It is a question that is not going away any time soon. Can the Democratic Party win over the white working class? More to the point, do Democrats even want to win over the white working class?
For some Democratic pundits—notably Thomas Frank and James Carville—winning over these voters is the party’s best chance at future electoral successes. Frank, best known as the author of Listen, Liberal and What’s the Matter with Kansas?, believes there are two impulses at war in “Leftland.” One is that Democrats need to build a broad coalition of working class people. (The other impulse, he says, is “I’m better than you.”)
“There’s always been something problematic about the Democratic Party’s fixation on white working-class voters,” writes Kohn. “After Alabama, it’s clear that obsession isn’t just fraught with bias. It’s also dumb.”
The question is not just a political one; it is an existential question. If the Democratic Party doesn’t have a chance at electoral success then democracy and, indeed the planet, don’t have a chance.
There’s no denying that the white working class vote has slowly shifted Republican, though not as dramatically as some people think (the shift is only about seven points over four decades). White working class voters, however, made up a substantial part of the Democratic vote in both 2016 (38 percent) and 2020 (41 percent). In fact, the trend of the white working class voting for the GOP reversed slightly under Trump.
It seems self evident that writing off some forty percent of your voters would be disastrous and stupid. Especially when Democrats seem to have, at least momentarily, reversed the tide.
Looking back at the past four decades, the period when the white working class massively reversed course and voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, came with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory. In that election a whopping 68 percent of the white working class pulled the lever for Clinton. Lots of factors contributed to that reversal. Many of those working class voters—despite having supported Ronald Reagan in the Eighties—still considered themselves nominally Democrats. Clinton was a southern Democrat, which historically was almost the same as being a conservative, thus southerners felt they could trust him. And Clinton certainly governed like a conservative democrat.
Today’s Democratic Party doesn’t need or want another Clinton at the head of the ticket, and it is not clear that there is anything to learn from Bill Clinton’s election that is helpful in today’s political climate. But you don’t need to win 68 percent of the white working class. Obama won 55 percent of the white working class in 2008. Even in today’s toxic political environment that should be totally doable.
At present some Democratic pundits and strategists—the one’s Frank says think they are better than you—don’t particularly want the white working class’s votes. They associate the white working class with the brain-dead fatsos goofing at a Trump rally, or they see Trumpy congress persons like Margerie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar and Sen. Ron Johnson and they assume that is how the entire working class thinks and feels.
It’s not. That’s how some of them think, but there is a whole other half that aren’t bat shit crazy, that could easily pull the lever for someone like Bill Clinton or Joe Biden or Barack Obama (though probably not Hillary Clinton).
The fact is, most of the people who voted for Trump were middle class and wealthy. Researchers found thatin the general election, about two thirds of Trump supporters came from the better-off half of the economy. And yet no Democratic pundit or Daily Beast scribe is saying forget about the middle class voter. Write off the wealthy voters.
Smacks of elitism, doesn’t it?
Actually, it would not be that difficult to win over a majority of working class voters. All you have to do is DO SOMETHING FOR THEM. Democrats are great at, say, banning the use of the word squaw, but not so good at putting a dent in income equality or passing medicare for all, or raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $15, or something that might actually win them working class votes. Build Back Better would be a start. If Democrats can get it passed.
I get it. In today’s polarized society it makes sense that a lot of Democrats would just want to write off the white working class. As Sally Kohn might say, “Who needs them?”
Actually American democracy and the planet needs them. How’s that for an answer?