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June 16, 2014 10:40 AM The New Politics of the White Working Class, Part I

By Ed Kilgore

The “white working class” as a demographic category and as an electoral battleground may seem kind of anachronistic to some readers. After all, the WWC, beset by both technological and demographic change, is a steadily shrinking percentage of the electorate, and the rise of the so-called Obama Coalition of young and minority voters has offset reactionary trends among the horny-handed sons of toil, right?

Well, not exactly. For one thing, the white working class is still an important part of the Democratic voting coalition outside the South and West. And for another, as we talk about all the time here at PA, youth and minority votes are not strong or consistent enough—particular in non-presidential years—to create a sustainable progressive majority.

Two of the most renowned analysts of this subject, pollster Stan Greenberg and demographer Ruy Teixeira (with his CAP colleague John Halpin) have essays in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly on how progressives can recapture the allegiance of a higher percentage of white working class voters. There’s also an advertising supplement in the print edition of the magazine, sponsored by The Democratic Strategist website (where I am Managing Editor, FWIW), where Karen Nussbaum, Michael Kazin, Harold Meyerson, Theda Skocpol and Joan Walsh weigh in. And at the TDS site, there’s all that plus eight additional essays, organized into a roundtable discussion introduced by Andrew Levison and yours truly.

I’ll touch on a lot of this material this week at PA, but let’s begin with Stan Greenberg’s essay, which stresses two themes: the relatively strong position of the Democratic Party among white working class voters outside the South, Appalachia and the Mountain West, and the ready availability of a progressive message that appeals to these voters and to other elements of the Democratic Party “base.”

On this first point, it’s increasingly clear that a culturally-driven white voter rejection of the Obama-era Democratic Party in the South and both eastern and western mountain regions has obscured better performance elsewhere:

Obama won white non-college-educated voters in New England (51 to 42 percent) and tied with Romney (47 to 46 percent) across Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, according to Democracy Corps surveys.
Obama trailed by only 7 points in the mid-Atlantic states (44 to 51 percent). And even though the Midwest lagged behind most of the country in recovering from the Great Recession, Obama still received 41 percent of white non-college-educated voters in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In the Pacific Coast states, where more and more white voters are college educated, Obama was just 10 points behind Romney.

An improving economy might boost those numbers modestly. But more importantly, Democrats have an inherent advantage in appealing to these voters going forward:

If Democrats cannot figure out how to appeal to today’s working-class voters, then they don’t deserve to lead. Nearly all of the people in these jobs have not seen a raise in years. The majority of them, who now work in the service sector—maids and housekeepers, waitresses and hostesses, cooks and dishwashers, counter attendants and ticket takers, janitors and hairdressers and child care workers—earn, on average, about $400 a week.
In some instances, today’s post-industrial members of the working class need the same things from government that their counterparts did in the industrial era: a safe workplace, affordable health care, and a sound pension system, for example. But other issues are comparatively new. Female labor force participation now equals male participation. A majority of households are made up of unmarried couples and parents, and mothers are the sole or primary providers in 40 percent of American homes. All the issues surrounding the balancing of work and family life, including child care and pre-K education, speak directly to the needs of today’s working class.

While Republicans fantasize about ever-stronger performances among white working class voters as a way to offset their party’s terrible image among young and minority voters, religious liberals and seculars, and white professionals, their hard-core Tea-Party-driven hostility to any positive role for government in the economy limits further gains. And that represents a big opportunity for Democrats, if they seize it aggressively.

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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