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

The flurry of ‘working class whites are fleeing the Democratic Party’ meme continues.

In Slate, liberal black columnist Jamelle Bouie discusses “Why Democrats Can’t Win Over White Working-Class Voters“:

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.

So, for Bouie, a best case scenario is preventing a supermajority of whites voting Republican from developing. And, in a harbinger of political messages to come (which the elevation of Elizabeth Warren to Senate leadership attests to), we can expect more attempts by Dems to target economic populist messages:

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.

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