Will the Democrats’ message reach white working class voters?

Last week, Andrew Levinson published a fascinating article in the Washington Monthly titled, “What Democrats Still Don’t Get About Winning Back the White Working Class.” He included some insights that haven’t typically been part of this kind of analysis. So I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the whole article. I’d like to comment on a couple of things that stood out to me.

Levinson suggests that the class consciousness of white working class voters is different from how we have typically defined the term.

Essentially, a decades-long campaign by conservatives has succeeded in creating among the broad majority of white working class and small town/red state Americans a deeply embedded view of Democrats as the party of the educated urban elite who impose their liberal agenda through a cynical alliance with minorities.

With that in mind, Levinson suggests that Democrats who simply focus on policy proposals tend to actually reinforce the idea that Democrats are the elitists.

Donald Trump, vile and dishonest as he may be, very successfully tapped into a deep mental and emotional perspective in white working-class life—a distinct kind of modern class consciousness, class resentment, and class antagonism that is almost entirely unacknowledged in current discussions regarding how to reach these voters, but which plays a critical role in their political thinking …

Democrats are aware of this perception, of course, and routinely complain about the conservative “information bubble” that is created by Fox News and other media. But many continue to base their campaigns on the hope that if they can only somehow figure out how to craft exactly the right package of proposals and programs—either progressive or moderate—they will somehow break through and convince these voters to support Democrats once again.

But it is now necessary to seriously consider the opposite possibility: that class resentment is so powerful and deeply entrenched that Democratic plans and proposals never get seriously considered by white working-class and small-town/red-state voters in the first place.

That has been a critique I’ve been making of Democratic efforts for a while now. It was best captured by Cambridge Analytica’s staff.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speaking directly to that.

The other significant contribution from Levinson is that he doesn’t simply limit the so-called “information bubble” in which many of these voters consume their news to right wing media like Fox News. He points out that national messaging is reinforced by local sources in many of these red-state areas, including “Sinclair TV stations, regional talk radio, and local hometown editorial pages.” But it is the third tier of this information bubble that is perhaps the most significant and least commented upon.

Finally, and most importantly, it is the network of personal relationships between neighbors and friends that works to validate and confirm the broader messages. Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.”  The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.

One of the main institutions that contributes to that “spiral of silence” is the church. That doesn’t just include messages that come from the pulpit. Churches are often the place where those casual conversations with friends and family take place. If everyone in your church thinks Democrats are elitists attempting to impose their views on all of us, chances are that you do, too. Conversely, when support for the Republican Party seems unanimous, chances are that you will identify as a Republican as well.

Levinson is right that, for Democrats to succeed with rural white working-class voters, they’ll have to break through those “three concentric levels of ideological insulation.” While alternatives to national and local right wing news exist, there aren’t any alternatives to the friends, family, coworkers, and church members who create the spiral of silence. To step out of that bubble on your own means becoming an outcast, which is why so few ever attempt to do so.

The problem I find with Levinson’s piece is in his prescriptions for what Democrats can do to break through that information bubble. First, he talks about embracing cultural markers.

They would endorse common-sense gun regulations, for example, but also consider gun ownership legitimate and categorically support the rights of citizens to own guns. They would reject the notion that America should impose Christianity on all Americans, but they would assert equally firmly that Christian faith is a positive force in many Americans’ family life, including their own. They would support a variety of populist economic measures but at the same time endorse the virtues of small business and individual initiative that are an inherent part of working-class culture.

Frankly, he is describing the positions of most Democrats, be they politicians or voters. I’ll grant you, that is not the view of a lot of white working-class Republicans, because it is not what they’ve heard inside their information bubble. So Democrats who voice those positions might sound different to voters in red-state areas, but it is a distinction without a difference.

Here’s Levinson’s second prescription:

Second, they frequently embodied white working-class values in their own personal life and history. Many attended church on Sunday; others had served honorably in the military or had a background in a working-class occupation or as the owner of a small business. Many went hunting on fall weekends, listened to country music in their car, and were able to talk with firsthand knowledge and personal experience about the day-to-day problems of the white working-class people in the neighborhoods and communities they represented.

That will work for those Democratic candidates for whom those things are true. But we’ve all seen the catastrophes that have happened when candidates pretend to like hunting or country music, but it’s just an act for voters. I’d suggest that the most important way for Democrats to break through the bubble is to be their authentic selves.

Levinson ends with a discussion of issues that are important to white working-class voters. He labels this one as critical:

…they treat the need for political reform and reducing the role of money in politics as absolutely central issues. They tend to be funded by small contributions rather than deep-pocketed PAC’s and corporations, and point to those sources of campaign funds for Republican candidates as a fundamental source of political corruption. There is no question that this is a pivotal issue for many working Americans. Stan Greenberg’s polling organization Democracy Corps has conducted extensive polling and focus groups for over a decade on this issue and has overwhelming data to support the conclusion that no significant Democratic initiative can win white working-class support until this obstacle is overcome. As Greenberg concluded, “Championing reform of government and the political process is the ‘price of admission’ with these voters.”

To demonstrate how the information bubble works, take a look at this clip from Nancy Pelosi over the weekend:

Either Pelosi has been reading Levinson or she is articulating a position the Democratic Party has embraced for a while now. Given that the party’s platform includes support for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, I’d say it’s the latter. But we all know how Minority Leader Pelosi has been demonized by Republicans and right-wing media, especially lately. To a lot of white working-class folks, she has become the very face of evil. So it’s understandable that her message isn’t breaking through.

In the end, I’d suggest that winning back white working-class voters isn’t about changing the Democratic Party in any meaningful way. If there is reason to believe that it can be done, the big challenge will be for candidates to be authentic–and to accurately message what the Democrats stand for. That will be a bit easier for local candidates who can get to know their constituents–and be known by them–because it will create some cognitive dissonance with what voters have been hearing inside their information bubble.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.