Democrats and the White Working Class

In the November/December 2015 issue of the Washington Monthly, our rising new star Nancy LeTourneau has a review of Stanley Greenberg’s new book: America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century. The book addresses a subject that Greenberg has tackled before, including here at the Monthly as recently as in our June/July/August issue.

Going back to his study of Macomb County, Michigan “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980’s, Greenberg has done research on what drives white working class voters’ behavior. He applied that research in the 1992 presidential campaign when he served as the official pollster in Bill Clinton’s War Room. His new research reveals that a surprising number of white working-class voters could potentially support the Democratic agenda, but won’t unless the Democrats convince them that they will reform the government that would carry that agenda out.

It’s a touchy subject. For many Democrats and progressives, the effort to woo working class white voters is a fool’s errand. When I recently wrote about seeing white working class angst (about opioids and Wall Street and campaign finance and our justice system) as an opportunity for the Democrats, some of the black commenters on my site showed some real skepticism. Here’s a typical response from Zandar:

Martin.

No. Fu*k this. I categorically reject this bullsh*t.

You know why? Here in Kentucky, a 92% white state, where the heroin and meth and painkiller epidemic has been wrecking the goddamn place for years, where the victims have overwhelmingly been working class white families, Democrats like Gov. Steve Beshear stepped up and said “Here is help. We have the money to help you and your families get healthy and stay healthy. We are going to invest in education and broadband and job training to help you, working-class white Kentucky.”

And working-class white Kentucky said “F*ck you, I ain’t takin’ no handout from no ni-CLANG! president. I’d rather die than take help from one-a them blacks that took our coal jobs.”

And last week they voted in Matt Bevin, who ran specifically on taking that help away from them. Jack Conway lost 80+ counties in Kentucky that voted for Steve Beshear in 2011. Every one of those counties got at least some help from Medicaid expansion and treatment anyway, and 400,000 people are going to lose that help now.

Matt Bevin ran on blaming Obama and unions and progressives and won by nearly 10 points.

And you’re telling me as a black Kentuckian, I have to come crawling to these racist country f*cksticks in order to save the country?

F*ck that, Martin. It’s not happening. And the more we try to “win back the working class white vote” the more we lose everyone else.

That’s real genuine frustration right there, from someone who isn’t naturally inclined to pull back their hand from a potential ally. There’s a feeling among many progressives, regardless of color, that with the spectacle of the Tea Party and Trumpism, there just isn’t any way to get through to white working class folks and we’re basically idiots if we keep attempting to do it.

But Greenberg’s research suggests otherwise. Remember, we don’t need to win a majority of the vote among white working class folks. We just have to avoid getting slaughtered. And we’ve learned from the hard experience of the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, that the Democratic coalition of voters is not big enough to avoid catastrophic off-year defeats in federal, state, and local elections. Unless we’re satisfied with electing presidents who cannot get a Congress to work with, we need to do something different. Sufficiently boosting midterm turnout among our base seems like as much of a utopian idea as convincing an extra 5% of working class white voters that we’re on their side. Yet, we have to do one or the other, or at least a little of each.

Right?

Here’s what Nancy has to say about this:

If we are going to test Greenberg’s hypothesis about the possibility of growing the Democratic coalition by attracting more white working-class voters, it is imperative that we answer some questions that this recommendation raises.

First of all, it would be important to know whether white working-class voters think that no government programs work, or whether their concerns are limited to certain areas. We know from Greenberg’s focus groups that voters want politicians to protect Social Security and Medicare. Those two programs—which together make up over 35 percent of the federal budget—would therefore appear to be excluded from the category of “programs that don’t work.” The next biggest category of federal programs is defense, which comes in at 18 percent of the budget. When people talk about waste and abuse in government programs, however, they are often referring to the 11 percent that is spent on safety net programs. Of that amount, less than half (approximately 5 percent) is spent on benefits to the nonworking poor.

Going back to the post-civil rights 1970s, Republicans have attempted to fuel a divide between white working-class voters and African Americans by suggesting that government benefits were going primarily to the “undeserving poor,” i.e., those who had no work ethic. That message continues to this day when Republicans refer to Obama as the “food stamp president” and suggest that the Democrats are giving away free stuff to garner African American votes. To the extent that this is what fuels the mistrust that white working-class voters have for government, Democrats are unlikely to find a way to appeal to them.

To be clear, Greenberg acknowledges the racial component of this mistrust and is not suggesting that Democrats attempt to woo working-class voters in the Republican strongholds of the South and Mountain West. As he writes, “It is important to remember … that three-fourths of American voters live outside this GOP conservative heartland. In the rest of the country, the battle for the swing white working class and downscale voters is very much alive.” In other articles Greenberg has written on this topic, he has zeroed in on white working-class women in the East and Midwest.

But given that, it is important for Democrats to recognize that validating the concerns voters have when government programs don’t work for them is important, but insufficient. Democrats must provide voters with a message that they not only understand the problem but also have solutions. Otherwise we reinforce the Republican mantra that government is the problem, undermining our ability to implement the reform agenda Greenberg outlines.

Seems to me that between Zandar and Nancy, we’ve identified the challenges to implementing the strategy Greenberg recommends. I think the most important things to remember are that a) we don’t need to win over a majority of these voters, nor do we need to win over the hardest cases and the most hostile regions of the country, and b) that we don’t have much choice but to try since the alternative is to let the Republicans continue to dominate our Congress and state legislatures, and to have them commit unending acts of sabotage against our president and our economy.

Anyway, check out Nancy’s review. It’s pretty good.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.