Why Democrats Can’t Win Over White Working-Class Voters

The party’s economic populism doesn’t reach that far. 

Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters
The white working class is a huge subset of Americans.

Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The Democratic Party styles itself a fighter for the working class. But a substantial part of that class—the white part—wants nothing to do with it. If we count the white working class as whites without college degrees, then congressional Democrats lost them by 30 points in last week’s elections, contributing to losses in states as diverse as Iowa, Maine, Colorado, North Carolina, and Florida.

But then none of this is new. Democrats lost working class whites by a similar margin in 2010, with almost identical results: A wipeout of Senate seats, House districts, and governorships across the country, in states as liberal as Michigan and Wisconsin. They recovered somewhat in the presidential election—losing working-class whites by just 20 points—and winning the race (and a stronger Senate majority) as a result.

Which gets to an important point: The white working class is a huge subset of Americans. “Close to half of white men and 35–40 percent of white women in the labor force are still essentially ‘working class,’ ” finds liberal commentator Andrew Levison in his book The White Working Class Today. “Their occupations are basically blue collar rather than white collar and their earnings fall far below their white collar counterparts.” And in that category are groups of reachable voters: Union members and low-skilled young workers in particular. Democrats don’t have to win this group as much as they have to avoid a rout. If they can do that—and hold Republicans to a majority rather than a supermajority—then they can avoid the Republican waves of the recent midterm elections, and strengthen their presidential majority.

Hence the recurring debate of how to win these voters, or at least a portion of them. In a recent feature for the Washington Monthly, for example, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin argue that Democrats can capitalize on the generational divide in the white working class. The key fact is that “white working class” is a big category with a large number of different kinds of voters, including millennials, who fall to the left on most national issues. “Today’s young white working-class voters are notably more liberal on issues concerning the role of government” than their older counterparts note Teixeira and Halpin. And significantly these young whites are “significantly more open to rising diversity than the white working class as a whole.”

The conclusion is straightforward. Democrats don’t have to worry about alienating these voters with their cosmopolitanism. If they can just embrace a populist, forward thinking agenda—in which they tackle stagnation and explicitly attack the wealthy engineers of extreme income inequality—they can win these younger whites who are comfortable with diversity and want a more level society. As Noam Scheiber writes for the New Republic, commenting on Teixeira and Halpin’s piece, “The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a ‘message’ that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects.”

Implicit in all of this is the assumption voters will believe the pitch. That they’ll hear the case for stronger programs, higher minimum wages, and higher taxes on the rich, and believe Democrats are advocating for them, and not some other group.

The problem is I don’t think we can make that assumption.

After all, working-class whites didn’t leave the Democratic Party over insufficiently populist policy and rhetoric. The liberal economic reforms of 1960s—and Medicare in particular—paid benefits to white working-class families throughout the 1970s and ’80s, even as the group moved to a decisive break with the Democrats. No, the proximate cause of the break was the Democratic Party’s close identification with black Americans, who—after the riots of the late ’60s and ’70s—became identified with urban disorder and welfare.

Specifically, whites were bewildered and infuriated with liberals who defended rioting communities—correctly noting the decades of deprivation and abuse that led to those violent outbursts—and pushed anti-poverty programs to address the underlying conditions. Black incomes rose while at the same time, many white incomes were beginning to stagnate or even fall. Why was the government spending our tax dollars on them, working-class whites asked, when they destroy their neighborhoods and refuse to work, and we’re losing our jobs and our homes? In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein captures the basic attitude by relaying this comment from a white construction worker, directed at George McGovern, “They’re payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”

Part of this was just racism. For most of the post-war era, whites were empowered by the federal government to separate themselves and their lives from black Americans. For the white middle class, federal aid built white suburbs and white schools, and for the white working-class, it built segregated housing projects and cities. The civil rights revolution brought blacks and black demands to their doorsteps, and for the white working class—which couldn’t just leave for the suburbs—it fueled a backlash.

But part of it was something broader. After all, there wasn’t a backlash to government programs writ large. Then, as now, working-class whites are ardent supporters of Social Security and Medicare. But to them, our retirement programs came with an implicit social contract: If you work and contribute to society, society will care for you into your old age. By contrast, you didn’t have to work to benefit from anti-poverty programs, in fact, you could riot and still receive government benefits. To these whites, the New Deal and its successor programs rewarded self-reliance and independence. The War on Poverty didn’t. And they hated it.

You didn’t have to be an especially astute politician to see this was an electoral winner. Richard Nixon ran—and won—on resentment to black demands for equality, and Ronald Reagan channeled anti-welfare attitudes into two landslide wins for a muscular, hard right conservatism.

The grievances haven’t gone away, and in era of slow growth and stagnant wages, they’ve likely gotten worse. It’s why, in the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney ran a series of ads—concentrated in the white working-class areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania—attacking President Obama for “gutting welfare” and “cutting checks” to people who wouldn’t work. For as much as this was plainly racial—welfare is still associated with blacks in the public mind—it also reflected a genuine frustration with the shape of the world.

Working-class whites are physically closer to the poor. And to them, as Kevin Drum notes, the poor are often “folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars.” It doesn’t matter that working-class tax rates are relatively low, and that anti-poverty programs are a small part of the federal budget. What matters is that they pay taxes but don’t get the same kind of benefits. Again, here’s Drum:

It’s pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But it’s there. And although it’s bound up with plenty of other grievances—many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic—at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

Democrats can adopt populist rhetoric, but there’s no guarantee working-class whites will buy it. Indeed, in parts of the country—like the Deep South—it’s a lost cause. The Democratic Party is too associated with blacks and too associated with welfare to win over enough whites to make a difference.

Put another way, for a new rhetoric of populism to work—or at least, attract the winnable whites identified by Teixeira and Halpin—it needs to come with a commitment to universal policies that working-class whites like and support. (It’s no coincidence that the most liberal working-class whites belong to private and public sector unions.)

But the United States doesn’t have a political party to support that kind of social democracy. Instead, it has the Democratic Party, a collection of disparate interests which—at its best—is nervous about economic liberalism and hesitant to push anything outside the mainstream. And worse, it has a presidential frontrunner who—more than anyone else—is connected to the kinds of elites and the kinds of policies that would push the party away from the muscular liberalism it needs.