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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stoehr: Democrats Need a Larger Share of White Working Class Votes to Win Presidential Elections — Even a Small Increase Could Do It

The following article by by John Stoehr, a Yale political scientist, columnist and essayist, is cross-posted from U.S. News & World Report.

The Democrats were sweating the question of what to do about the white working class long before President Donald Trump came along. They used to be, virtually, the white working man’s party, while the Republicans used to be the white rich man’s party (with an influential African-American bloc) before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, both signed into law by a Southern Democrat.

Race became then a complicating factor like never before. Southern whites abandoned the party. So did many white “ethnics” in major Northern and Midwestern cities who hated “forced busing” but loved Republican Richard Nixon’s message of “law and order.” Meanwhile, the Democrats had to make room for new and growing factions while holding on to what was left of the old ones.

Then came the election of America’s first black president. A new idea immediately took hold: Maybe the Democrats didn’t need to worry anymore about the white working class. The party’s base was increasingly diverse. The economy was changing dramatically. Maybe a party that relied heavily on voters who benefited from an economy based on manufacturing could safely and successfully pivot to voters who had not benefited from the old paradigm.

Obama didn’t think so. The president labored mightily to secure the support of voters in rusting industrial states like Wisconsin and Michigan, sending Joe Biden, the scion of blue-collar Scranton, to fire up crowds before joining in the attack of Mitt Romney, the corporate raider bent on tearing down the economy, as he tore down factories and good jobs. That populist message, and others like it, ensured Obama’s famous “Midwest firewall.” Even if he lost Florida and other swing states, he would still have

But even before his re-election, Obama was becoming a minority in his own party. As the Republicans made huge gains in the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 – as well as in state legislatures around the country – Democratic elites, especially the party’s donor class concentrated on the coasts, remained convinced that time was on their side. Demographics, they told themselves, was destiny.

The story went something like this: The past belongs to the ignorant, the racist, the reactionary and those who could not keep pace with the technological challenges of the 21st century, while the future belongs to the Obama coalition, to the cosmopolitan and to the audacious who dared to hope for a more perfect union. Hillary Clinton’s loss was made more painful by the fact that everything post-Obama Democrats told themselves was true was false.

In retrospect, the problem was a familiar one. The Democrats tend to confuse politics for ethics. Sometimes they are the same. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they are distinct. But never in the history of the world has ethics been a substitute for politics. Post-Nixon Republicans have had no such illusions. They are often eager to jettison ethics if ethics threaten their hold on power.

Ethically speaking, the Democrats are right. Trump is a lying, thieving, philandering sadist whose pathological inclinations threaten American values and embolden America’s enemies. But being right didn’t win the election, and being right won’t win future elections. Yes, Clinton won 3 million more votes, but that means next to nothing as the Democrats rethink their strategy.

Central to that strategy should be the humble admission that the Democrats were wrong. Obama didn’t believe he could win without the white working class. Neither should any future Democrat. The party must continue, as it has for decades, to strike balance between old factions and new. The Great Recession, economic inequality, globalization and polarization are macro forces that have carved up the country in such a way that the Democrats face long odds in the Electoral College if they do not present a plausible alternative to Trumpism, especially in the Midwest. Yes, white won, as one of my favorite writers, Jamelle Bouie, put it post-election. But white has nearly always won. The strategy now should be figuring out ways to create electoral conditions in which white wins a little bit less.

The goal is more modest than it seems. The Democrats do not need, and should not try, to win over all white working class voters. Those like Bernie Sanders who decry “identity politics” and long for a return to labor movements are expressing nostalgia, or worse, not constructive advice. The party needs only to drive a wedge into that voting bloc. Seriously. It’s not going to take much. Trump won by about 100,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The Democrats have the policy. Now they need the message. Time will tell what that will be. For now, my concern is about factions within the party that see appeals to the white working class as surrender to white supremacy. Indeed, the white working class was OK with bigotry. But being OK with bigotry is not the same as being for bigotry. And when the goal is driving a wedge into the white working class, racism can be met with powerful policies, like expanded Social Security, that only the Democrats can offer.

It has been argued that Trump expanded the map for Republicans, but it can also be argued that the Democrats allowed that to happen. The Republicans hope to maintain their hold on white working class voters in the Midwest. Perhaps they will, but not if the Democrats admit they were wrong and return to fight.

2 comments on “Stoehr: Democrats Need a Larger Share of White Working Class Votes to Win Presidential Elections — Even a Small Increase Could Do It

  1. Matthew Smith on

    As it turns out, I’ve given this a fair amount of thought. Democrats need to rebrand their party with four primary messages:

    1. These are the values Democrats stand for.
    Democrats must never talk about issues without talking about values. Republicans figured this out decades ago, which is why they relate everything to God, liberty, and the Constitution. Democrats still haven’t figure it out. So what do Democrats stand for? Here are just a few things:
    –Fairness and equality
    –Freedom (including freedom of conscience, freedom from want, freedom of everyone to participate in the American Dream)
    –The Constitution
    –American exceptionalism (meaning here America’s greatness and our special role as the world’s only superpower)
    –Fighting for the underdog

    2. Democrats are the party of workers and the poor.
    The party must return to its roots as champions of workers and people in poverty. We can do that in 5 ways:
    –Rebrand Democrats as the party that fights for the underdog.
    –Tell workers exactly how we will improve their lives: Tax cuts for the middle class, raising the minimum wage, saving health care, affordable college tuition and child care, guaranteed sick pay and family leave.
    –Explicitly encourage workers to join unions and fight for a better life.
    –Remind America of the proud history of the Democratic Party—the party that gave America the 40-hour work week, Social Security, Medicare, the social safety net, equal employment opportunities for women and people of color, affordable health care, and more.
    –Contrast our agenda with Republicans. Conservatives support the rich and big corporations. We fight for workers and people in need (we do this one fairly well already).

    3. Democrats are the true party of change and clean government.
    If the last election taught us anything, it’s that voters—Democrats and Republicans—are hungry for change. We must remind voters that almost literally every major social or workplace change in the last hundred years has come from Democrats. We must present a robust agenda for genuine clean government, including: a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen’s United, fixing the filibuster so senators have to actually filibuster to stop votes on legislation, lobbyist reforms, small-donor public financing of candidates as advocated by Common Cause.

    4. Conservatism is dead.
    Democrats cannot just attack “Republicans” or a particular opponent; we must attack conservatism. The goal is to discredit the very foundation of Republican thought, as conservatives did so successfully for liberalism. Why in the world have Democrats never counterattacked? We must paint conservatism as:
    –Mean-spirited, stingy, hard-hearted, and callous
    –Concerned about the wealthy, not average Americans
    –Afraid of new ideas
    –Irrational anti-government zealots who don’t believe in the ability of Americans to govern ourselves
    –Fiscally incompetent
    –Immoral in its policies of rewarding the rich and hurting the poor
    –Unworthy of leading a great nation
    –More than a little nuts

    Our party’s messages will only get through to voters if every Democrat is repeating them, if they’re reinforced so often that they become truisms. Conservatives understand this; we must too.

    Democrats have a powerful story to tell voters. We have compelling ideas for improving the lives of Americans, and a long history of proving it can be done. It’s time we told that story with an equally powerful message.

  2. J.P. McJefferson on

    Wow, hard to believe there are no comments on this. Dems really need to focus in on the issues discussed here – What is the Democratic brand and how to communicate it?

    In my mind, it’s still pretty clear what the Democratic Party stands for and how it differs from the Republican Party. As Stoehr indicates, it “used to be, virtually, the white working man’s party, while the Republicans used to be the white rich man’s party.” I would simply omit the words “white” & “man’s”. After all, Democrats are for unions, a reasonable minimum wage, worker safety & protections, workers benefits, equal pay, social security, and long term health care (i.e. Medicare). Republicans are against all of that, plus they’re for big banks, tax breaks for the rich and trickle down everything.

    So if you’re a working person how can you be for a party that wants to lower your wage, increase the hazards of your job, limit your benefits (including a big one like health insurance), and decrease your long term health care? As Stoehr points out there is an unfortunate and ugly dimension of racism that has influenced rational decision making. I would add gun rights and abortion to the list of issues that would alter what would otherwise seem to be an obvious decision for a working person in choosing between the Democratic and Republican Party.

    Stoehr indicates, “The Democrats have the policy. Now they need the message.” Do they ever. Messaging is everything. Somehow Democrats have allowed the Republicans to define them as the party that has taken their jobs away with “awful trade deals,” environmental regulations, Obamacare and millions of illegal immigrants. And they also want to take your guns away so you can’t protect your family or hunt anymore; they are against law and order; they’re pacifists who are afraid to defend the country; they want “big government” to tell you what to do including how to educate your children; and they are generally not religious people and believe in killing unborn babies. All in all a pretty ugly lot.

    So, that’s why the working person is confused. It’s all about messaging. Come on Democrats, we’ve got a lot of messaging work to do! The old brand has been lost. #BetterGovmt


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