The ongoing obsession by the media and most politicians to slice and dice the electorate into bite-size interest groups has left one of the largest blocks of voters out in the cold.
White working class voters are a huge chunk of the electorate, but are strangely ignored by most politicians. Although they occupy very different parts of the political spectrum, uber-capitalist Donald Trump and socialist Bernie Sanders are making overt populist appeals to bring this long neglected voting bloc into their ranks.
In a recent campaign swing through West Virginia, Sanders reached out to this group, acknowledging, respectfully, that he and they may disagree on some issues like gay marriage but had common ground on economic issues. It was a more compelling, and thoughtful pitch, than progressive or Democrats have made lately.
Whichever candidate can harness these voters, regardless of whether or not either becomes their party’s nominee, could reshuffle the political deck for years to come.
White working-class voters, obviously, encompass a diverse bag of political interests. Liberal political analyst Andrew Levison estimates they include about half of white men and around 40 percent of white women. They tend to work in blue-collar or grey-collar jobs, have less than a college degree and earn around the median income.
They are culturally conservative, and they value work over handouts, subsidies or assistance. They are the voters Bill Clinton famously described as “living by the rules.” Because of their occupations at the more fragile edges of the economy, they are very anxious about their futures. In another political era, they were called the Reagan Democrats.
Ronald Reagan’s successful courtship of these voters reshaped American politics, and broke the Democrats strangle-hold on Congress and many state legislatures. Bill Clinton famously “triangulated” after the 1994 elections, refocused his agenda on modest, small-ball changes in federal policy and resurrected the Democrat party.
George W. Bush appealed to their cultural conservatism and, in 2004, their preternatural patriotism. But he squandered their support with a new federal entitlement, bloated federal spending, bailouts of Wall Street and the financial markets and an incompetent occupation of post-war Iraq.
In 2008 many of these voters stayed home, especially in critical states like Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia.
In the 2010 midterms, spurred by the leftist lurch of the Obama Administration, they swarmed back to the Republican party. In that election, which delivered an historic landslide to the GOP, white working class voters supported the GOP by a 30 point margin.
In 2012, however, with wealthy out-of-touch Gov. Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, Republicans only won this block by around 20 points. A large margin, to be sure, but the smaller spread and the decrease in their turnout was enough to win President Obama reelection.
In 2013, Democrats, under the aegis of the Center for American Progress launched the Bobby Kennedy project to specifically target white working class voters. Forward thinking progressives realized that the collapse of support for Democrats by these voters foretold a precarious political future.
John Halpin and Rex Teixeira wrote at Think Progress:
These voters, despite their declining numbers, will be an ever-present threat to progressives in elections and to progressive governance as long as they remain so hostile to progressive principles and policies.
The solution is to bring a significant segment of these voters over to the progressive side.
Just one year later, though, the Center for American Progress abandoned the outreach to white working class voters. It turns out these voters are still culturally conservative and, to make real inroads, Democrats feared they would have to moderate several of the party’s current positions.
Swaying more working class whites to the Democratic side might require tweaking policy positions in ways that would alienate minorities and female voters, said University of Virginia political scientist Geoff Skelley.
“At this point, the tradeoffs they might have to make to attract more working-class white voters may not be worth the cost in irritating the constituencies of their current coalition,” Skelley said in an email.
“Democrats may believe they have the economic arguments to attract those voters, but cultural conservatism among many working-class whites will make it hard to win many of them over,” Skelley explained. “And there’s no going back at this point for Democrats on social issues: they’ve made gains by being a socially liberal party, probably more than from being an economically moderate-to-liberal one.”
In he low-turnout 2014 midterm election, Republicans again won white working-class voters by more than 30 points and took control of the U.S. Senate and several state legislatures. During the midterms last year, Republicans campaigned explicitly on turning back Barack Obama’s executive order on amnesty, repealing ObamaCare and blocking Obama policies to restart the economy.
The new Republican Congressional Majority, of course, did none of these things. It not only didn’t block Obama’s executive action on amnesty, the GOP loudly proclaimed its agreement that some kind of path to at least legal status for illegal immigrants was vital. The party establishment’s preferred candidates for the White House even waxed incessantly about the need for more immigration.
With labor force participation already at a nearly 40-year low and an economy teetering on the brink of recession, it is a message that befuddles working class voters. A time of great economic anxiety is not ordinarily the moment to greatly expand the labor pool.
Making matters worse, the one agenda item the GOP Congress did roust itself into a blitz of action was to grant President Obama expedited powers to negotiate a new 12-nation trade deal. The basic outline of the deal, which was announced Monday, was negotiated in secret. It is still unclear what economic benefits or costs are contained in Obama’s trade treaty.
It is of course possible that the details of the trade deal will provide a needed boost to the struggling economy, but deals negotiated in secret rarely provide such unequivocal gains.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that a large segment of the Republican base is angry with the party establishment and throwing its support behind Trump and other candidates campaigning as outsiders.
Trump himself has built his campaign on overt appeals to working class voters. The criminal and economic threat of unfettered illegal immigration is an open secret to everyone except the media and politicians in Washington. Everyone, it seems, except Washington, knows the economy is very weak and likely to tip into recession.
That Trump’s message of economic populism and secure control of the borders resonates with white working-class voters isn’t surprising. What is surprising, though, is that socialist Bernie Sanders is also making an appeal to these voters, albeit from a different direction.
“We have millions of working-class people who are voting for Republican candidates whose views are diametrically opposite to what voters want,” Sanders said in an interview with the Washington Post in West Virginia. “How many think it’s a great idea that we have trade policies that lead to plants in West Virginia being shut down? How many think there should be massive cuts in Pell grants or in Social Security? In my opinion, not too many people.”
“I believe in gay marriage. I’m not going to change your view if you don’t. I believe climate change is absolutely real, and some of you do not,” Sanders said to the crowd in West Virginia. “But how many of you think we should give hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the richest 1 percent?”
Note that Sanders didn’t belittle their views on cultural issues where they may disagree. He didn’t dismiss them because they may not support gay marriage, for a host of reasons. He didn’t insult them by calling them “climate change deniers” because they may worry about the impact of federal regulations on the coal industry.
Unlike most progressives, he respected their views where they disagree and tried to focus on the issues where they do see eye-to-eye. Its a potentially new development for the Democrat party, obsessed with overt appeals to issue zealots.
Sanders has even blasted many aspects of Washington’s push for immigration amnesty, describing much of the effort as a pay-off to big corporate donors. His has been one of the few voices expressing concern over the impact of massive immigration on workers’ wages.
Interestingly, both Trump and Sanders greeted news of the trade deal with strong opposition. Both men promise to campaign aggressively against a trade deal that almost no one fully understands.
This coming battle of the populists may be the most important narrative of this primary season.