Another Look at the “White Working Class”

So an awful lot of post-election analysts are pointing in the same direction at a dilemma for Democrats. I noted yesterday that Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight thinks Democrats are in danger of falling even more among non-college educated white voters in places like Iowa. At TNR Noam Scheiber is even more pointed:

[I]f there’s one thing the past two midterms have taught us, it’s that it’s not enough to build a coalition that wins the presidency. Democrats need one that also turns out in non-presidential years to have any hope of enacting an agenda (or, for that matter, even staffing their cabinet). And, at this point, it’s far from clear that Hillary Clinton is a candidate built for both 2016 and 2018. In fact, it’s pretty easy to imagine an Obama-like coalition of young people, Latinos, African-Americans, and single women electing Clinton to the White House, then taking a breather two years later.

So Democrats need to find a way to appeal to an older, whiter electorate as well. Specifically, they need to find a better way to appeal to the white working class, which is where they’re getting clobbered. In last week’s midterms, whites without a college degree accounted for 36 percent of voters; Democrats lost them by a 30-point margin. In 2012, the margin was 26 points.

Scheiber observes the usual objection that reaching out to the WWC conflicts with the culture-issue views of other elements of the progressive coalition, but then suggests a reading of Ruy Teixiera and John Halpin’s piece in the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly noting generational evolution within the WWC that has reduced that conflict, and examining how to exploit it:

What, if anything, do progressives have in their portfolio that might particularly appeal to the white working class, while also appealing to the base groups of their rising coalition.

There is a burgeoning progressive narrative and policy focus that might be able to fulfill this role. This new narrative is based on the idea that rising inequality actually undermines rather than fuels growth. This “equitable growth” or “middle-out economics” school of thought points to a growing body of evidence that reducing inequality is not merely compatible with growth but also can be a significant contributor to both the quantity and the quality of growth. The broad argument is that the economy grows from the “middle out,” and that the true heroes in our economic drama are not corporations and the wealthy but rather a robust and growing middle class. With such an approach, the economy can work for everyone, not just the wealthy few, as it does today.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because this “burgeoning progressive narrative” is the subject of the cover package in the current issue of the Washington Monthly.

Aside from the Halpin/Teixeira piece this summer, we also published an essay by Stan Greenberg–first made famous by his analysis of the “Reagan Democrats” back in the 1980s–arguing that it’s folly for Democrats to concede wage workers who “have not seen a raise in years.” And there’s an associated roundtable over at The Democratic Strategist with brief contributions from a host of voices on the subject of progressivism’s relative appeal to the WWC.

It’s all very timely again.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.