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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Levison: How Dems Can Reach Culturally Traditional, Non-Extremist Working Class Voters

From the introduction to a new TDS Strategy Report: “The Culturally Traditional but Non-extremist Working Class Voters: Who They Are, How They Think and What Democrats Must Understand to Regain their Support” by Andrew Levison:

Democrats are making two fundamental mistakes in the strategic debate about how to regain lost working class support.

First, they discuss “working class voters who support the GOP” as if they were a single, homogeneous social group. In fact, however, there are two very distinct groups of white working class Republicans and only one of them can be persuaded, Democrats need to develop strategies that are specifically designed to appeal to the persuadable group

Second, the current discussion treats Democrat’s problems as being entirely about how candidates should present and popularize Democratic policies and positions – should Democratic candidates limit themselves to emphasizing the most popular Democratic programs or should they explicitly reject the most unpopular? Should they try to refute GOP attacks or stay strictly on the offensive?

In contrast, while the profound cultural and sociological gap that exists between many Democratic candidates and the working class voters in their districts is admitted to be a major problem, the advice that is offered is painfully basic: “don’t be condescending,” “show empathy,” “spend time in working class communities,” “explain how Democratic policies are in working people’s interests.”

Democratic candidates need strategies that specifically focus on the persuadable sector of the working class and which provide sufficient understanding of that distinct culture to allow democratic candidates to persuade working class voters that they are genuinely “on their side,” “care about them,” and “will fight for them.”

The Democratic Strategist is therefore pleased to present the following TDS Strategy Paper.

The Culturally Traditional but Non-extremist Working Class Voters: Who They Are, How They Think and What Democrats Must Understand to Regain their Support.

To Read the Report, Click Here:

The analysis cannot provide a simple “magic bullet” solution for Democrats’ problems with working class voters. But it provides the indispensable basis upon which any successful Democratic strategy must be designed.

4 comments on “Levison: How Dems Can Reach Culturally Traditional, Non-Extremist Working Class Voters

  1. Victor on

    The parts of the memo that are really important need to be highlighted. It could use an executive summary. Otherwise the more original arguments (even if they are rethreads) get obscured by the more well known ones that have been debated endlessly.

    These are the key insights (imo):

    1. The political views of white workers were dramatically transformed by Donald Trump’s election in
    2016. It is vital to understand the change that has occurred. … Since Trump’s campaign and election in 2016, however, circumstances have profoundly changed –and changed in a way that has shifted the political terrain dramatically against the Democrats. The difference can be stated simply: when white construction workers now sit around for lunch and the conversation turns to politics, Trump now completely defines and shapes the conversation. Every discussion quickly becomes framed in terms of what they agree with or disagree with about what Trump has done and said. They may have a range of opinions about specific policies and issues, but it is always Trump and his actions that defines the terms of the debate. (p.22-23 -talk about burying the lede-)

    2. A key difference between the modern white working class conception and the traditional radical
    view is that white working people do not visualize a single dominant “ruling class” or “power elite”
    above them but rather see three different and distinct groups, none of which totally dominates
    society but each of which in one way or another mistreats them and holds them in contempt. … The first group is the political class…The second group is the “Wall Street” financial elite…The final group is the “liberal” elite (p.24)

    3. It is notable that none of the key distinctions indicated above between extremists and cultural traditionalists involve opinions on specific political issues. Instead, they deal with differences in basic social values like tolerance, compassion, empathy and open-mindedness and personal characteristics like psychological rigidity and obsessiveness. While these characteristics are resistant to change, they clearly divide the white working class into distinct sectors that are more and less persuadable. (p.6)

    4. White workers in the groups very un-self-consciously expressed an old-fashioned “I have a dream”
    philosophy about race – a philosophy that is now often viewed by progressives as naïve. … This feeling is expressed most clearly in disgust with “political correctness,” which they see as an attempt to impose upon them values with which they do not agree. Unlike conservatives, a number of participants in the groups admitted that over the years, they had gradually come to recognize that the biased cultural attitudes regarding African Americans that they’d held in the past were wrong and needed to change.

    5. Progressives cannot assume that they can detach white workers’ displays of tolerance (of which they approve) from these workers’ cultural traditionalism (of which progressives do not approve and wish they would discard). Culturally Traditional white workers’ basic mental frameworks cannot be taken apart and reassembled at will. (A) progressive Democratic candidate who tries to run a campaign based on an elegantly detailed agenda of issues and policies but who cannot communicate a personal connection and emotional identification with the culture of the voters he or she seeks to represent will rarely succeed. (p.13-14)

    6. (T)hey described politicians not simply as sometimes individually corrupt but as part of an inherently and irredeemably corrupt system that requires politicians to sell themselves to special-interest contributors to get elected, and who inevitably use their position to become wealthy. They further perceive all politicians as living in an insular and elite artificial world of wealth and influence-peddling.
    They noted, in fact, that this perception was so strong that it represented “a new form of class consciousness.” (N)ever vote for the Democratic politicians who promise to enact them. The mystery disappears when it is understood that white working people tend to see Democrats as just as corrupted by the political system as Republicans are. (p.16-17)

    7. Measures that Democrats themselves consider entirely altruistic policies to help not only the poor and needy but white working-class people as well are seen by white workers as cynical electoral bribery to buy mostly minority votes. (p.17)

    8. When conservatives express broad generalizations about “welfare queens and Cadillacs,” it is
    reasonable for progressives to dismiss such statements as urban legends that mask simple prejudice. But the anecdotes offered in the focus groups were entirely different; they were highly detailed and specific stories of people-white people-who the participants knew personally, and who were frequently their own white neighbors and relatives. It was, in fact, precisely the very clear, detailed, and vivid personal knowledge they demonstrated about such people taking advantage of the system that formed the basis for their intense anger. (p.18)

    9. This same distinction between fairness and unfairness also appeared in the participants’ attitudes toward the wealthy. On the one hand, there was no antagonism for people who become wealthy through business success, and virtually no support for abstract “income redistribution” or punitively taxing the rich as a matter of basic social justice. But at the same time, there was a deep anger at the way the wealthy manipulated the system to pay lower taxes than ordinary workers or otherwise game the system to their advantage. There was also a feeling that the rich had become increasingly separated from and indifferent to those below. (p.18)

    10. The participants supplemented these general views with specific ideas: that candidates should
    live on their government salary and reject all other income, and that they should come from and
    live in the very same community that elected them. … It is important to notice that this distinctive, personal-character-based set of criteria describe a candidate who is profoundly different from many of the “blue dog” Democrats that progressives quite reasonably scorn. Such candidates pander to conservative hot-button issues to win votes, while at the same time do not seriously defend workers’ economic interests but rather take money from special interests and make no effort to reduce the influence of big money in politics. (p.19)

  2. Maria Ferrera on

    I haven’t read the entire paper. But I totally agree with the premise. I have family in Ohio – white working class. They are not fire breathing extremists. They just feel that they work hard and play by the rules but just can’t get ahead. They feel that the system is stacked against them and no one cares. Culturally they are more aligned with the GOP but that’s not really what motivates them. They vote for the GOP in hopes that they will shake things up. Things like free college tuition or cancelling student debt has no relevance. At the same time, I’m not really sure what can be done to help in this global, knowledge based economy.


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