Can Democrats Win Back the White Working Class? Does it Matter?

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Can Democrats Win Back the White Working Class? Does it Matter?

Donald Trump is the worst thing to happen to American politics in a long time. Even before winning the White House, he already did massive damage to the standards of conduct for presidential candidates, and he’s emboldened and empowered the worst, most bloodthirsty people in America in ways that we hopefully will never fully discover. Living through the past 15 months of this never-ending nightmare of an election, it’s like the whole country has been forced into an unwanted marriage with a toxic narcissist.

Perhaps most tragically, much of Trump’s strongest support has come from people who are least likely to actually benefit from his (incoherent, rambling, self-glorifying) policies: working-class white people with lower levels of education.

So now that the election is over, how are Democrats supposed to reach out to Trump voters? Yes, some percentage of Trump’s voter base really is “deplorable,” like Hillary said. Some of them really are hopelessly racist and hateful and must be defeated politically and shut out of power forever. The great hope before this election was that Trump could be defeated in such an overwhelming landslide that his brand of white-identity politics would be ruined forever. Democrats would lead the future with a diverse coalition of young voters, black and Latino and Asian voters, the children of recent immigrants and upwardly mobile educated urbanites, marching together into a rainbow-colored progressive vision of the 21st century.

Of course, none of that happened. But even though they lost 2016 in a shocking, dispiriting fashion, do Democrats really have to permanently write off 46% of the country as a lost cause? Can Trump’s white working class voters be brought back into the Democratic fold? How did the rise of Trump happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again?

I believe that if the Democrats play their cards right, Trump’s supporters are still reachable. I grew up in a predominantly white, blue-collar small town in the industrial Midwest that has fallen upon some hard times. 20 years ago when I was in high school, my hometown was the former headquarters of the Maytag Corporation, with lots of good-paying factory jobs with middle-class wages and union benefits; for more than 100 years, generations of people in my hometown earned a good living making washing machines and other appliances.

But after a few years of declining fortunes, in 2006, a rival corporation acquired my hometown’s hometown company. By the end of 2007 the factories closed down, and the good jobs went away. 10 years later, my hometown is still resilient and is doing better than a lot of people might have expected, but it’s hard for a small town to bounce back after losing thousands of middle-class manufacturing jobs. And a lot of the people who have been displaced by the loss of these formerly good-paying “working class” jobs, even if they’re still gainfully employed, have seen a decline in their standard of living. I have sympathy for white working class people (and working class people of all races/cultures) who are struggling to hold on in an era of economic anxiety and stagnant wages and an inadequate social safety net.

My hometown is typically a solidly Democratic-voting town. In 2012, Barack Obama won my hometown county (Jasper County, Iowa) with 52.8% of the vote; in 2016, Trump won 56.2% of the Jasper County vote and Hillary only got 37.9%. So apparently there are lots of white working class people in my hometown who voted for Obama in 2012 who voted for Trump in November. Surely this means that most of Trump’s voters are not hopeless racists; lots of them were just casting a vote of protest against the status quo. But what can the Democrats learn from this?

George Packer wrote a must-read article in a recent issue of the New Yorker about what happens next for the white working class; and it’s somewhat painful to read because it was written before the election with the seeming assumption that Hillary would be the next President and would recapture the hearts of white working class voters. But given the fact that Trump actually WON the election, the premise of the article is even more urgently poignant: the white working class used to be the bedrock of the Democratic Party; how have Democrats lost touch with people who used to be some of their most loyal voters?

Trump’s rise has troubling implications for American democracy. Progressives need to try to understand how Trump’s GOP takeover happened so we can create more inclusive public policies and a stronger governing coalition.

As George Packer writes, “The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal…A disaster on this scale belongs to no single set of Americans, and it will play out long after the November election, regardless of the outcome. Trump represents the whole country’s failure.”

The whole George Packer article is worth reading, but here are a few of the key points that explain how Democrats lost the white working class—and how they might get them, and lots of other working-class people, to vote for Democrats again:

Democrats became the party of educational elitists: Democrats have become the party of college-educated voters, and people with college degrees are more likely to be employed, earn higher incomes, and often view their economic interests in ways that are different from working-class people who didn’t go to college. Unfortunately, sometimes this has resulted in a kind of intellectual snobbery and “educationalist elitism;” an excessive faith in meritocracy, where college-educated progressives are too quick to disregard the concerns of working-class people, or to adopt a smug sense of moral superiority where they assume that what’s good for the college-educated elite is good for the country as a whole. But the complicated truth is, not everyone wants to get, or is going to get, a college degree, and most of the fastest-growing jobs of the future don’t require a 4-year degree. Democrats need to adjust their rhetoric and policymaking accordingly. College-educated people already are doing quite well, with the lowest unemployment rates and the highest incomes; Democrats need to focus on updating and expanding the social safety net in a way that speaks to the concerns of lots of other people who are being left behind by the 21st Century economy.

Democrats were too enthusiastic about globalization: During the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democrats became the party of Thomas Friedman; excessively wide-eyed about globalization and trusting that free trade would lead us all to a better future. But the truth is, in America and other advanced economies, globalization has created a small percentage of very wealthy winners, and a larger group of people who have seen their incomes stagnate and their living standards erode in the face of efficient automation and lower-priced competition in poor countries, while their pensions shrink and their health insurance premiums skyrocket and their kids have to borrow massive amounts of money just to attend community college. Democrats need to better account for the costs of globalization, and do more to support the people whose incomes and livelihoods are displaced.

Democrats must resist the temptations of identity politics: Trump’s openly racist campaign has turned angry working class white people into a cultural-identity-based political interest group; this after 8 years of racist backlash among conservatives against America’s first black president. These trends have been understandably dispiriting for diversity-loving progressives, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter, when many black people and other traditionally marginalized groups and their allies have become more pessimistic about the systemic racial injustices and inequalities in America. The temptation for progressives is to say “to hell with working-class white people; their numbers are dwindling anyway and demographics are destiny. If the Democrats can win elections with college-educated whites and black and Latin and Asian people, we don’t need the white working class anymore.” The challenge is, if Democrats adopt politic strategies that are more explicitly focused on problems of “race” or cultural identity instead of “class,” this is likely to further alienate the kinds of working class white people who are now voting for Trump. And the consequences for democracy could be dire.

As Glenn Loury, Brown University social scientist said to George Packer, “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it…My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.” Maybe this is unfair or unrealistic; lots of progressives, especially people of color, are eager to see America do more to reckon with its history of racial injustice, and it’s unfair to ask people of color to bear the burden once again of avoiding hurting white people’s feelings. But this conversation needs to happen in a way that is constructive and inclusive and part of a larger economic policy agenda.

Lots of liberals spent most of 2016 assuming that Trump was awakening a grim new era of racism among white voters. But the truth is, in my hometown and in lots of other places especially throughout rural and small-town America, there are lots of working class white voters who voted for Obama last time but went for Trump in 2016. Democrats need to speak more inclusively to the concerns of the white working class in a way that expands their coalition. Democrats need fresh thinking about how to defuse Trump’s angry appeal, co-opt his support where possible, and try to put our democracy and our public institutions back on a path to sanity, civility, and widely shared prosperity. Does this all sound impossibly crazy? Well, I’d rather believe that this path is possible, than write off nearly half the country as being beyond all redemption. As George Packer writes, “If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why.”