A White Man’s Democrat

Jim Webb wants to speak for the white working poor. Democrats should listen to what he has to say.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) listens to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) during a rally at the Nissian Pavillion June 5, 2008 in Bristow, Virginia.

Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) listens to then–Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama during a rally in June 2008.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s not an attack or an exaggeration to call former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb a white man’s Democrat. It’s him, in almost his own words. “I think this is where Democrats screw up, you know?” said Webb in an interview with Matt Bai of Yahoo News. “I think that they have kind of unwittingly used this group, white working males, as a whipping post for a lot of their policies. And then when they react, they say they’re being racist.”

Webb thinks Democrats have focused too much on the interests of blacks, Latinos, and other groups to the exclusion of poor and working-class whites, who—like the others—face deep disadvantage and dwindling opportunities. “Policy makers ignored such disparities within America’s white cultures when, in advancing minority diversity programs, they treated whites as a fungible monolith,” wrote Webb in a 2010 piece for the Wall Street Journal. “Also lost on these policy makers were the differences in economic and educational attainment among nonwhite cultures. Thus nonwhite groups received special consideration in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions, and lucrative government contracts.”

This sounds like a blanket opposition to all anti-discrimination efforts, but Webb’s view is more nuanced. Black Americans, he says, are a special case. “The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed.” To Webb, they’re owed remediation, and the United States has an “obligation to assist those still in need.” Otherwise, he writes, “government-directed diversity programs should end.”

Instead, Webb argues, the Democratic Party should devote itself to a program of economic uplift that lends a helping hand to all Americans and that, specifically, can improve the fortunes of poor and working-class whites.

There’s a tinge of white identity politics to Webb’s argument, which might make it off-putting to the liberals, including blacks, who are critical to winning a Democratic presidential primary. Which is to say that even if Webb is serious about running for president he doesn’t have a chance. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grapple with his message, which—even with the rough parts—contains a lot of insight.

On the reality of white disadvantage, Webb is right. While the poverty rate for white Americans is 9.6 percent—substantially below the rate for Latinos (23.5 percent) and black Americans (27.2 percent)—they account for nearly half of all of America’s poor, and 56 percent of the country’s poverty-level wage earners are white.

But this isn’t part of the national conversation, which owes itself, in part, to geography. Unlike black and Latino poverty, which is tied heavily to the nation’s urban spaces, white poverty is more diffuse, though there are areas where it’s highly concentrated. Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas are mostly white states with double-digit white poverty rates—18 percent, 16 percent, and 13 percent, respectively—and the ills that come with them: drug abuse, incarceration, and family dissolution. And overall, the number of whites who experience this kind of disadvantage has grown substantially in the last 20 years. “The number of non-Hispanic white people residing in high-poverty neighborhoods more than doubled between 2000 and 2007–2011, rising from 1.4 million to 2.9 million,” writes sociologist Paul Jargowsky in a 2014 report.

Ironically, it’s this pervasiveness—the fact of its existence in almost every part of America—that makes white poverty nearly invisible to the national elites, who cluster in urban centers like New York City and Washington D.C., where minorities are a presence. It’s easy to forget the white poor when your closest examples of poverty are the housing projects of Anacostia and not the dilapidated mills of western North Carolina or the crumbling railroad towns of southern Georgia.

Working-class whites face similar problems. While their disadvantage isn’t as deep—although many will experience spells of poverty or even slip in the ranks of the long-term poor—they have landed with the short end of the economic stick. This isn’t a new story.  Between deindustrialization and public disinvestment—as well as “trickle-down” policies that pushed productivity gains into profits, not wages—working-class incomes have been destroyed. A generation of whites has been left behind—with work that isn’t steady if it pays well, and doesn’t pay much if it’s full time—and their children are sliding down the same path.

What Webb recognizes is that from their perspective, neither the Democratic Party nor the government is on their side. Ignore whether you agree with Webb’s normative suggestions—that Democrats should give up anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs. The simple truth is that working-class whites see the Democratic Party as hostile to their interests as workers and citizens.

The former, according to Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, has a lot to do with immigration. Many working-class whites are hostile to immigration, and see immigrants as a threat to their livelihood, who take “jobs, housing, and health care” from native-born citizens. Levinson quotes a 2004 focus group on working class whites and immigration. “The groups are getting very large and it seems when they come over here they are getting all the tax breaks,” says one woman. “They get all this help. They get this, they get that…and those of us who have fought for this country, who have paid our taxes, who raise our children and who live in this country and in this state are the ones that are paying for all those people to get all those breaks and our children and our lifestyles are not increasing, they are staying stagnant.”

It shouldn’t shock anyone that they’re rankled when they see a party unreservedly support policies that either encourage immigration, or protect illegal entrants to the country. And it doesn’t help either that this is the same party whose president—Bill Clinton—pioneered free-trade agreements that they believe hurt their well-being.

As for their interests as citizens, while working-class whites aren’t opposed to anti-poverty programs—in a Pew study, 43 percent said that government benefits don’t go far enough to improve life for the poor, and large majorities oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare—they are hostile to government as an institution. They believe it’s inefficient, corrupt, and governed by elites who channel benefits—like welfare and affirmative action—to the so-called undeserving.

That isn’t hard to understand. Working-class whites—like most Americans—believe deeply in the moral value of work, and value the ability to build stable lives and families. But since the 1970s, their work hasn’t paid off. They’ve either lost their incomes or they’ve lost their jobs, and for men especially, there are few other opportunities. And while the government says it helps, they don’t see it. Instead, they see programs and benefits for people who don’t work, either in their communities—the old classmate taking disability even if he could get a job—or outside of them, like the poor blacks collecting food stamps, or the Hispanic immigrants getting in-state tuition for their kids.

Yes, these perceptions are skewed and often have more to do with prejudice than facts (blacks, for instance, don’t differ all that much in their attitudes toward work and welfare). But they’re real, and they matter. For millions of working-class whites, the Democratic Party is helping others at their expense, and they’re responding accordingly.

Now, the question isn’t whether Democrats can reverse this. There’s a decent case to make that if the party follows Webb—if it renounces its commitment to diversity and anti-discrimination programs, if it abandons immigration reform, and makes showy denunciations of the “undeserving” poor—then it can win some of these voters, especially if paired with an economic populism that gives direct benefits to these communities. In fact, this was essentially the Democratic strategy for the first half of the 20th century, and it helped build one of the most powerful political coalitions in the nation’s history.

The question is whether this is the right thing to do. Should Democrats run away from their minority constituencies—or at least take them for granted—for the sake of winning some portion of the white working class? There’s no doubt that for a certain kind of Democrat, it is tempting. But consider this: It may be too late. With the rise of Barack Obama, Democrats may be too tied to their minority identity to walk back. Indeed, it’s worth noting that even Webb had a hard time winning working-class whites. As Nia-Malika Henderson notes for the Washington Post, Webb lost working-class white men by 24 points in his 2006 Senate race—the same margin as Obama in 2008.

Beyond the practical obstacles, there’s also this: To follow Webb’s strategy is to give up the drive to make the United States a more just and more fair multiracial democracy. For all of its flaws and betrayals, the present Democratic agenda is at least a nudge in that direction, an attempt to build common cause and shared responsibility across racial and ethnic lines. And while it comes with painful political trade-offs—supporting policies like immigration and affirmative action means alienating a large part of the country—it’s the right thing to do.

Still, while Webb is wrong about the party’s approach to racial minorities, he’s right about its approach to economic policy. Given their social priorities, a certain weakness with working-class whites is baked into the cake. But there’s room to do much better. And step one is a robust economic agenda that goes beyond poverty reduction and devotes itself to raising incomes. Working Americans have yet to reap the gains of a growing economy, and if they want to win Congress again—to say nothing of the White House—Democrats need to show that they can fix the problem.