Why Are Democrats Worse at Connecting with the White Working Class than Republicans?

“ANYBODY GONE INTO Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” Barack Obama asked a baffled Iowa audience during the 2008 presidential campaign. “I don’t know what it is,” a hospital clinic assistant confided to a reporter. “Maybe it’s a Hawaiian thing.”272

It’s not a Hawaiian thing; it’s an elite thing. The class culture gap is a huge driver in American politics today. Consider: Michael Dukakis had lettuce problems, too, when he discussed endive on the campaign trail. John Kerry meant to convey youthful fitness when he released a photo of himself windsurfing; instead he communicated class privilege. Obama was derided for his awful bowling score.273

The class culture gap is driving politics in Europe, too. Three Dutch social scientists found that a pronounced increase in “cultural voting”—voting on family values and other cultural issues—accounts for most of the working class’s shift to the right both in the United States and Europe. It is “not so much those with low incomes who are socially conservative but rather those who are poorly educated,”274 they conclude, mixing important class insight with casual class affront.

Yes, politicians on the right occasionally suffer from this sort of class cluelessness as well—think of Mitt Romney’s clumsy attempts to connect with working-class Midwestern voters by, for example, mentioning that his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs,” an American-made car.275 But this kind of thing is more common on the left. An Iowa attack ad famously called Howard Dean a “tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show,” which provides a thorough elision of PME folkways and Democratic politics.276

How did we get here? It started with a shift in the liberal coalition. The New Deal coalition, organized around economic issues, won the Democrats the presidency seven out of ten times between 1932 and 1968. That coalition was anchored by blue-collar workers, white Southerners, and African-Americans. But after passage of the civil rights legislation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Democrats and white southerners parted ways,277 and Democrats focused on building the other pillars of their coalition. In 1972, Democrats cemented this shift by nominating candidate George McGovern, who appealed instead to young college-educated activists.278 Now Democrats are composed of two quite different factions, wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall in 2006: “downscale” Democrats (minorities, union members, public employees, the poor) and “upscale” Democrats. Upscale Democrats include academics, librarians, psychologists, human relations managers, editors; in other words, they are the intellectual reform-minded elite, who often define themselves in opposition to the business-minded elite. “Although this well-educated, culturally libertarian, relatively affluent progressive elite forms a minority [40%] of the Democratic Party,” noted Edsall, “it is this activist stratum that sets the agenda for the Democratic Party.”279 It was true in 2006, and it remains true today.

A crucial inflection point was the 1968 Democratic convention, which featured a violent confrontation between young protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police. Here’s how Bill Clinton described it: “The kids and their supporters saw the mayor and the cops as authoritarian, ignorant, violent bigots. The mayor and his largely blue-collar ethnic police force saw the kids as foul-mouthed, immoral, unpatriotic, soft upper-class kids who were too spoiled to respect authority, too selfish to appreciate what it takes to hold a society together, too cowardly to serve in Vietnam.”280

The next step was for the Republican business elite to align with working-class whites. This alliance led Republicans to a defense of patriotism and family values, and with the rise of Ronald Reagan, to an overall hostility to government.

The role of big money in fueling all this is well documented.281 But it’s insulting, as Thomas Frank did in What’s The Matter with Kansas, to depict the white working class as stooges duped by big money. Big money has been effective only because working-class whites have been persuaded.

This has left progressives scratching their heads. Liberals are mystified that working-class voters support tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for everyone else. But once you understand the class culture gap, conservatives’ appeal makes more sense. Because the white working class resents programs for the poor, to the extent that benefit cuts target the poor, that’s attractive. To the extent that tax cuts for the rich hold the promise of jobs, that’s attractive, too. As unions’ strength and reach diminished, their politicized view of structural class inequalities has been replaced by a sense that unions protect good jobs for the few, while capitalists provide good jobs for the many. Arlie Hochschild describes her growing realization: “Oil brought jobs. Jobs brought money. Money brought a better life.” She describes the euphoria when a new business comes to town. “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism,”282 mused one of her Tea Party friends.

As progressives’ attention shifted to issues of peace and then equal rights and environmentalism, blue-collar workers felt abandoned. Sometimes they were: the Uber story provides an example. After taxi drivers paid $250,000 for taxi medallions (licenses that allow the holder to drive a cab), progressive San Francisco allowed Uber and other rideshare companies to break the laws taxis had to abide by, causing the value of medallions to plummet. Then the city issued even more medallions, further eroding their market value. Progressives in San Francisco had little interest in blue-collar cab drivers (many of them immigrant men of color); their solicitude was for “disruptive” companies run by the PME.283

Not only are blue-collar whites no longer the center of the progressive coalition, in some circles, they are no longer seen as part of it. In 2016 the Clinton campaign acted on the accepted wisdom that working-class whites were no longer even a part of the coalition. Bill Clinton warned repeatedly that Hillary’s campaign needed to address working-class issues. But these warnings “fell on deaf ears” as he waged “a lonely, one-man war . . . to appeal to working-class and white rural voters.” His advice was “often dismissed with a hand wave by senior members of the team as a personal vendetta to win back the voters who elected him, from a talented but aging politician who simply refused to accept the new Democratic map,” noted Politico.284

Why can’t Democrats just ignore this group and count on their coalition of professional-class whites and minorities to deliver elections? That didn’t work in 2016 and here’s why: the Electoral College gives the white working class out-sized political power. The Electoral College was designed to overweight the rural vote—today, that means working-class whites. We’ve all seen the electoral maps that show that vast interior of rural red rimmed by the thin blue lines of the East and West coasts. Unless hipsters move to Iowa, an infuriated rural electorate will continue to hold disproportionate power. For the 112 years of American history prior to the 2000 election, the candidate who won the popular vote also won the Electoral College vote.285 In the five elections since, two Democratic candidates who won the popular vote have lost the Electoral College. The system is flawed, but it’s the one we have.

The white working class is important not only for strategic but also for ethical reasons. Ideally, no politician should ignore whole swaths of the country. And the left professes to care about diversity and level playing fields. But they can barely look class issues in the eye.

In elections past, none of this mattered, because unions were influential in delivering white working-class votes for Democrats in key states, notably Michigan. But unions’ strength has contracted, from a third of the workforce 50 years ago to 6.4% of the private workforce today.286 The political impact of unions’ decreased strength cannot be overestimated. And with unions so embattled, they have less money to fund massive get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2016, union leaders openly worried about Trump’s strength even among union members. Most astonishing is that one out of five members of the American Federation of Teachers voted for Trump,287 despite the Republican assault on teachers’ unions, particularly in Wisconsin. Most of the country’s largest labor unions endorsed Clinton as early as 2015, yet many union members voted for Trump. One article quotes a union member: “Growing up we were very strong Democrats, but the Democrat party left us,” he said, and “the unions have left us, too.”288 Working-class whites blame not only government but also unions for the loss of good jobs.

Is this just “false consciousness”? Not really. The working class just wants what the professional elite already has: jobs that sustain them in their vision of a middle-class life. “The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,” a friend wrote me right after Trump was elected.

A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Nor is minimum wage. Working-class men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15/hour instead of $9.50. What they want is a job that paves the way to a modest middle-class standard of living. Trump was the first politician in a long time to promise that. Many voters deeply appreciated the fact that at least he understood what they need.

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