The Democratic Party and the White, Working Class

Much has been made of the significance of the white working class vote in the 2016 presidential election. Since the New Deal the Democrats have been able to rely on this voting block—especially in the Industrial Midwest. Up to Election Day it still appeared that Hillary would carry their vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as Obama and practically every other Democratic presidential candidate had done. The vote was close, but close is not a win; and though there are a whole lot of other reasons why Trump won, the failure to deliver this voting block is listed at or near the top by most pundits.

So we Democrats are now dealing with what happened and why. How do we respond going forward? Do we write these folks off as a lost cause or do we try to change our message and our tactics to reclaim them and bring them back into the fold? My belief is that we lost the traditional-Democratic, white, working class vote for a lot of understandable reasons, that it would be wrong to write them off, and that we can get them back. Here is my take on what happened and what we can do about it.

Who Are “Those People”?

The white, working class population is actually quite diverse depending on what part of the country they are from, their religion, what kind of jobs and education they have, and how they feel about the issue of race. I wrote a book called Hard Living on Clay Street, published in 1973 and still in print today, (with a new 2017 edition with an endorsement by Joan Williams on the cover, “Want to understand why Trump won the election? Read this book.”). The blue collar families I wrote about were largely rural migrants to the Washington, DC, area, fiercely independent, and somewhat alienated from main stream politics. They struggled with making ends meet, alcohol addiction, various health issues, personal relationships, and simply getting by in an increasingly complex world. They were also proud, brutally honest, and aware that the deck was pretty much stacked against them. Though they lacked much, if any, education beyond high school, they were smart, had good survival skills, and were remarkably resilient. Though race was clearly an issue, I would not call them racists per se. As the saying goes, they were nuanced.

There is no doubt in my mind that almost everyone we got to know well, if they were still alive today (and no one is), would have voted for Trump in 2016. The reason is simple. They would be sending a message that they were not happy with how their lives were going and knew the hand they had been dealt was weak. The Clay Street people worked mainly in construction and service jobs, but the life struggles they encountered were not all that different from what the workers in the Industrial Midwest and in a lot of other places are encountering now. Vast numbers of traditional Democratic, blue collar voters have lost stable, good paying factory jobs. Besides losing jobs that provided security, many lost their homes in the meltdown of the Great Recession. Some lost their health insurance and other benefits like pensions. The replacement jobs they have now, if they are lucky, pay half of what they were getting before with few of the benefits. The stress associated with seeing your life savings disappear and your lifestyle affected so profoundly took its toll on many, resulting in family dissolution, domestic violence, and declining physical health. These factors contributed to the opioid epidemic and the needless loss of lives of loved ones. No wonder they were and are angry! What would you expect? This anger, plus the fact that labor unions no longer seem to be able to do anything to help level the playing field, are more than enough reasons for people in their situation to try something new and different—in this case, to vote for an anti establishment, tough guy who promised to turn Washington upside down and bring back the imagined, good old days when America was great.  A whole bunch of these people who voted for Trump in the general election voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Bernie in the primaries. In other words, in 2016 it was a stick-it-to-the-establishment statement and faith in a Hail Mary pass that a maverick outsider could really make a difference.

To his credit, Trump sensed the mood and milked it for all that it was worth. His mantra was jobs, jobs, jobs. The message was also tinged with racism and nativism. He is still doing this today as he tweets red meat to his base. We Democrats missed it. We took the normally reliable, white, working class vote for granted. We continued playing the identity politics game, focusing on many important issues such as the environment, immigration reform, civil rights, women’s rights, the right to choose, LGBT issues, and responsible foreign policy. But these issues did not resonate with the guy who lost his good paying job three years ago, lost his house to foreclosure, his wife to divorce, and his son to an opioid overdose.

In addition, we had a Democratic candidate who was the personification of the establishment. While she had the right ideas appealing to many traditional Democratic voters like me and had carefully thought-out policy recommendations, she did not appeal to the people who felt they were being left behind and being pushed aside in favor of other racial and ethnic groups and immigrants. As far as many blue collar voters were concerned, under Hillary it would be more of the same. That was a non-starter.

So that is how we got Trump.

But keep this in mind: We still won the general popular vote. And while we lost the vote in the key industrial states, it was very close. And we are learning more almost daily of Russian meddling in critical precincts. Maybe if we had put more time and money into these states and focused our message on what was motivating the traditional, Democratic-leaning, white, working class voter, the outcome would have been different. But that is water under the bridge.

Where To Go From Here

There are five things we Democrats need to do to recapture the white, working class vote that we failed to get in the 2016 election. We must change our attitude and how we look at “those people.” We must offer a message of hope and credibly demonstrate that we can deliver on it. We must vigorously and unrelentingly expose the sham and bait-and-switch policies of the Trump Administration. We must put money into the effort and boots on the ground in a grassroots effort to get our message across and get folks to the polls. And, finally, at every level we must recruit and select good, electable candidates that have empathy, vision, and charisma.

  1. Changing our attitude. Sadly, the attitude that many of my highly educated, professional friends have toward the Trump base is not all that different from the racist attitudes that some of my friends had toward blacks where I grew up in the South. I have heard the term “white trash” used more than once to describe the Trump base. We tend to assume they are all racists, “low life,” stupid, and mean people. “Deplorables” is one word that will live on in the history books even though, when taken in context, it was not anti- working class. We Democrats tend to throw up our hands in disgust, wondering how “those people” could be so wrong-headed and naïve as to vote for a scoundrel, narcissist billionaire. Our tendency is to write them all off as hopeless.

Certainly it is true that there are racists and mean people in Trump’s working class base just as there are racists and mean people at all levels of society. There are also many in the white, working class who would never vote for a Democrat under any circumstances. But to lump everyone in the Trump base into the hopeless category as many of us Democrats have tended to do is a huge mistake. In my experience on Clay Street, the people whom I got to know had many of the rough edges and mannerisms of “those people.” They used the N word. They distrusted government at all levels. They distrusted the church and most institutions. They were especially wary of elites, who “thought they were better than everyone else.” Some felt like outlaws—and even relished the term as a badge of honor.

But at the same time they worked along side black people, many of whom they considered friends. They were kind to family, friends, and neighbors and extraordinarily welcoming and generous to me and my wife—who were outsiders and “egg heads working on some dumb government study.” They faced harder times just getting by than I could ever have imagined. Yet they stoically took their knocks and hung on to a personal sense of self worth and pride. In a word, they were real people just like you and me.  The message to Democrats and “the elite”: treat them with respect that they deserve.

Could these people, who surely would have been Trump voters in 2016, vote for a Democrat for governor or senator in 2018 or a president in 2020? Absolutely. They do not have strong party loyalties. They are not hard line conservatives or right-wingers or belong to groups who never vote Democratic. They are not hard-core racists. They will vote for candidates who speak to them, who take them seriously, and to whom they can relate.

  1. Getting the message right. There are a host of important issues in politics today. Hillary’s playbook included all of them and her positions were solid. Democrats do not have to back off from supporting civil rights, immigration reform, the right to choose, saving the environment, affordable health care, and better income equality. We do not have to make compromises regarding what we believe. What we have to do is frame those messages in a way that the benefits are seen as universal benefits to all Americans, not just a privileged few or a special interest group. We must present a compelling message of hope, and we have to show how this message will benefit the white, working class.  We have to understand what issues concern them and what they care about. I assume that focus groups must be going on right now in all the key, blue collar areas where we were out performed. If this is not happening, shame on us.
  1. Exposing Trump for what he is. It is true that if the only unifying thing we Democrats have in common is our hate for Trump and all he stands for, that is not enough to win people over who voted for Trump. That does not mean that we should stand by and ignore the disaster that is unfolding before our eyes. At the same time that we are offering a positive message of hope, we cannot let people forget just how bad this bait-and-switch president is. This is especially important in reaching the blue collar voter. They have been duped, sold a bill of goods, taken to the cleaners. Massive tax breaks for the superrich, drastic cuts to the social and health care safety nets, and opposition to raising the minimum wage all hurt the white working class. Trump has drunk the extremist, libertarian cool-aid on practically every issue. He is a sham. We cannot let up on aggressively broadcasting this message—especially to those blue collar voters who were expecting the higher paying jobs to miraculously reappear.
  1. Putting boots on the ground. The Democrats didn’t just lose the presidency to somebody many believe is the worst person for the job in U.S. history. For the past decade we have been losing at all levels of government. In short the Republicans have outfoxed us. When Obama was elected in 2008, they panicked and set in place a strategy to “take the country back” by spending money big time and working at the grassroots level to get their candidates elected—most of them hard-liners. Funded mostly by billionaire libertarians like the Koch brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin and the Bradley bothers—and enabled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United— they have essentially stolen our democracy. It is time to take it back. (Read Dark Money by Jane Mayer.) Democrats need to think and act locally to get people involved and excited about fighting the Trump agenda and redirecting the country. This is especially important in the traditional, Democratic-leaning, blue collar, voting districts. We need organizers and we need help from labor unions, college students, young people, and anywhere we can get it. We need boots on the ground.
  1. Finding the right candidates and getting them elected. The blue collar families I got to know on Clay Street were drawn much more to the personalities of people running for office than to policy positions or voting records.  The biggest turnoff for people like the ones I knew on Clay Street was elitism. They seemed to have an uncanny sense about whether a person was on their side or looking down on them from a pedestal. It is true that Trump got away with this. That he never had anything to do with government and that he was so outrageous and angry probably helped. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent –even to some in his base–that he is a fraud. That will help. But we need viable alternatives. We need to find electable candidates who are willing to run at all levels, who genuinely care about the white working class, who are approachable and empathetic, and who are fighters for what is right and what they believe in.

The good news is that the Democratic Party seems to have figured most of this out. The leadership is working on a new message focusing on jobs and the economy, seems to understand that grassroots organizing is now a priority, and already has solicited a large number of good candidates at various levels. My hope is that we will also listen better to what the white, working class is telling us and address their needs better than we have done in the past.

Who knows what the future will hold? We do not yet know how the Mueller investigation will turn out or what will happen with the Korean nuclear showdown. It is not certain what legislation will actually pass or if Trump’s recent collaborations with Democratic leaders will change his direction.

What we do know is that the country is in crisis. The only way out of it is to change the cast of characters who got us into this mess and who are unable to get us out of it.  This will take time, money, and effort. Using “dark money” and clever tactics, Republicans got the ship of state to change direction. The result has been a disaster. Democrats must now rise to the challenge and beat them at their own game of organizing at the grassroots level. Regaining the trust of the white, working class is part of the answer.

–Joe Howell, Chair, Task Force on Populism

Committee on Public Policy and Political Action

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