There are few political topics more perennial among progressives than the direction of non-college educated white voters, a.k.a. the “white working class.” This historic centerpiece of the New Deal Coalition has, as we all know, drifted steadily towards the GOP in recent elections. You can find abundant and lively discussion over why that has happened and what Democrats can do about it, as reflected in the articles by Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira & John Halpin in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, and also in the coinciding roundtable published over at The Democratic Strategist.
But within and beyond all this analysis, there is a comforting assumption creeping into the minds of progressives about the white-working class, mostly based on perceived regional patterns in the WWC vote in 2012: It’s a southern thing, not a national problem, so let’s write off the South and stop worrying about it! You know, southern white folks with their guns and their Jesus and their country music and all that other atavistic stuff skew the numbers so much that we’re imagining a problem that’s not all that bad elsewhere.
At TNR today, Andrew Levison, author of several books on the white working class (this is his most recent offering), brings fresh data to bear on this issue, and warns progressives that writing off the South won’t necessarily solve or dissolve the white working class problem.
Looking more carefully at the 2012 patterns, Levison notes that terrible WWC performance by Obama in 2012 isn’t confined to the South:
White working class support for Obama in 2012 was at or below an abysmal 30-31 percent not just the South but in large areas of the country that include the “rural heartland” of the Midwest and far West, the Mountain West, and the Southwest.
This should not be a surprise. The data above is entirely consistent with the basic American political reality of a deep Red State/Blue State divide. Every political campaign manager knows that in the practical world of political campaigns, white working class people in places like Wichita, Yuma, or Sioux City are not strikingly more “pro-Democratic” than white working class people in Baton Rouge, Augusta, or Memphis.
If the notion that “the problem is just the South” fails to properly account for the real regional political divisions in America, however, it also fails to recognize the critical importance of another aspect of the political divisions within the white working class: the substantial difference between the more urban and less urban members of the group, regardless of the region of the country.
The traditional post-war image of the white working class is of workers concentrated in large Northern industrial cities like Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, and Pittsburg. But Beginning in the 1970s, many industries moved from the major cities to smaller towns to avoid unions and seek a more friendly “business climate,” while at the same time many white workers (like those in construction) who still worked in urban areas moved to the urban fringe for lower cost housing and to escape urban, metropolitan culture for a more “country” way of life. Today, two-thirds of white workers live in small towns, the urban fringes around metropolitan areas, or rural areas; only a third remain in central cities or suburbs.
This matters because Democratic strength among white non-college-educated voters nationwide is significantly higher in central cities and suburbs, and in 2012, dropped to just over 30 percent in the “urban fringe” areas and 30% in rural areas.
What can Democrats do about it? Deploying “populist” rhetoric won’t be enough, Levison argues:
The 2012 election showed that a populist appeal is necessary to draw white working class voters, but it’s not sufficient to reach the majority who now live outside urban centers or the formerly industrial areas of the Rust Belt. In many Red States, Democrats’ populist rhetoric simply doesn’t penetrate the local political culture, which is dominated by Fox News and conservative radio. In these areas, Democrats have no alternative except to try to rebuild local political organizations and regain the support that has atrophied for several decades.
If that sounds difficult, particularly with declining levels of unionization, it most definitely is. But ignoring the problem won’t make it go away:
Many Democrats would prefer not to have to face this monumental organization challenge, hoping instead that the existing Obama coalition and demographic changes in America will prove sufficient to elect a president in 2016, hold the Senate, and weaken GOP control over the House of Representatives. But the harsh reality for Democrats is that they cannot achieve all three of these objectives without increasing their support among white working class Americans—and if Democrats keep telling themselves that “the problem is just the South,” that support may decrease instead.