What Can Democrats Do To Reach Out to the White Working Class?

I think it’s safe to say that at present there is more angst among Democrats about how to staunch the party’s loss of white working class voters than there is among Republicans about their exceptionally bleached voter coalition, if only because the GOP just won a midterm election. I’m all for both parties having the necessary internal debate.

But having read a lot of recriminations aimed at the failure of Democrats to do enough about the economic conditions afflicting the white working class, I’m left a bit puzzled about what, exactly, such critics think the Donkey Party should be doing. Here’s a characteristic critique from TNR’s John Judis:

[I]n 2010 and 2014, the Democrats have taken their eye off of the white working class. They have either focused on the poorest workers of all by pressing for an increase in the minimum wage—a worthy objective but insufficient to reach the white working class—or ignored economic issues. If they make that mistake again in 2016, the Republicans will be able to maintain control of Congress and add, perhaps, add the White House.

I’ve chosen Judis as the critic to examine because he does not make the essentially stupid argument that Democrats should have abandoned their environmental and cultural policies in order to win back white working class voters in coal country and/or the Deep South–in other words, just surrendering to Republicans on a wide range of issues in order to appeal to a shrinking element of the electorate. As Judis says: “West Virginia, once a bastion of Democratic populism, may be out of reach.”

But did Obama and Democrats really “ignore economic issues?” between 2009 and 2014? Perhaps they failed to frame health care reform as an economic issue, which it most definitely does represent on both the macro- and microeconomic levels. And perhaps Obama’s recitation of the traditional liberal pitch for infrastructure and education spending, and his “green jobs” defense against the idea that sound environmental policies are job-killers, weren’t sufficiently vivid or passionate. Would (to choose one popular liberal prescription) a decision to break up the big banks have actually improved the economic status of the white working class in any material way? Would have jailing miscreants from the financial sector enhanced real wages? And is agitating the air for more egalitarian economic policies without the ability to enact them a good idea when you are in charge of the White House?

Perhaps the very first step in formulating a new and more effective economic agenda and message for Democrats is to be very upfront about whether the idea here is to change the economy, or simply to convince suffering voters that Democrats are “on their side” in order to put themselves in a position someday to change the economy. Much of the “populist” messaging being urged on Democrats is mostly symbolic. Is that enough?

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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.