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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Metzgar: Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

The following article by Jack Metzgar, former president of the Working-Class Studies Association and author of the forthcoming No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society (Cornell University Press), is cross-posted from Working-Class Perspectives:

Influential political analyst Ron Brownstein thinks American politics is all about answering this question: “How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do?”

The question resonates because metro areas vote so differently from small town and rural areas and because our electoral-college leftover from slavery (like the Senate) gives these non-metro places outsized influence in our politics. Regionally, large majorities on the coasts vote Democratic while the South and Midwest are majority Republican. But to Brownstein’s readers in The Atlantic, Paducah (population 23,000 and in Kentucky) likely also connotes “hick” or “hillbilly,” terms that are stand-ins for “poorly educated” whites without bachelor’s degrees — or the so-called white working class.

Brownstein presents the core conflict in American politics as between a backward-looking, aggrieved “coalition of restoration” (Paducah) and a forward-looking, virtuous “coalition of transformation” (Seattle). The unstated assumption is that highly educated folks, the transformers, are the norm as well as the ideal, whereas poorly educated whites are ignorant and backward at best, or deplorable at worst. Those whites seemed to prove that again last Tuesday by voting 64 to 35 for Donald J. Trump. (All 2020 election results here are from preliminary and not entirely reliable Edison exit polls as reported in The New York Times.)

At this moment it’s pretty tempting for us highly educated folks to think that all Trump voters are deplorable people resisting the important transformations we are all busy working toward. But there are different transformations afoot and they’re not all positive. And there’s also some restoration we could use a lot more of.

Brownstein mistakenly meshes cultural transformations – “growing diversity in race, religion, and sexual orientation [and] evolving roles for women” – with economic ones – “the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age.” In this formulation if you want to restore some important aspects of the Industrial Age – like 2% annual increases in real wages for three decades, strong unions, and steeply progressive taxes – then you also resist growing diversity and evolving roles for women.

It’s true that many white men, with and without bachelor’s degrees, rage against all three transformations. But there is no logical connection between cultural reactionaries and economic ones. A person can be culturally deplorable and economically progressive at the same time, as much survey research has shown. Or they can resist diversity but be open to – and in fact, looking for – the government to dramatically improve their economic circumstances. And that means that Democrats should make a renewed effort to convince workers of all skin tones to look more closely at their economic program. The one Biden ran on is good enough.

It didn’t get much attention in the media, nor did Biden emphasize it enough. Yet the economic program Biden ran on is potentially transformative at the scale he proposed – especially trade and industrial policies focused on making more things in-country, a massive infrastructure investment that creates millions of jobs, and a comprehensive enhancement of the care economy for children, elders, and the workers who care for them, all paid for with increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy. If enacted, this program will disproportionately benefit people of color, but the largest group of beneficiaries will be whites without bachelor’s degrees.

Such a program will be impossible to enact with a Senate still controlled by Paducah, but the overall program could be enormously popular, and it should be the center of Democratic legislative politics for the next two years. The program – and the focus on economic revival – might be able to pull a handful of Republican senators across the aisle, but that’s not as important as making strong inroads into the Trumpian base of the party – namely, the white working class. I believe that can be done and is, in fact, highly feasible, but you have to understand the Trump coalition better than our punditry generally does.

A recent New York Times article, for example, described the Trump and Biden coalitions in a way that is quite common shorthand among many analysts and pundits: “A Trump coalition of white voters without college degrees and a Biden coalition of college-educated white voters . . . and minority voters.”

White people without bachelor’s degrees are the largest part of the Trump coalition – 47% — but they are not alone. Despite what Brownstein and others assume, the white part of the educated middle class are not uniformly right-thinking transformers. Last week they split their vote 49 to 49, making them about a third of the Trump coalition.

Trump Coalition
White Working Class 47%
White Middle Class 33%
“Non-White” 20%

While only a fifth of the Trump coalition are not white, “non-white” people make up nearly half of Biden’s coalition. The total “non-white” Dem advantage may be down some from the Obama elections, but it is still huge. As growing and mobilizing parts of the electorate, racial minorities are clearly the foundation of any viable Democratic coalition.

Biden Coalition
“Non-White” 47%
Black 20% Latino 17% Asian & Other 10%
White Middle Class 30%
White Working Class 23%

But that 35% minority of working-class whites who voted for Biden are not an insubstantial part of the Biden coalition, making up nearly a quarter of it. That’s the smallest part of the coalition, but it amounts to about 20 million voters, which is more people than reside in all but four of our most populous states. The educated white middle class represents a somewhat larger group, but they are not the only white part of the Democratic coalition.

Simple democratic arithmetic dictates that you cannot neglect any part of your coalition, but you also need to add to your coalition by subtracting from the opposition’s groups. The white working class may have gotten over-sized attention from progressive Democrats coming into this election, but that’s because they are the single biggest target. It didn’t help that a part of the Democratic party has sometimes argued that they should be abandoned and allowed to stew in their own juices – often with more than a little class prejudice. Democrats’ effort to attract more working-class whites, however, resulted in about a 4-point gain among them nationally, but the gains in battleground Rust Belt states were enough to determine outcomes – 8 points in Michigan, 9 points in Minnesota, 7 points in Wisconsin, though only 2 points in Pennsylvania.

As Michael Sandel has pointed out, “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.” To gain more support from working-class whites, Democrats have to acknowledge that class prejudice — and overcome it. We can start by simply understanding that the white working class is a very large and diverse group of people. It cannot reasonably be characterized as having one uniform social and political psychology. Indeed, it is so large and diverse that it makes up both the largest piece of the Trump base and an indispensable part of the Biden base.

Nor should we buy the kind of broad-brush geographical references that Brownstein offers. Working-class whites don’t all live in places like Paducah. They live in cities, including Seattle, and are likely a majority in the suburbs, even though political reporters often seem to assume that “the suburbs” require a bachelor’s degree and a comfortable income for admission.

Most important, we need to understand that while some part of the white working class is deplorable in every respect, the largest group among them is culturally conservative but also economically progressive. The Public Religion Research Institute study that tracked substantial racial and cultural resentments and anxieties among large portions of the white working class also found:

White working-class Americans generally believe the economic system is stacked against them, are broadly supportive of populist economic policies such as raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy—including a larger role for government—and are skeptical of free trade. . . . . Most white working-class Americans believe the best way to promote economic growth is to increase spending on education and the nation’s infrastructure, while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for it.”

If a President Joe-from-Scranton can unify Democratic legislators around the progressive economic program he ran on, he can rally the diverse coalition that elected him this year while at the same time appealing to that considerable part of the white working class who voted for Trump but who are also open to a transformation toward economic justice that includes them.

2 comments on “Metzgar: Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

  1. Candace on

    Is Working Class Perspectives a site for “highly educated” folks to argue amongst themselves over how to treat and think of the white working class? Because I check the boxes: white,working class no degrees and I don’t know anyone who also checks those boxes that explains their personal struggles or why they voted for someone with demographic percentages and poll results. No one I know other than racists talk about whites want this or that. It matters because you don’t reach people by talking about them like they’re not in the room or like they’re specimens you’re examining.
    Conservative media and the current president retain their voters by speaking directly to them all the time. Democrats rarely do that.

    From what I’ve seen Donald supporters wouldn’t normally be political if it weren’t for what goes on facebook. They aren’t interested in details. They aren’t digging around for information. They are more about the show you put on than the substance. And they’re addicted to expressions of defiance.
    They really like their stories but at the same time are afraid of being duped.
    They believe “being real” is understanding that anyone being nice is lying and so general communications and decisions are based on the world not giving a giving a shit about you or anyones feelings. Defiance and or ridicule is the only way for a strong person to respond to expectations to care for anyone. And so it hasn’t been difficult for republicans to convince their supporters to be suspicious about whats motivating democrat’s policies that help Americans. trump supporters can’t have needs without being shamed and the gop knows that so they are easily manipulated into turning against themselves.

    I think the best response to economic plans Democrats offer is going to be “I’ll believe it when I see it” These people believe that in America there’s no way to be successful unless you’re a criminal and that “real” men are creeps and to be told otherwise is an insult to what they’ve always known and so they don’t have a problem with Donald because that is the honesty they appreciate and of course he entertains in a way they like. He is their stereotype of what a real successful man in America is and the explanation of why they weren’t. But as long as Trump hangs out with them they’re good.

    They don’t want any pity. You can’t win them over without going on the attack.
    And so if they see a democrat being repeatedly smeared and the response is too civilized or ignored, then its not hard for them to be convinced they’re hiding something and conservative media is always ready to supply explanations/stories. And then democrats are stunned because they thought their reasoning was so obvious they didn’t need to say anything, and so republicans become the educators. Democrats should be taking that role and going on the attack right now aiming at the gop, not themselves.

    Trump voters didn’t need to be given so much attention like they were the only voters. It’s been like no other Americans exist and that has given them the impression and likely the rest of America at times that they are the majority, especially since the pandemic when people have been more isolated.
    They think the left is anyone that doesn’t vote for Trump. If you talk to them you’ll hear that.
    So advising democrats chip away from Trumps support by using soft versions of republican narratives about the left against their own party doesn’t weaken the gop’s influence on their voters at best it leaves their influence unchallenged.


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