Features

June/July/August 2014 Beyond Identity Politics

To reach the white working class, promise an economy that “works for everyone.”

By Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin

There is a burgeoning progressive narrative and policy focus that might be able to fulfill this role. This new narrative is based on the idea that rising inequality actually undermines rather than fuels growth. This “equitable growth” or “middle-out economics” school of thought points to a growing body of evidence that reducing inequality is not merely compatible with growth but also can be a significant contributor to both the quantity and the quality of growth. The broad argument is that the economy grows from the “middle out,” and that the true heroes in our economic drama are not corporations and the wealthy but rather a robust and growing middle class. With such an approach, the economy can work for everyone, not just the wealthy few, as it does today.

Data from a 2013 CAP/Hart Research poll shows that this argument has strong support from the American public. Start with the idea that the economy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy few. In the poll, Americans identified this as the single most important goal for the nation’s economic future. While voters also rated many other goals as priorities—job creation, a strong future for the next generation, a stronger middle class—none resonated nearly as strongly as having an economy that works for all Americans.

And note that this is more than a call for a larger economic pie. The final clause—“not just the wealthy few”—is what makes this phrase so resonant. It speaks to Americans’ growing conviction that our economic system now benefits only the wealthy and corporations, while the deck is stacked against
everyone else.

This approach offers a compelling contrast to the discredited conservative agenda of plying the rich with tax cuts and other goodies on the trickle-down theory that the wealthy will create jobs for the rest of us. Instead, it posits that a relentless focus on the economic health of the middle class, together with expanding opportunities for the poor and working class to move into the middle class, are the best ways to grow the economy.

This, in turn, points to a policy agenda heavy on investment in the middle class—its living conditions and sense of security, its skills, its entrepreneurial capabilities—and in the conditions that allow the middle class to succeed—modern infrastructure, cutting-edge scientific research, and dynamic new industries that can provide middle-class jobs. And it leads away from a policy agenda focused on deficit reduction, which has been a loser for progressives and simply reinforces already-existing antigovernment tendencies.

For most Americans, this is a moral as well as an economic story. The public believes that virtuous behavior (especially hard work) is not being properly rewarded today because of barriers erected by the wealthy and powerful. In the CAP/Hart poll, three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that “the rules in America have changed—hard work and sacrifice are not rewarded anymore.” And 63 percent say a very high priority is providing more opportunity to those who work hard and struggle to provide for their families.

This approach draws strong support from the various elements of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, unmarried and working women, Millennials and more secular voters, and educated whites living in more urbanized states. But, crucially, this middle-out approach also draws solid support from white working-class voters.

For example, two-thirds of the white working class characterizes “an economy that works for everyone, not just the richest 1 percent” as exactly what America needs today (9-10 on a 10-point scale). And 82 percent of these voters agree that “the middle class is being squeezed and we are increasingly becoming a nation divided between the rich and everyone else.” In addition, by a 2-to-1 margin (67 to 33 percent) white working-class voters agree more that “[g]overnment is too concerned with what big corporations and the wealthy want, instead of helping the middle class” than that “[g]overnment is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”

This data suggests that the middle-out approach is the most feasible way to fend off continued anti-progressive surges among white working-class voters, who are inclined to indict the government for their increasing economic insecurity. If they can provide these voters with upward mobility into an expanding and dynamic middle class, progressives will be able to capture more of their votes—not a majority, but a strong enough minority to stabilize the new progressive coalition and insulate it from right-wing backlash, as well as force the GOP to move toward the center. Conversely, leaving these voters in their current frustrated condition (Obama approval rating: 29 percent) is guaranteed to produce periodic meltdowns that will play havoc with progressives’ ability to win elections and govern, while allowing extremists to continue to dominate the
Republican Party.

How should this middle-out economic model be presented to white working-class voters? For starters, it’s imperative that progressives begin framing their economic and social agenda in class-based terms that allow white voters to feel that they, too, are part of a movement to use government action to support working people. The toxic racially focused discourse about the social welfare state that underlies many contemporary and historical debates about the role of government serves no one’s interests, particularly progressive proponents of an activist state. There’s simply no reason for progressives not to broaden their appeals based on class lines.

The survey evidence is clear that white working-class voters are as supportive as other Americans of large-scale public action to address chronic joblessness, income disparities, and unequal education and social opportunities. A massive study on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty conducted by the Half in Ten Campaign and the Center for American Progress found that more than two-thirds of white non-college-educated voters supported all eleven out of eleven proposed policies to fight poverty—from an increase in the minimum wage and subsidized child care to an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and even a national jobs program to combat unemployment. Support among these voters topped 80 percent for universal pre-K, expanded Pell Grants for low-income families, and affordable child care. White non-college-educated support slightly outpaced white college-graduate support in many cases and was basically on par with the views of African Americans and Latinos.

Before he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, Bobby Kennedy extolled this vision of an activist and supportive government that serves the values and interests of all working people across racial and ethnic lines. Today, the stars are aligned for progressives to resurrect his dream.

Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress. Teixeira is the author of the Emerging Democratic Majority. Halpin’s work focuses on political ideology, elections, and public opinion.

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