Democrats and the White Working Class Vote

There’s probably no topic of political strategy quite so often imprecisely addressed as the relationship between the Democratic Party and white working class (WWC) voters. Definitional issues aside, the “debate” is often between those who are grinding an ax for some “populist” ideology and message (with the WWC the intended target), and those who minimize the significance of the WWC in the wake of radical demographic changes that have created a post-New-Deal progressive coalition.

Two especially well-qualified analysts of the subject–they’ve both authored books on it–Andrew Levison and Ruy Teixeira (both also, I should disclose, colleagues of mine at The Democratic Strategist site), have penned a useful piece for TNR that argues for a sustained grassroots engagement effort aimed at a small but significant share of “persuadable” WWC voters. Levison’s new book (The White Working Class Today) and some new Democracy Corps research provides the empirical basis for their suggested strategy:

The perennial frustration Democrats experience in attempting to appeal to white working people is that programs they champion, ones that offer concrete social and economic benefits, are nonetheless viewed by these voters with profound suspicion and distrust. As the Democracy Corps research revealed, the essential problem is that, because white working class voters do not feel they have any significant role or status within the Democratic coalition and community, they similarly feel no ownership or control over these programs’ operation nor do they have any trust in their design. White working class voters will only develop greater trust in Democratic programs and policies when they trust in the political party that designs them and feel a sense of representation in its operations.

The long-term solution, then, cannot be simply a new package of traditional Democratic programs and policies, promoted through TV ads. Rather. It will require the rebuilding of grass-roots political organizations in white working class communities across America, modern and more genuinely participatory versions of the traditional Democratic “machines.”

The key to understanding the contemporary WWC vote, say Levison and Teixeira, is that Republicans now command what used to be a built-in Democratic advantage in the cultural milieu surrounding these voters. Democrats don’t exactly have to start from scratch, but they need to catch up, particularly with non-unionized folk, and short-cuts probably won’t work:

It is critical to recognize that this kind of permanent, ongoing, grass roots involvement in community life is profoundly different from the short term, GOTV (Get Out The Vote) “ground game” that Democratic campaigns execute in the months before elections. The typical Democratic ground game is entirely focused on promoting and electing a particular candidate and leaves little or no trace behind after Election Day. Even Obama’s vaunted 2008 campaign organization was, in fact, largely passive and almost invisible in-between the two subsequent elections of 2010 and 2012. (The campaign’s successor organization, Organizing for America, aspires to change this, but is for the moment entirely focused on issues like gun control, immigration and climate change that largely appeal to the liberal base rather than white working class voters).

For Democrats to successfully compete with Republicans for the loyalty and support of white working class voters in the local communities and neighborhoods where they live, a renewed focus on genuine grass-roots organization-building is simply indispensible.

Realistic goals, careful targeting real connections, and a patient, long-term commitment to engagement are what’s needed to rebuild Democratic WWC support, and perhaps to prevent further erosion. It’s good advice for donkeys.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.