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The White Working Class Test

By Ruy Teixeira

(Note: this is a cross-post from the TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of David Sirota's new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back. The whole discussion, including Sirota's replies, may be found here.)

In choosing how to reach voters, whether for public education or more direct electoral purposes, progressives need to keep the following facts in mind.

1. The key weakness of the progressive coalition is very weak support among white working class voters (defined here as whites without a four-year college degree). These voters, who are overwhelmingly of moderate to low income and, by definition, of modest credentials, should see their aspirations linked tightly to the political fate of the progressive movement. But they don’t.

2. In 2000, Gore lost white working class voters by 17 points; in 2004, Kerry lost them by 23 points, a swing of 6 points against the Democrats. Bush's increased margin among these voters was primarily responsible for his re-election victory.

3. Democrats have been doing especially poorly among white working class voters who aren’t poor, but rather have moderate incomes and some hold on a middle class lifestyle. Among working class whites with $30,000–$50,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by twenty-four points (62 percent to 38 percent). And, among working class whites with $50,000–$75,000 in household income, Bush beat Kerry by a shocking forty-one points (70 percent to 29 percent). Clearly, these voters do not see progressives as representing their aspirations for a prosperous, stable middle class life.

4. Progressives’ difficulties are underscored by the large size of this group. According to the 2004 CPS Voter Supplement data, white working class voters are a larger portion of the electorate than indicated by the exit polls–52 percent, rather than 43 percent. Based on educational attainment trends and population trends by race, a reasonable guess is that the size of the white working class in another ten years, even though it is shrinking, will still be around 46-47 percent–a very large group among which to be doing very poorly. In fact, a progressive majority coalition is simply not possible if that poor performance continues, despite the many ways in which demographic change and growth favor progressives.

Those are the facts. That is why I propose "the white working class test". Does the strategy or approach under consideration--David's or anyone else's--seem like a plausible way of making serious progress among this group? If the answer to this question is "yes", we should implement it. If "no", then we shouldn't put much stock in it, since it is likely to be, at best, a way of treading water--keeping the progressive coalition at its current level, rather than breaking through to majority status.

Applying this test to David's recommended approach, I think he comes up short. Recent public opinion data indicate that voters in general and this group of voters in particular are already quite hostile to big business, believe corporations are taking unfair advantage of the system and think Bush and the Republicans push corporate interests over and above that of the public's. Indeed, hostile attitudes toward "Big Money", as David would put it, are now at historically high levels.

In other words, much of the public, including the white working class, already knows the Truth--or at least a good part of it. That suggests that simply throwing more truth at them is unlikely, by itself, to have that much effect.

A better answer it to integrate one's truth-telling--much of which simply reinforces what voters already believe--with a programmatic and thematic approach that captures the aspirations of white working class voters for a better life.

I certainly believe "populism" broadly-defined is part of that approach. But I do think it makes a difference how that populism is pitched. I've called it "class-aspirational". Andrei Cherny called it "future-oriented". We can debate exactly how to do this, but we must get beyond the delusion that simply telling the truth about Big Money to the people is all the populism we need. If not, we'll keep on flunking the white working class test with predictably bad consequences for the progressive movement and for the country as a whole.