The White Working Class as “Yes, But” and “No, But” Voters

I think we are beginning to understand this year more than in the past that non-college white voters–a.k.a. the “white working class” are currently bifurcated into those who intensely dislike government but aren’t sold on conservative economic panaceas and those who are very angry about the “rigged” economy but aren’t sure they trust government to do anything about it. The former are heavily represented in the current support base of Donald Trump, while the latter should be targets for Democrats. That proposition about the latter was, of course, the main message in Stan Greenberg’s essay on the white working class in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, which also served as the basis for the roundtable discussion WaMo sponsored in conjunction with The Democratic Strategist.

In his WaPo column yesterday, E.J. Dionne grasped the importance of this realization in writing about “yes, but” voters who may have partisan voting habits but are significantly ambivalent on key issues. After discussing some polling from WaPo and Pew, Dionne noted:

[A] third study, a joint product of the Democratic Strategist Web site and Washington Monthly magazine, points to the work Democrats need to do with white working-class voters.

One key finding, from pollster Stan Greenberg: Such voters are “open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda” but “are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.” This calls for not only “populist measures to reduce the control of big money and corruption” but also, as Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation argued, “high-profile efforts to show that government can be innovative, accessible and responsive.”

This ambivalent feeling about government is the most important “yes, but” impulse in the American electorate, and the party that masters this blend of hope and skepticism will win the 2016 election.

Yessir. The broader lesson is that the stereotype of swing voters as Broderesque, Fournierite “centrists” looking for bipartisan compromises that don’t upset elites misses the real swing voters, who may not be as numerous on the surface as is years past, but who could move political mountains in response to the right combination of messages that take seriously their concerns.

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.