Donald Trump rally
Credit: Evan Guest/Flickr

Last Thursday, according to Politico, Democratic strategists gathered in a basement conference room here in D.C. where they were presented findings from a poll targeting white working class (WWC) voters. Since 2008, WWC voters have been steadily leaving the Democratic Party, and it culminated in the 2016 presidential election when Hillary Clinton’s sizable margins in affluent cities were erased by even bigger margins going the other way in rural and exurban areas in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrats have made it a top priority to bring those voters back into the Democratic fold, and the pollsters they hired hoped to reveal what would make the white working-class vote Democrat again.

Overall, the poll—based off 1,000 interviews in targeted House districts during the first weeks of July—struck a chord familiar to stories we published before the election by the pollster Stanley Greenberg. As Paul Glastris recounts in our current issue, “a substantial portion of white working-class voters actually agrees with Democrats on issues like inequality and environmental protection, but [these] voters are so cynical about Washington’s ability to deliver that they simply will not listen to any Democratic candidate who doesn’t first present a plan to fix the government.” This is actually a well-trodden Democratic path to victory—recall Bill Clinton’s promise to “reinvent government” and Barack Obama’s heady “post-partisan” politics—a path that Hillary Clinton, in a campaign often criticized for its near-maniacal grip on outdated convention, inexplicably did not take. Likewise, in this new poll, WWC voters were much more likely to vote for a Democrat who supported infrastructure spending, providing tax credits to companies that stay in the U.S. and hire Americans, expanding social security, funding job training programs, and the like.

But one policy popular with these respondents caught our attention: punishing greedy federal contractors. As Gilad Edelman recently reported, the federal government has no idea exactly how many contractors it employs, but one expert he talked to estimated 3.7 million as of 2015. Contractors “hide the true size and cost of a government mission.” The government spends more on the six to eight hundred thousand service contractors—people who oftentimes do the kind of work that could be done by a federal employee—than on the salaries of all 2.1 million civil servants. On average, contractors cost twice as much as a regular civil servant. An industry of private contracting companies has emerged and they’re vacuuming up taxpayer money while not providing substantively much in return. As I reported in the same issue, one of those companies, Booz Allen Hamilton, has an annual revenue of about $5 billion and 97 percent of it comes from federal contracts, almost all of them for services. In effect, the CEO of Booz is a shadow government executive being paid by taxpayers, yet he makes nine times more than the president of the United States. I called for a simple, temporary reform: “any company that receives most of its revenue from the federal government and wants to keep getting that money can no longer pay its CEO more than the government pays the president.”

Somebody in the party is paying attention to the government’s needless over-reliance on contractors, otherwise it would not have been included as something to ask WWC voters about. That in itself is encouraging. But even more encouraging is that our hunch seems to have been vindicated: 52 percent of WWC voters who initially do not vote Democrat report being much more likely to switch their vote for a candidate who says they’ll punish “Federal contractors who are caught cheating taxpayers by putting them in a penalty box – banning them from any federal contracts for five years.”

Targeting the contracting industry is not just good governance and policy, but good populist progressive politics, too. This fits nicely within the Democrats’ new economic agenda, which was also unveiled last week, that targets economic consolidation and corporate monopolization, something the Monthly has been banging on about for almost two decades. All this comes much, much too late, but we’re confident that if Democrats commit to these ideas, they’ll win back those voters without having to give up on liberal values.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at