Joan C. Williams, author of “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter,” takes a sobering look at “The Democrats’ working-class problem” in the Washington Post. She makes some key points that merit consideration from Democratic strategists and candidates, including:
…When Democrats talk about the poor, they can wind up losing more votes than they win. A key constituency in any national election is white voters who are neither rich nor poor — the working-class families whose median income is $64,000. This group, overwhelmingly Democratic before 1970, has abandoned the Democrats in large numbers, creating a conservative center in American politics. Obama needs these voters in 2012. And his team needs to learn some basic messages about how this group sees the world, in particular about their attitudes toward the rich and the poor, and about certain phrases that may not resonate with them. The donkey’s tin ear should end here.
…White working-class voters see the world very differently; they are more likely to be true believers in equal opportunity than to link poverty with social injustice. These families are less inclined to think, “There but for the grace of God go I” and more inclined to attribute poverty to a life of impulse, chaos and a lack of discipline stemming from individual choices.
…when the Democrats focus on the poor, these Americans hear disrespect — disrespect for their lives of rigid self-discipline in jobs of deadening repetitiveness, disrespect for their struggles in which one false step can mean a fall into poverty. Every time Democrats focus their message on the poor, they enhance Republican power.
Williams is painting with a very broad brush here, without any opinion data to back it up. She credits Obama with scoring bulls’ eyes in his recent speeches when he talks about Social Security and Medicare, but not Medicaid. Her broad brush notwithstanding, I find it hard to disagree with her recommendation:
The Democrats need to stick to a central theme: that Republicans are proposing to eliminate the programs that allow Americans who have worked hard all their lives, doing everything responsible people are supposed to do, to pay for medical care and keep their homes as they age. Medicare and Social Security are the rewards for the settled life. Republicans propose to replace those programs with inadequate substitutes that will return seniors to where they were before government provided safety nets: the poorest group in the country.
The president does send this message, but he mixes it with a protect-the-vulnerable message that only strengthens Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. And, most important, by undermining the potential coalition between Democrats and working-class whites, the protect-the-poor message ultimately hurts the vulnerable Americans it is designed to help.
The white working class does not embrace a blanket “soak the rich” ideology, cautions Williams. But she does see an opening for Dems to frame the issue in terms of fair taxes:
In his deficit speech, Obama emphasized a theme he has drawn on before: that the very rich do not deserve tax relief. “In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined,” he said. “The top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. . . . They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs?”
Nice move on the president’s part, to ask whether he needs that level of tax relief while seniors face higher health-care costs. But this theme needs to be further developed and reframed.
She notes that Dems have a huge challenge ahead in educating the public about the concentration of wealth and its effects on the aspirations of working families:
Democrats also need to debunk the myth that the rich work “darned hard for every cent.” Class mobility in the United States is lower than in other industrialized countries, and only 18 percent of the income in America’s richest families comes from work — hard or otherwise. In America, most wealth does not come from hard work. It comes from wealth.
Democrats also need, over and over again, to contrast the decline of the middle class with the explosion of wealth at the top. Between the “Ozzie and Harriett” 1950s and the “All in the Family” 1970s, ordinary Americans’ standard of living doubled. Since then, it has fallen: Forty-two percent of new wealth created from 1983 to 2004 has gone to the richest 1 percent of Americans. The richer have become much richer at the expense of the middle class: The wages of high-school educated men have fallen 25 percent since 1973, during a period when the richest Americans’ share of income doubled. The top 20 percent now controls 85 percent of American wealth — something most Americans do not know.
Williams warns that Sarah Palin connects with this pivotal constituency better than any other politician (although I don’t see how Palin’s views on issues like Social Security and Medicare will survive seniors’ scrutiny or win working class support). Williams is dead right, however, in that the white working class remains the largest swing constituency, and Democrats need to speak to their core concerns more directly and effectively.