks for coalitions. Most political issues are not like ripping dissenters’ fingernails out or obliterating entire populations. Often they involve a clash of sincerely held beliefs held by fundamentally decent people. Healthy politics requires being able to reach working compromises so we can all live together, despite the fact that we see diametrically opposed truths as indisputably true.

The working class—of all races—has been asked to swallow a lot of economic pain while elites have focused on noneconomic issues: this is the first generation in American history to experience lifetime downward mobility compared with people their age a decade before.261 In 1970, 90% of 30-year-olds earned more than their parents at the same age; by 2014, only half did.262 Neither party has taken effective steps to stop this precipitous slide. “Rural America is in a deep, deep depression that has been completely ignored by both Democrats and Republicans,” commented Frank Philllips.* It’s time to pay attention.

Obviously, reframing American liberal politics is a complex and long-term proposition. Here are some suggestions on specific issues.

Trade policy. It’s not a good idea to embrace a trade deal that’s good for the country as a whole, but bad for people working in specific industries without providing for job training for people in those industries. I’m no expert, but my friend Joel Paul is. “We live in a world in which capital can move easily across borders but workers can’t, so workers always get the short end of the stick in free trade agreements,” he told me. In roughly the decade after 2000, more than 42,000 U.S. factories closed, some due to recession; but most moved overseas. Around 6 million manufacturing jobs were lost. The most straightforward approach is, as part of the trade treaty, to have the U.S. government give vouchers to finance retraining in communities that lose many jobs. In 2015 house Democrats voted down a provision in Obama’s trade program that provided assistance to displaced workers.263 Typical support is for one semester in community college—“not enough so that the machinist can retrain as a plumber,” Paul pointed out. We’ve also built into our tax code incentives for companies to move overseas. Changing the tax code and trade adjustment vouchers should both be bipartisan objectives.264

Abortion. Kristin Luker’s 1984 study found most pro-choice advocates were college graduates who had incomes in the top 10% of working women, whereas pro-life women were less likely to be employed, earned less when they were, and were married to blue-collar workers or small business owners.265 The abortion debate is about gender, but it’s also about class conflict.

To many in the working class, abortion signals the elite’s obsession with self-development and self-actualization, its idolatry of work, and the professional class’s devaluation of family life. As the abortion rights movement has gradually learned, the best slogans are not “My Body, My Choice”—too self-focused to resonate outside the movement—but “Pro-Child, Pro-Choice, Pro-Family.” Anyone who truly values healthy families should support the choices of adults who don’t want children. Raising them is rewarding but difficult—so difficult that everyone who values families should help ensure that adults who don’t want kids don’t have them. This framing won’t resolve the conflict, but at least it deflates the argument that abortion rights are anti-family.

Immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment is very real; the first step is to attend to the economic woes of the working class. An important message is that immigrants typically do jobs whites don’t want, from backbreaking farm work to bussing tables. Many working-class whites have a stake in immigration reform. Small business owners will be hurt by criminalizing the hardworking bussers and dishwashers who keep their restaurants open. Here in California, farmers are nearly as concerned about the lack of immigration reform as progressives, because strict immigration laws prevent farmers from employing a stable work force.266

Civil liberties. These can be framed to appeal to the high value that working-class whites place on privacy (“not spilling your guts”) and their distrust of big government. Having a registry of Muslims is a classic example of government waste: 99.99% of Muslims aren’t terrorists. What a waste of money to keep track of the God-fearing, law-abiding 99%—money better spent on tracking down the tiny fraction of people who are terrorists, Muslims or not.

Climate change. This is a hard one, but one thing is clear. Insisting that resistance comes from plebeians too ignorant to credit science frames this issue precisely in the way most likely to enlist working-class opposition to climate change initiatives. When I hear some environmentalists talk, I feel like I’m listening to my German Jewish grandmother calling Russian Jews peasants.

Climate change is too important to be sacrificed to snobbery. Rather than turning the climate change debate into a fight over the authority of science, why not enlist the support of farmers who see the changes on the ground as desertification sets in? “Who cares why it’s happening?” one class-migrant climate activist advised. “Let’s meet them on the ground. That’s what they know, and they can see what’s happening.”

Policing and race. Perhaps no issue has proven more divisive in recent years than controversies over police shootings of African-Americans. This is an emotional and thorny topic. Here is my attempt to navigate it.

Black Lives Matter is an important movement because of the historic and continuing segregation and racism black people face in this country. Black men have been targeted by the police since policing was invented. It’s disturbing that it took the cell phone to draw national attention to the issue of police violence against African-Americans. Many of us know young black men who have been pulled over time and again. The implicit association test documents the association of black people with violence, a stereotype that can escalate police encounters at warp speed.267 “We laugh about how white perpetrators of mass murders manage to be captured alive time and time again,” wrote a friend describing her reading group of 12 black women, while African-Americans meet death at the hands of the police for selling cigarettes. In Oakland, California, near my hometown, some police sent racist texts while others were involved in a sexual misconduct scandal involving an underage girl.268 Baltimore police routinely violate constitutional rights, discriminate against African-Americans, and use excessive force, the Justice Department concluded in 2017.269 Toxic organizational cultures exist. They need to change.

At the same time, police have a stressful and dangerous job, and most work hard to do a tough job well. There are a few bad apples, but the problem goes beyond that. There also is an institutional culture that communicates . . . what exactly? That black men need to be immediately and consistently submissive? That if they don’t they present an existential threat? That would help explain Eric Garner, but not the numerous men who have been shot as they ran away. Nor does it explain the way Sandra Bland was mistreated.

All true, yet we need to discuss these pressing issues without fueling populist rage more than necessary. I spoke with a lawyer who’s a class migrant about the neighborhood where he grew up, in Staten Island, which voted heavily for Donald Trump:

It’s full of New York City civil servants—fire fighters, cops, garbage men—and Trump spoke very directly to those people. Most people are working class and antagonistic to Black Lives Matter. People are scared for the cops. After Eric Garner, one guy walked up to two cops in Brooklyn and murdered them. He made a post on social media, and then went and shot them in the head. Many people I know hate [New York City Mayor] Bill de Blasio for the way he reacted to the Eric Garner thing. And police officers don’t take kindly to people saying they are racist, terrible people. Neither side is giving honest credence to what the other side is saying.

Shifting the tone of the debate about policing is similar to the shift I’ve seen in my lifetime in attitudes toward the military. When I was in my teens and images from the My Lai massacre were in the news, people spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam. Eventually we stopped. Some 40 years later, we now thank soldiers for their service. We thank them even though the military is still a very flawed institution where women soldiers fighting in Iraq were more likely to be raped by a colleague than killed by enemy fire.270 We need to change destructive organizational cultures in both the military and the police, but at the same time we must respect the women and men who do the difficult and dangerous jobs that keep the rest of us safe.

One message with the potential to enlist white working-class support to end police violence against unarmed civilians is this: Police work is hard and dangerous work most of us aren’t qualified to do. Having the courage, the composure, and the self-discipline to defuse potentially violent situations rather than escalating them—that’s rare. Most people don’t have what it takes. This argument also may help avoid situations where white juries side with the police even when the evidence suggests police have violated their own rules of engagement and constitutional norms.271

The bottom line is this. Business-as-usual in American politics means that class conflict is driving the country further and further from the mainstream, into deep wells of swirling fury. We need to defuse class conflict so we can return to common sense.

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