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White Working Class Voters and the Democratic Economic Agenda

By Ralph Whitehead, Jr.

What's surprising, amid the stream of post-election advice to Democrats, is how little of it so far has been devoted to a sustained effort to identify which segments of the beyond-our-base electorate ought to be our targets for the next time around. Our side did a brilliant job of mobilizing our base, but still fell short, because the other side did more than just mobilize its base. It also tried to pick off voters beyond its base, such as white Catholics with weak Democratic leanings, Hispanics (both Catholic and Pentecostal), steelworkers in West Virginia and Ohio and Pennsylvania, African-Americans in Ohio, Jewish voters in South Florida, and married mothers. As they say in the NFL, the Republicans played in our backfield, but we didn't play in theirs. We need an equivalent list, the better to figure out how we, too, can appeal to voters beyond our base, and should get started on the list and the figuring-out ASAP.

One group that belongs on the list is white working class voters–white voters without a four-year degree--especially those of working-age who don't live in union households. White working class voters as a whole make up around half of the electorate and, according to Ruy Teixeira’s analysis of the 2004 NEP exit poll data, they voted for Bush by a margin of 23 points. Because they favored Bush by a smaller 17 point margin in Gore's popular-vote victory of 2000, Kerry could have come very close to winning the 2004 election simply by keeping his losing margin among working class voters at Gore’s level.

If you're inclined to attribute the 2004 drubbing among white working class voters in part to the their social and cultural concerns, you're on solid ground. We ignore those concerns at our peril. At the same time, though, there has been a view that we can override those concerns (up to a point) by appealing to the white working class on the economy. What is striking in Teixeira’s analysis of the 2004 NEP data, consequently, is his finding that noncollege white voters favored Bush on the economy by a margin of 55 to 39. Our economic agenda isn't yet a magic bullet.

Consequently, it's important to develop an economic agenda that appeals strongly enough to the white working class to be able to pull some of its members into our column. In developing this agenda, I would argue, we have to swallow hard and acknowledge a couple of daunting obstacles that stand before us.

For one, the existing public policy agenda of economic liberalism -- modest increases in the minimum wage, labor law reform, improvements in education and in job training, financial aid for college students, universal health care -- is necessary to the economic security of noncollege households in general, be they white or minority. But the forms of help that it offers to the white working class aren't large enough and wouldn't flow into their hands quickly enough to persuade them to see us as an obvious slam-dunk alternative to the Republicans.

(I recently sat in as an economist briefed a candidate for statewide office in a New England state. At one point, the economist was asked: Picture a couple in their late 40s. Each has a year or two of college and, because they bought it 20 years ago, they own their own home. They figure they will have to work for at least 20 more years. But they wonder if there will be relatively good-paying jobs available to people like them over the course of the next 20 years. What can a Democrat say to them? The response of the economist, himself an earnest and conscientious liberal, was: Move out of the state. This isn't the bumper sticker that the candidate was looking for.)

For the other: For all the talk about economic populism, Democrats no longer have the ability to make a truly effectively economically populist appeal to the white working class. I'm talking about the ability to do it, not the desire to do it. There are certainly Democrats who lack the desire. But even those who have the desire nevertheless lack the ability.

In order for an appeal to economic populism to win over its audience, it must do more than attack the big guys. Rather, it must address three assertions to its audience. The first: You are the backbone of the nation's economy. The second: The big guys are making it hard for you to make a living because they are thwarting your ability to act as the backbone of the economy. The third: In your struggle with the big guys, we're on YOUR side -- and here's how we're going to help...

But even economic liberals can no longer make such an appeal. They can't do it because they won't make the first assertion, and thus won't utter the last 12 words of the second assertion. They could say these things in the past. In the agrarian days, they could go before a crowd of farmers and tell them: It is the sweat of your brow that feeds and clothes our nation. In the industrial age, they could say to factory workers: It is your muscle and your sinew that drive the wheels of our mines and mills. They could echo the words of "Solidarity Forever. "It is you who plow the prairies, build the cities, dig the mines... -- without your brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.” Today, though, if Democrats stand before the white working class, they can't even make a proper beginning: YOU are the backbone...

Democrats can't say it because they don't believe it. What they do believe is something quite different: We now live in the age of human capital. Noncollege workers, be they white or people of color, be they union members or otherwise, lack the crucial human capital of a four-year degree. (After all, the gap between college earnings and noncollege earnings is much larger than it used to be.) The economy is now a knowledge economy, and higher education is a crucial source of knowledge, and so how can noncollege workers be its backbone?

Think of what this implies: We could round up the directors and CEOs of every Fortune 1000 company and lock them up in jail for the rest of their lives -- but this by itself still wouldn't be enough to turn our noncollege workers into the backbone of the economy.

To go beyond our base and into the white working class, Democrats also have to be willing to go beyond a couple of our assumptions about what belongs in the liberal economic agenda.

The first step for Democrats is to acknowledge that there is a problem. This acknowledgment is aptly expressed by Harold Meyerson in the spring issue of Dissent: "We are all talking about how to inoculate ourselves on cultural and security concerns. But we are not talking about how better to exploit our advantage on the economy. To a considerable degree, that's because we've lost our advantage on the economy, and we don't know how to get it back or even what to advocate to get it back."

The next step, of course, is to get started on solving the problem.