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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Who Are the Persuadable White Working Class Voters?

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

Point #1 of my recent post on Common Sense Democrats was “Of course, Democrats need to reach persuadable white working class voters”. To which some might say, OK, but who are they? I have written about this myself from time to time but I want to refer you here to my old friend Andy Levison’s superb essay on just this subject, published on the Democratic Strategist site.

The essay starts out with some hypothetical ads about Trump’s character that might be aimed at white working class voters in the Rustbelt and then goes on to explain in some detail why this is the right approach to take. As Levison notes later on in his essay:

“Trump did indeed deeply disgust millions of college educated Americans who had previously voted Republican but at the same time the condescending tone of Hillary’s campaign reinforced Trump’s ability to project himself as an authentic, “no bullshit” champion of the white working class against the smug liberal elite. Hillary’s use of the word “deplorables” to describe many Trump supporters became a viral watchword among white working class voters because it seemed to so perfectly reflect the campaign’s implicit, and indeed at times explicitly condescending attitude toward white working class Americans.

In the view of many observers the intense desire of many white working class voters to “send a message” repudiating this kind of attitude played a major role in Trump’s victory in 2016. As Joan Williams vividly expressed the sentiment: “[white workers] voted with their middle finger.”

Given these obstacles, what strategies can Democrats reasonably consider for reducing Trump’s support among the nonracist sector of the white working class? The answer is a frontal, ‘No holds barred” attack on the specific aspects of Trump’s character that offend the decent and admirable moral values of white workers.”

Of course, for all too many progressives the very assertion that such “decent and admirable moral values” exist among this group may be hard to swallow. But it shouldn’t be. Consider Levision’s four defining characteristics of persuadable white working class voters. It should not be hard to see how thoroughly admirable values can be part of such voters’ makeup.

“1. They are not primarily motivated by racism

There is, of course, a very substantial group of white working class voters who are primarily attracted to Trump because of his racism and Democratic strategists are entirely correct in writing these voters off as entirely unreachable. As Trump has fanned the flames of racial prejudice in recent weeks the vision of all Trump supporters as vicious bigots who shout “send her back” at Trump’s rallies becomes difficult to resist.

But there are other white working people who voted for Trump in 2016 and yet who do not actually share his deep and bitter racial animosity. They do not think about race and prejudice in the same “liberal” way that Democrats and progressives do, for example by supporting Black Lives Matter or demanding the abolition of ICE. Instead they are more accurately visualized as practical, common–sense “live and let live” people who simply do not feel any strong, visceral antagonism toward minorities as a “front burner” political issue. They will, for example, generally agree that the Mexican border and illegal immigration should be controlled and that criminals should be severely punished but they do not consider race by itself to be a deeply emotional, vote-deciding issue.

This is the subgroup of voters that Democratic strategy can realistically target. They are the kinds of white working class voters who voted for Trump in 2016 but for Democratic candidates last November…..

2. They are cultural traditionalists

Cultural traditionalism is often confused with conservatism because people who are ideological conservatives very often uphold traditional cultural ideas. But cultural traditionalism is a distinct concept from conservatism, one that refers to a set of basic social values that exist in working-class life and not to specific social or political views. Within this set of basic traditional social values, various perspectives can exist, perspectives that can range from firmly conservative to strongly progressive.

There are three major traditional values in white working-class culture: respect for religious faith, respect for military service, and respect for the character traits encouraged by small business, honest labor, and hard work. Many workers with this set of values have nonetheless voted for Democrats in the past and can be convinced to do so again in the future.

3. They feel a profound class antagonism toward the “liberal” elite

Donald Trump, vile and dishonest as he may be, very successfully tapped into a deep mental and emotional perspective in white working-class life—a distinct kind of modern class consciousness, class resentment, and class antagonism that is almost entirely unacknowledged in current discussions regarding how to reach these voters, but which plays a critical role in their political thinking.

From the point of view of many white working-class Americans, society is indeed sharply divided between, on the one hand, “people like them,” and on the other hand three distinct and separate elites who in different ways are “screwing them over.”

The first group is the “political class….The second group is the Wall Street financial elite…But the third group is the “liberal” elite—the heterogeneous group of college professors and students, Hollywood actors and producers, music and fashion producers, and TV, newspaper, and magazine columnists and commentators….They are perceived as affluent urban dwellers who live in expensive, gentrified urban communities or charming college towns, who look down on ordinary working people…..

4. They are convinced that Democrats don’t give a damn about them while Trump sincerely identifies with them and cares about them.”

But of course he doesn’t. And that’s where his true vulnerability lies. If Democrats can convince these voters that it is Democrats, not Trump, who really gives a damn about them, they will make serious inroads on Trump’s support. In important ways, ti’s really that simple.

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