Can Bernie Sanders Win Working Class Votes?

Forty-five years ago marked a tragic event in labor union history. In the midst of the Vietnam War, around 1,000 high school and college students joined in New York City to protest both Vietnam and the murder of four peaceful college students at Kent State University just a few days earlier, after National Guard soldiers fired into the unarmed crowd. Little did they know, about 200 belligerent construction workers and members of the New York State AFL-CIO affiliate were mobilizing for attack.

Shortly after the war protests began, the construction workers appeared, wearing hard hats and holding American flags and posters with various patriotic slogans (“America, love it or leave it,” “All the way, USA”). They proceeded to attack the protesters, and particularly targeted ones who looked like hippies (i.e. long haired men), beating them with their hard hats and fists. After all was said and done, about 70 people were injured, while only six were arrested.

The hard hat riot and the entire period of the Vietnam War was a sad time for labor unions, not least because deindustrialization was starting to occur. It is sometimes forgotten that the AFL-CIO, especially its leaders, were strong supporters of the Vietnam War, and strident anti-communists (a fact that would make Glenn Beck’s head hurt). In many ways, the union movement, progressive during the New Deal and post-war eras, became conservative during this period. As society began to change rapidly (The Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the rise of hippies and rock’n’roll, etc.), white middle-aged members of the working class (union and non-union) reacted harshly. Social issues and “traditional values” divided older blue collar workers and the younger generations who went beyond class exploitation and sought reform and equal rights for gays, minorities, women, and so on.

This division was detrimental for the left and the middle class, and Republican candidates like Richard Nixon were able to take advantage of it. His “southern strategy,” which Ronald Reagan later perfected, appealed to racist elements in the south that rejected civil rights reform. His platform ran on “states rights” and law and order, which allured southerners who felt the federal government had interfered with their rights to segregate and oppress.

Today, over four decades later, social issues remain major determining factors for a great percentage of white working-class voters. Since Nixon’s time, white Americans have become more likely to vote Republican, even if they are part of the working class (which has long irked Democrats). According to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, this is especially true for white evangelicals, southern whites, mormons, and white men with some college or less. In the 2014 elections, this came through when non-college educated white voters (i.e. white working class) voted 64 percent for Republicans and 34 percent for Democrats. On the other hand, the more educated one gets, the more one seems to lean Democrat (those with post-graduate degree more likely to vote Democrat 57% to 35%)

Of course, not all white working class people vote Republican, and this phenomenon largely exists in the South. An even more important fact is that the poorer one is, the less likely they are to even vote. Obviously there are many different reasons for this, especially when voter suppression is taken into account — though one can’t help but think that many of the white working class do not see either major parties as their own. Indeed, over the past two decades, the largest increase in affiliation has been for those who do not identify with either of the major parties, but instead identify as independent. While many working class whites prefer the conservative social values of Republicanism, it is near impossible to look past the fact that the party is owned and operated by the business elite. And yet, the Democratic party has not been a whole lot better over the past few decades when it comes to economic policies. During the seventies, Democrats largely went from pro-union progressives to neoliberal centrists, exemplified best by Bill Clinton. So what did socially conservative working class whites do? They voted Republican.

But this could change. Especially with an authentic fighter for the working class, which no one can deny that Bernie Sanders is. The Vermont Senator is injecting some old school progressive populism into 2015 politics; the kind of populism that the working class once fought so hard for. When, for example, was the last time a presidential candidate picketed with union members, as Sanders did in Iowa a few days ago? Even conservatives cannot deny the authenticity of Sanders. Jack Butler, a research assistant American Enterprise Institute, writes for the right-wing website, The Federalist:

“Unlike certain candidates, Sanders actually believes in things other than himself. He’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks about the issues. He won’t sell himself to the highest bidder. And he tries to represent his constituents.”

The passion of Bernie Sanders is very powerful, and could recapture a significant portion of the white working class. He is even mildly conservative on certain issues,like gun control (very mild — he has a D- rating from the NRA), which could upset some liberals, but attract social moderates.

Furthermore, as Thom Harmann has pointed out, Sanders has a history of earning conservative votes in Vermont:

“Despite its reputation as a place filled with liberal hippies, Vermont, like most of rural northern New England, is home to a lot of conservatives. Anyone running for statewide office there needs to win these conservatives’ votes, and Bernie is great at doing that. Back in 2000 when Louise and I were living in Vermont, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see his signs on the same lawn as signs that said “W for President.”

While social issues have divided America for decades, many Americans remain (or have become more recently) dedicated to economic policies that support the middle class, especially after three decades of financial deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and other neoliberal policies from both major parties, which have resulted in massive economic inequalities. Would it really be a surprise for white working class folks who remain mildly socially conservative to vote for a man like Sanders, who is dedicated to fighting corporate interests and the business elites? The Tea Party movement did, after all, start as a protest of Wall Street elites and government bailouts.

Sure, the “Democratic Socialist” label will scare some of the more conservative people who believe it is equivalent to Stalinism, and dedicated free marketeers will always oppose working class movements. But as Sanders becomes more and more mainstream, the people are starting to see that he is fighting for them — whether they are white, black, hispanic, asian, socially conservative or socially liberal. Anti-war protesters and blue collar workers alike could support Sanders, and this uniting ability could legitimately challenge the political establishment that has for so long weakened the middle class of America.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, Alternet, The Hill, and CounterPunch.