Not Your Parents’ White Working Class

Tom Edsall weighs in at the New York Times today with some new perspectives on the hardy perennial issue of the estrangement of non-college educated white voters (a.k.a. the “white working class”) from the Democratic Party.

On the optimistic side, Edsall notes that a lot of the generalizations we make about white working class hostility to cultural liberalism are actually characteristic of southerners, but not so much the rest of the country any more:

The declining commitment of white noncollege voters outside the South to conservative values has been masked, politically and culturally, by the continued ferocity of sociocultural and racial conservatism among working class whites in the South. But insofar as the second demographic transition is taking hold among these voters in the North, the Midwest and the West, Democratic prospects may well be better than national polling data suggests.

But Edsall bears a warning, too, for those who think “economic populism” could be a cure-all for Democratic weakness among white working class voters: even on what we think of as core economic issues, these voters are generally right-of-center, because (a) they appear to trust government even less than they do their own bosses, and (b) they persistently tend to view government economic activism as aimed at benefiting those people.

Just going back to a plain-wrapper New Deal message may not work half as well as it used to among the parents of today’s white working class voters. But on the other hand, at least outside the South, white working-class voters are less and less the culturally conservative hard-hats who once cheered Nixon and Agnew for baiting hippies.

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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.