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June 23, 2014 4:54 PM More Gleanings From a Roundtable on Progressives and the White Working Class

By Ed Kilgore

On Friday I posted some brief excerpts from submissions to a roundtable discussion on progressives and the white working class published at The Democratic Strategist in conjunction with articles by Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira (with John Halpin) in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. Here are a few more excerpts:

From Michael Kazin:

Does a 55-year-old churchgoing Southern Baptist grandmother who clerks at a Wal-Mart in rural Alabama consider herself part of the same group as a 25-year-old UPS driver from New York City who believes in no religion, has tattoos all over his arms, and wants his union to more aggressively defend his interests? And what about the increasing number of white working people who are marrying and/or having children with Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans?
The lack of a strong group consciousness doesn’t mean progressives cannot appeal effectively to both that Wal-Mart worker and that UPS driver. The “most important single step” would be a program one might call “common-sense liberalism” and a rhetoric to match it. The program would include: affordable, reliable health care; a minimum wage which increases along with the cost-of-living; a job creation plan focused on repairing the nation’s infrastructure and developing a green economy; a progressive income tax which eliminates corporate loopholes; stricter regulation of the financial industry, including mandatory jail terms for the worst white-collar criminals; and a constitutional amendment, like that sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Mark Begich (D-AK), which would ban any spending by “corporate and private entities” on candidates and ballot measures.

From Karen Nussbaum:

The economic struggles of many white working-class folks, combined with a feeling of powerlessness, have undoubtedly made them much more susceptible to right-wing rhetoric—a major coup for Republicans. But the key to winning over this demographic is more about focusing on the populist issues that plague them, and less about cheap ploys to superficially connect to them. And that can give us the edge.
While Fox News is often the backdrop for our conversations, most working-class people are not right-wing ideologues. They’re looking for solutions to very real problems, and if we walk away, they’re going to get their answers in all the wrong places.
But reach out with meaningful dialogue—and a way to take action together—and we can restore the alliance between working class and progressive, using our shared economic interests as a bridge. And that would make us all more powerful.

From Mark Schmitt:

The “white working class,” as a demographic concept, is elusive - its politics look different if you define it by income or education (whites without a college degree is a group that skews much older, but using income includes many younger people who will ultimately earn more), if you exclude the South, or look at men and women separately. Some portion of the white working class, especially men in the South and border states, are now the very core of the Republican base, and that won’t change, while white union members, especially in key states in the upper Midwest, remain strong Democrats….
On the ground organizing, such as Working America’s strategy to reach households that aren’t union members but look like them, is one part of the solution. The other is an agenda that actually speaks to the lived experience of those white working class voters who aren’t already committed to economic and social conservatism. Democrats have finally begun to embrace the basics of an economic agenda - a minimum wage increase, a commitment to full employment, and of course, the full realization of the Affordable Care Act. But there is more to the well-being of the working class than cash and benefits. Democrats need to talk about the experience of work - and family - in the new economy, as it affects both men and women. The stories pile up about workers’ increasing lack of autonomy - clocks that stop at every break, unpredictable scheduling, inflexible rules, requirements that workers support their bosses’ political activities, jobs with no sick days at all. Sure, much of this is the effect of a slack labor market in which employers can get away with anything. But waiting for full employment doesn’t change the experience of a dad whose daily life is run at the whim of his boss, who can’t be certain that he can leave in time to see his kid’s softball game, and all for $15 an hour. Time and freedom, and not just cash, need to become part of the progressive conversation with the working class of all races.

We’ll have more from the roundtable later.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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