Karen Nussbaum’s article, “Rebuilding the Working Class” at Dissent magazine provides some important insights Democrats ought to take into account in shaping both short and long-term strategy.
Nussbaum, a founder and board member of Working America, AFL-CIO, argues that “two generations of a falling standard of living and quality of life for most working people have led them to believe that politicians just aren’t that into them. These voters are dropping out of the political process or swinging erratically between the parties in elections as they try to find someone who will “shake things up.” Democrats who are giddy at the prospect of a wave election will be disappointed if they fail to understand what happened in 2016 and the need to do things differently this year.” Further,
Unless Democrats promote real solutions to the economic problems faced by working families and communities, they won’t win in states where a significant number of white working-class voters are needed for a majority. Even the highest projections for Democratic turnout in the key battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan can only be achieved by persuading swing voters that Democrats have at least credible, and at best, inspiring solutions to their problems. The challenge for Democrats is not just winning the 2018 election—it is radically changing how voters perceive government, politics, and the priorities of parties in order to win them over in the long run. This can only be done by addressing their real concerns and opening dialogue across the divisions of race and immigrant status.
I believe such a realignment is possible. This belief is based on the last fifteen years of organizing in working-class communities by Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO that I helped found in 2003. Our door-to-door organizers have had more than 12 million conversations, 80 percent of which have been with white working-class moderates across the country. Our three million members are not in unions, and 90 percent of our email subscribers don’t show up on the list of any other progressive organization.
For Democrats to win these voters over is not a simple task. Working America’s organizers have encountered racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant bias that is more overt and pointed today than we have ever seen. But by focusing on economic issues, organizers have been able to establish common ground and can help bridge social divides through ongoing engagement with voters.
Since the 2016 election, we’ve talked with 300,000 voters to understand their attitudes, concerns, sources of information, and what approaches and arguments they find persuasive…
Nussbaum shares a number of revealing insights gleaned from interviews with working-class voters of all races in the study. She notes also that “The Democratic Party, over the last two generations, failed to make a priority of addressing the forces that were destroying working-class communities, such as outsourcing, privatization, assaults on union rights, and the collapse of good, stable jobs.” In addition,
We heard the fear and frustration in the fall of 2015, and understood then that Trump was a real threat. At the time, half of the likely swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania we talked with hadn’t yet chosen a candidate. But of those who had, a startling 38 percent supported Trump, more than the total for Clinton and Sanders combined. And one out of four Democrats preferred Trump too.
When asked why they supported him, only one out of ten voters named an issue; the rest cited a personal characteristic, with nearly half saying “he speaks his mind.” A strong core of Trump’s support came from Republicans—after all, a third of voters in this country are conservative. But he also attracted fed-up voters who were ready to burn the house down. One male voter from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, said, “They’re all crooks and liars. Can’t trust any of them.” This undertow withstood all the ripples of the Trump campaign—Russia, the Access Hollywood tape, his conflicts of interest. His narrow victory in 2016 was the result.
However, Nussbaum writes, “Simply defeating Trump in 2018 won’t fix what’s broken. The country may be highly polarized around Trump himself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these voters care much for Democrats. Our field leaders report a strong shift away from party identification both in Trump country and in urban communities.” However,
But the ideological chaos Trump has sown allows Wall Street and corporate elites to obscure their outsized role in shaping the U.S. economy. As a result, almost 70 percent of people across racial lines say that politicians, not corporations, are responsible for the state of the economy. Only 10 percent of the people we talked to blamed Wall Street and corporations. About the same number blamed lazy people or society for the economy. The mutually reinforcing relationship between political power and the distribution of wealth remains hidden in plain sight.
Nussbaum notes that, “But about half of the swing voters we spoke to were willing to support politicians who took their economic problems seriously…As David Leonhardt recently wrote in the New York Times, “The best debate for Democrats is one that keeps reminding white working-class voters that they’re working class. It’s a debate about Medicare, Medicaid, tax, or Wall Street. The worst debate is one that keeps reminding these voters that they’re white.”
Nussbaum offers some hope for a restoration of the labor movement, noting that “class is making a comeback. Union favorability is the highest it’s been in fifteen years, at 61 percent according to Gallup.” But bold leadership is required:
To reach swing voters, the solution is to go left. Our conversations reveal that working-class voters across racial lines, including Trump supporters, endorse an economic agenda that benefits working people and are looking for politicians who show up and fight for it.
We talked with likely midterm voters about eleven public policies designed to address economic and public health concerns. Trump voters supported most of the policies. Two-thirds or more supported policies on outsourcing, the opioid crisis, paid family leave. A majority supported expanding overtime, paid sick days, and ending employee misclassification, and nearly half supported making it easier to unionize.
…We compared priorities and concerns across race, talking with black, white, and Hispanic voters and found surprising agreement on their priorities. All three groups identify jobs/economy and healthcare as their top two issues. But they don’t see convincing champions. Some respond to the economic stresses they face by not voting at all, while others split their votes or switch parties.
However, “A laundry list of policies isn’t good enough. A higher minimum wage and paid leave have been thrillingly successful fights, but they don’t reach the depths of the problems faced by so many…People want politicians to address the enormity of the jobs crisis or at least look like they’re really trying, with policies such as massive public investment in infrastructure tied to community-based training and hiring programs, economic development plans for stressed rural and inner-city communities, living wages and benefits for all public and publicly supported jobs, and the like.”
Nussbaum shares heartfelt testimony of workers who want to see passionate commitment from candidates who are genuinely comitted to better living standards for working people, and who deeply appreciate those who take the trouble to com to their communities and talk about their concerns.
See sees unions as the institutions that are best-positioned to address the critical priorities of working families, and adds:
That role used to be played by people you knew in civic organizations, your church, or most importantly, a union. Unions bear some responsibility for their loss of membership and power and many are making important internal changes to address these problems, such as undertaking comprehensive member education and engagement efforts, developing new approaches to organizing and representation, and cultivating an independent political voice. But the attack on unions and their decline hurts workers, progressives, and Democrats grievously.
Unions remain the backbone of a class-based progressive movement. In 2016, they contributed $150 million to elections and reaching voters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
They have an unparalleled infrastructure, with 40,000 local organizations around the country, lobbyists at every level of government, and tens of millions of dollars in direct grants to nonprofit worker-advocacy and research organizations every year. “Even in their diminished state, unions still provide a significant amount of the money, organization, political power, and stability that fuel progressive life,” writes long-time unionist Kim Fellner. “That’s why the right hates them. But they also don’t get much love from the left, which demands a level of ideological purity that unions, with a much broader constituency, can seldom attain.” Weaker unions lead to fewer votes for Democrats. A recent analysis finds that right-to-work laws decreased Democratic presidential vote share by 3.5 percent. Turnout is also 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those laws pass.
“Perhaps the most important consequence of union decline,” writes Nussbaum, “is that fewer Americans have direct experience with collective power.” Nussbaum sees “trusted messengers” as a pivotal element of political success for Democrats. “It’s those trusted messengers—co-workers, neighbors, and organizers—who can also begin to tackle our frightening social divisions today. Our diverse team of canvas organizers has encountered racism, sexism, and xenophobia at the door.”
Nussbaum shares her and her co-worker’s revealing experience canvassing in Virginia’s recent elections, and how they leveraged Medicaid expansion in their canvassing, as a shared priority of diverse working-class voters, which helped build solidarity. Their pivotal efforts were credited by independent analysts with increasing the Democratic vote and contributing to Northam’s impressive victory in the Governor’s race. They have also had a positive impact in Conor Lamb’s congressional victory in PA and steate legislative races.
Do read Nussbaum’s Dissent article for a more detailed account of the impressive leadership of Working America in raising class consciousness to win elections. Democratic campaigns that learn their lessons and apply their strategies should be able to improve their support among diverse communities of working-class voters.