Joan Walsh’s article, “Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters? Maybe—but first we need to understand why they left the party,” at The Nation sheds light on a leading concern of Democratic strategists.
Noting that the white working-class vote “was nearly 50 percent of the total electorate in 2012,” Walsh addresses four key questions of concern to Dems in 2016:
Did the white working class flee the Democrats because the party abandoned them economically? Is Clinton, as the establishment favorite, uniquely unqualified to lure them back? Is their economic suffering really driving the Trump campaign? And can it be enough to carry the racist bully to the White House?
Walsh provides a strong “No” answer to all of these questions. She acknowledges the pessimism of this large constituency, but adds, “the conviction that’s common on both right and left—that the Democrats deserted the white working class by chasing “identity politics” and Wall Street donors and now show little interest in winning it back—is undone by the evidence. To bring these voters back, we have to understand what made them turn away in the first place.”
Walsh takes particular issue with Thomas Frank’s contention that “the Democrats betrayed their own base” by supporting NAFTA , coddling Wall St. and other ‘neo-liberal’ ideas. She acknowledges a significant decline in Democratic share of white working-class voters since the early 1960s, when the Democratic presidential candidates recieved about 55 percent of their votes, on town to 2012, when “Barack Obama dropped to 36 percent of that vote in 2012, 25 points behind Republican Mitt Romney.”
But Walsh argues that “a deeper dive” indicates very significant regional differences have emerged in surveys of the Democratic presidential candidates’ share of their votes, particularly in the last preesidential election:
In 2012, Obama convincingly won the white working-class vote in New England, essentially tied with Romney in the Midwest, and ran competitively in the coastal West and Mid-Atlantic states, according to the polling group Democracy Corps. Only in the Deep South (where he won 25 percent) and the Mountain West (where he won a third) did Obama crater.
Jimmy Carter (in his first campaign) and Bill Clinton were able to slow the southern regional exodus of the white working-class to the GOP presidential candidates. But now New Yorker Trump, taking a lesson from Reagan, has shown that regional identity is no longer much of a force. “Donald Trump didn’t invent this nativist, racist, paranoid appeal,” says Wash. “He just dialed into it.”
Walsh shares concerns exprressed by white working-class voters gleaned from interviews and insights from the AFL-CIO’s Working America project headed by Karen Nussbaum, who conducted “front-porch focus groups” in rust belt cities, which found significant suppport for Trump. But their support was not so much based on Trump’s issue positions. Walsh notes,
But the project learned that although these voters’ No. 1 issue was the economy, Trump’s economic solutions (such as they are) weren’t driving his popularity. Despite Frank’s insistence that Trump’s opposition to trade deals is the core of his appeal, only 8 percent of those who favored Trump said it was because of his “policies.” Nearly half said they liked him because he “speaks his mind,” Nussbaum noted. “They have a strong feeling that government isn’t working for them, and they want political leadership that helps them. If we move them to clarify who’s really to blame and who really will help, we can help make sense of a frightening situation.”
Walsh cites polls indicating that Trump’s white working-class support has been somewhat overstated, and adds,
I asked Ruy Teixeira what the Democrats could do to attract more of these voters. In their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, Teixeira and John Judis identified the rising “Obama coalition.” But now, both writers warn the party against forsaking struggling white voters entirely. Judis makes a persuasive case in his forthcoming book, The Populist Explosion, that the remarkable candidacies of Sanders and Trump, along with the right-and left-wing insurgencies in Europe, have their roots in the white working class’s economic dislocation—something that the left must address. “Maybe you don’t need the white working class in order to win the presidency,” Teixeira says, “but you need them to accomplish anything else you want to do.” He’s right: Democrats can’t win majorities in the Senate or House, or prevail in state legislatures, without a stronger showing among this cohort.
But when it comes to what the party can do to win more of them back, Teixeira is less certain. Though many of these struggling voters believe that Democrats, especially Obama, have turned their backs on them, in fact “people fail to realize how much [Obama] has accomplished,” he argues, citing the 2009 stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and the auto-industry restructuring, all of which helped white workers. For the last few years, Teixeira and I have participated in a roundtable (along with other scholars, labor activists, and writers, including Judis and Nussbaum) on the white working class, organized by Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore. Virtually every position the group recommended to appeal to white working-class voters has been incorporated into the Democratic platform. What more can Hillary Clinton and the party do?
Teixeira believes that Clinton’s domestic program—from expanded infrastructure spending and paid family leave to debt-free college and subsidized child-care programs—“will make it easier for [white working-class voters] to get ahead.” But he thinks winning back a majority will require “a full-employment economy with rising wages”—the kind of economy fostered by the Keynesianism of the mid-20th century. Yet policies to re-create that kind of economy would need at least some support from Republicans, Teixeira points out. And right now, Republicans rely on white working-class voters to support their filibuster against any Democratic agenda.
Wash concludes on an optimistic note: “The resurgent populist, pro-opportunity, and anti-oligarchy left wing of the Democratic Party has pushed politicians, including Clinton, to embrace many policies—on trade, union rights, Social Security, and education—that many hope will win back this cohort…If Clinton and the Democrats can find a way to fuse the Obama coalition with the remains of the mainly white New Deal coalition, they will be unbeatable.”
Hillary Clinton has run an impressive campaign so far, and there is good reason to hope that she she is on track to meet the challenge posed by Walsh. The dream of an enduring Democratic coalition that can secure a stable, working majority is closer to becoming a reality than it has been for many years. If progressive activists, particularly in the swing states, will pour their energies and resources into making it happen in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, the Republican road-block will be ended and a new era of forward progress can finally begin.