How to Win Over the White Working Class (Without Abandoning the Marginalized Communities they don’t Care About)
11/26/2016 by Dylan James Harper
The white working class has already been the subject of much debate since the election. The thrust of the debate seems to be whether or not to bring white working class voters, who voted for a presidential candidate who made demonstrative bigotry a central theme to his campaign, into the liberal fold. Understandably, many have come down on the side of “yes” with the reasoning that the democrats currently control too much political infrastructure to fully abandon, and the real world consequences of them losing are too great to not making winning elections a priority. The biggest problem, however, is that the tactics many of these people believe would be effective at converting the white working class are likely to be not just ineffective but harmful.
First, it’s important to note that often times people will say “working class” when what they actually mean is “white working class,” as Sam Alder-Bell talks about in his great piece on the election (http://samadlerbell.com/trump-and-the-working-class/). When Bernie Sanders recently talked about putting “class” before “identity politics,” although he didn’t overtly say it, it was clear he what group he was referring to when he said “class” (the white working class), and what groups he was referring to when he talking about “identity politics” (marginalized communities, but especially activists groups working on their behalf, particularly Black Lives Matter). What I’m talking about here is specifically dealing with the white working class, and don’t be fooled, that’s what most democrats and liberals mean when they discuss this topic.
With that out of the way, let’s look at what most democrats argue for when they make the case that the white working class should be brought into the fold. Like Sanders, who is trying to position himself as (not-actually) reluctant leader of the Democratic Party, many seem to think that phasing out even the slightest demonstration of solidarity with “identity politics” (and keep in mind what people mean when they say that), let alone making policy positions on that type of basis, will appease the white working class horde, and they’ll then come right over to the democrats.
The fallacy in this thinking is two-fold. The white working class was not the big fan of Trump they are made out to be. Prior to the election his positivity ratings were not high, and he got an astoundingly small amount of voters. His tactic of outwardly being as bigoted as possible didn’t bring the white working class into his coalition, it just didn’t keep them away. Some Democrats are under the assumption that they can and will win if they just explain to the white working class that they don’t actually support scary advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter. This was the tactic of Bill Clinton, after all, and his “tough on crime” approach to appease white middle class voters. The difference between Bill Clinton’s success with white voters, and Hillary Clinton’s failure, however, brings us to reason two this isn’t likely to be an effective strategy: economics.
Bill Clinton was able to win two presidential elections, in part, because he was running against a republican party that had just started a recession and raised taxes, and because, in his second election, the economy had recovered. Economics aren’t just different in 2016 compared to the 1990s, but they’re culturally understood as very different. The number one issue for voters in 2016 was the economy. That’s not that novel. That was a top issue in 1994 when Bill Clinton won. Immigration, however, wasn’t. In 2016? 70% of voters listed that as their top priority; it was a top issue among Trump voters. That can interpreted a few ways, but given a lot of Trump’s rhetoric around a rigging what that likely translates to is that enough white working class voters were worried about jobs, and saw Trump’s rhetoric not as dehumanizing, racist, and baseless, but as a means to secure their own economic futures. Convincing those people that the economy isn’t rigged against them is impossible, because of course it is.
The economy is obviously rigged against the poor. That is no secret. However, the structural changes necessary to fix that problem will take years, decades even of dramatic policy changes. That’s simply not something that can be done by the next election cycle. What can be done by the next election cycle, however, is doubling down on the idea that marginalized communities, such as undocumented individuals, the LGBT community, communities of color, etc., are not the people rigging the economy against the poor (and often are the most likely to be poor). Embracing identity politics and making Trump’s views so societally unacceptable is not just a much more realistic task, but it’s also the only ethical path forward for the Democrats in the short term.
Dylan James Harper is the Chief Political Editor for CSuiteMusic
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