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June 17, 2014 10:52 AM The New Politics of the White Working Class, Part II

By Ed Kilgore

While Stan Greenberg emphasized regional differences among white working class voters in his article in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress look at this demographic from a generational point of view, and find some very important signs of current and future liberalization.

Over time, we expect that generational change will make the white working class more liberal and open to progressive agendas. This will occur as white working-class Millennials gradually take the place of generally more conservative white working-class Baby Boomers and older Americans. Democrats generally receive greater support among Millennial white working-class voters than among older white working-class voters. This gap peaked in 2008 when Obama’s margin was 30 points better among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old white working-class Millennial voters than among their older counterparts.
This generation gap is partially explained by the fact that white working-class Millennials are substantially more liberal on social issues. For example, in the 2012 National Election Study, 54 percent of white working-class Millennials thought that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry, compared to just 34 percent of older white working-class voters. They are also more likely than older working-class Americans to be secular in orientation, another indicator of liberalism. In the 2012 Democracy Corps post-election survey, 33 percent of white working-class Millennials reported no religious affiliation, compared to 14 percent of their older counterparts.
And perhaps most important, today’s young white working-class voters are notably more liberal on issues concerning the role of government, which have been an especially strong factor in moving the white working class to the right over time…..
[A] 2010 Hart Research/CAP survey…found that 61 percent of Millennial non-college-educated whites favored a strong government to deal with today’s complex economic problems, compared to just 38 percent of older working-class whites. White working-class Millennials are also very close to white college-educated Millennials in their views on this issue, in contrast to older white working-class individuals, who are more conservative than older white college-educated cohorts.

To expand this demographic beachhead for progressives, Teixeira and Halpin advocate what they call a “middle-out” economic narrative that emphasizes the contributions of wage earners to the overall economy and depicts privilege-seeking wealthy interests as an obstacle to both individual achievement and national prosperity:

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….

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.

It’s axiomatic for Teixeira and Halpin that framing economic issues in class terms is essential to overcome conservative efforts to play on racial and ethnic divisions. Arguments that middle-class populism is “divisive” should be skeptically viewed in that context. More to the point, progressive reluctance to indict weathy privilege-seekers for both inequality and sluggish growth leaves white working class voters likely to blame “big government” for their plight:

[L]eaving 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.

Supported by a strong underlying message that public-sector activism is needed to vindicate the hard work and talents of middle-class families, there is actually plenty of support among white working class voters for specific progressive policy agenda items:

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.

To put it another way, there is a nascent majority coalition for a progressive agenda that mainly lacks a compelling meta-message of middle-class aspiration threatened not by “big government” but by government serving the interests of economic elites. The generational convergence of younger white workers with the views of minorities and many white professionals on economic as well as cultural issues could broaden this coalition into an unbeatable combination and force Republicans back to the ideological “center.” But it all must begin now, on the tough landscape of a midterm election cycle.

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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