The White Working Class

Democrats can’t retake Congress without more white working-class votes. In conjunction with The Democratic Strategist, we present 13 articles on why the Democrats should, and how they can, win those votes—progressively.

The White Working Class and the Democrats

The Pittsburgh Conundrum

Can you have a model city in a left-behind region?

(Pam Panchak/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP Images)
This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . F orty years after the decline of the steel industry, Pittsburgh has emerged from the ashes of deindustrialization to become the new Emerald City. Its formidable skyline gleams with homegrown names—PPG, UPMC, and PNC. Touted as the “most livable city” by the likes of The Economist and Forbes , its highly literate and educated workforce has contributed to a robust and diverse local economy known as a center for technology, health care, and bio-science. It is a leader in startup businesses. Uber and Ford’s announcement in 2016 that they would base development of their self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, rather than in Silicon Valley, is a telling example of the power of high-tech image and low costs. Pittsburgh also ranks high in housing affordability. Residents can easily walk or bike to public libraries, museums, and arts and entertainment venues. Some see Pittsburgh as a model for economic...

It Was Prejudice. It Was Economics. It Was Both.

New surveys show not all Trump voters had the same motivations.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren A supporter of President Donald Trump takes part in a May Day protest in Seattle. wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg E ight months after Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, arguments still rage over what motivated Trump’s nearly 63 million voters. Was it racism and sexism, or was it the consequence of economic anxiety in disaffected white working-class communities? How had Trump succeeded, particularly in long-Democratic states in the Rust Belt, where Romney and McCain had failed? The question has become a sort of Rorschach test for the left: Many social democrats and Sanders supporters see Trump’s apostasy on trade and his promises to bring factory jobs back as key to his victory, while Clinton-aligned and more identity-focused analysts tend to hone in on Trump’s overt appeals to prejudice. The evidence collected since the election increasingly suggests that both sides are right—it just depends on which Trump voter you’re looking at. For the base Trump voter, it...

Place Matters

As in the 1930s, progressives need economic development strategies for the left-behind regions of the country.

AP Photo/David Goldman
This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg D onald Trump’s election may have stunned us all, but it shouldn’t have. There were plenty of signals that regions of the country on whose support Democrats had long counted were in economic collapse. And like most of us, the Democrats failed to see them. In May 2016, the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) released a study—“The New Map of Economic Growth and Recovery”—that made no discernible impact on progressive discourse or Democrats’ strategy. But, like the Angus Deaton and Anne Case studies on rising death rates within the white working class—which did enter progressive discourse but also had no impact on Democrats’ strategy—it sure as hell should have. The EIG’s study strikes me as the necessary corollary to the Deaton-Case documentation of the rise in “deaths of despair” within the white working class. What it shows, simply, is that businesses and employment...

The White Working Class

An American, and a Democratic, dilemma

AP Photo/Eric Gay
AP Photo/Eric Gay A worker uses a lift to move rolls of sheet metal at LMS International, in Laredo, Texas. wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg W ith our partners at The Democratic Strategist , The American Prospect is co-publishing this series of articles on one of the most contentious topics in today’s political discourse, and one of progressives’ and the Democratic Party’s most vexing problems: the white working class (WWC). The need for such a discussion is both obvious and twofold. First, the white working class—the bedrock of the long-vanished New Deal Coalition—has largely and increasingly been abandoning the Democratic Party, even when that has meant voting against some of its economic interests. While Hillary Clinton’s loss of such presumably blue-wall states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania dramatized the extent of the Democrats’ problem, it was also just the latest stage of an epochal shift. Wisconsin, after all, has a wall-to-wall reactionary state government, with Scott...

Overture: A Near-Death of Despair

The decimation of the Heartland began a long time ago.

AP Photo/Eric Gay
AP Photo/Eric Gay Workers load rolls of sheet metal at LMS International in Laredo, Texas. wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg W e met on a lonely hilltop, where he planned to kill himself. His factory had shutdown and he couldn’t find another union—or decent-paying job. He wouldn’t take charity when his money ran out. And so, he’d wound up back at the auto-parts plant, earning less than half of what he’d earned before for a job that now paid him by the piece. We met because I had been tracking for my newspaper, the Detroit Free Press , workers from his factory, which had closed nearly a year before. He was the last one I reached late one night to go through a routine questionnaire I had developed and I panicked when he told me by phone about killing himself in the morning. He said his mind was made up and he didn’t need to speak to any mental-health folks. I rushed to see him next morning in his small town miles from Detroit. Standing calmly on the hilltop, he said he wasn’t a weak man. But he...

Democrats Need to Be the Party of and for Working People—of All Races

And they can’t retake Congress unless they win over more white workers.

(Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . wwc_icon2.jpg S ince November, progressives have engaged in many solid post-election audits seeking to explain how the Obama coalition was narrowly supplanted by Donald Trump’s ethno-nationalist wave of white working-class support. Analysts have explored the relative balance of economic versus racial factors; the breakdown in polling, field organizing, and message development; and the role of campaign-specific mistakes and external interventions by the FBI, WikiLeaks, and the Russians. In an election decided by small margins in a handful of states, each of these factors arguably played a role. Unfortunately, this process has led to some unfruitful debates about whether progressives should double down on the Obama coalition voters, reach out more to white working-class voters, or appeal more to independent and conservative-leaning suburban whites. When a party narrowly loses the Electoral...

A Tale of Two Populisms

The elite the white working class loathes is politicians.

(Photo: AP/Paul Sancya)
wwc_icon2.jpg This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . M any analysts, and leading Democrats, have attributed Donald Trump’s impressive 2016 vote margin among white working-class voters to his embrace of economic populism. In the wake of Trump’s victory, Senator Bernie Sanders suggested that “millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own. … Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.” Senator Elizabeth Warren also identified possible common ground on economic issues: “When President-elect Trump wants to take on these issues, when his goal is to increase the economic security of middle-class families, then count me in.” Democrats can take obvious comfort in a story...

The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem’

It’s not only with whites. It reaches well into the party’s base.

(Photo: AP/Debra McCown)
wwc_icon2.jpg This article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . T he road to a sustainable Democratic majority—nationally, locally, and in the states—must include much higher Democratic performance with white working-class voters (those without a four-year degree). Nearly every group in the progressive infrastructure is busy figuring out how Democrats can get back to the level of support they reached with President Obama’s 2012 victory. That is a pretty modest target, however, given the scale of Democratic losses. It underestimates the scope of the problem and, ironically, the opportunity. The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials...

Absent a More Progressive Economics, the Democrats Will Lose

Economic Populism appeals both to core Democratic voters and the white workers with whom the party has failed to connect.

Michael Nigro/Sipa via AP Images
wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg T he challenge Democrats face today—uniting a broad coalition of working class Americans that spans racial, regional, gender, and generational lines—is far from new, but it has not always been this daunting. The staggering results of last November’s election should be a reminder to Democrats that the racially diverse, young, educated, unmarried (women), and urban voters who comprised a significant portion of the Obama coalition do not constitute an inexorable path to Electoral College victory for Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama consolidated the Rising American Electorate (RAE), but also captured critical majorities in places like Sawyer County, Wisconsin; Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; and Macomb County, Michigan—all home to significant numbers of white working class voters. These were just three of the 219 counties that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. White working class voters in these parts of the country, once hubs of manufacturing and...

Rebuilding a Progressive Majority by Winning Back White Working-Class Moderates

From the findings of Working America, the AFL-CIO's outreach program to non-union working people

wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg E ven before the election, political analysts were decrying Hillary Clinton as a candidate. She wasn’t a natural campaigner. She wasn’t spending enough time on the ground. She had too much baggage. She couldn’t break through the noise about her email server. The natural extension of this argument is that a typical Democrat would have performed better than Clinton did and will in the future. However, the election results in key battleground states do not support this theory. Democrats lost up and down the ballot. And they have been losing cycle after cycle in non-urban America for some time. By the middle of the 2016 cycle, there were nine competitive Senate races around the country: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Heading into 2016, Democrats felt confident about this favorable map, but Republicans ended up winning seven of those contests. In New Hampshire, Democrats staggered to a narrow 1,...

Winning (Some) Middle-of-the-Road Working-Class Whites

White working-class voters differ not just in “what they think” but in “how they think.” Understanding this difference is the key to creating a successful Democratic strategy for regaining their support.

(Photo: AP/Lathan Goumas/News & Daily Advance)
wwc_icon2.jpg L ooking at the details of the 2016 election, one can argue that any alternative strategy may have offered a plausible scenario for a Democratic victory. A different candidate, better advertising and voter targeting, better basic messaging and platform—changing any one of these factors can very convincingly be argued to have been sufficient to reverse the outcome. But if one steps back and looks at the 2016 election in a longer-term perspective, the most important conclusion is that after 16 years and five presidential elections, Democrats have profoundly failed to expand the sociological base of their coalition. The geographic and demographic profile of Hillary Clinton’s support in 2016 looks almost identical to the contours of Al Gore’s support in 2000. The Democratic coalition remains based on almost exactly the same “McGovern coalition” of minorities, youth, single women, and educated professionals that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis identified almost 15 years ago in...

The Racism Obstacle

There are limits to how effectively a progressive populist economics can woo working-class whites.

Bethany Baker/The Coos Bay World via AP
Bethany Baker/The Coos Bay World via AP An activist holds American and "Don't Tread on Me" flags and sports a Confederate flag on his shirt in in North Bend, Oregon. wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg N either will like the comparison, but it’s inescapable. Since the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders sounds like an earlier leader who wanted to overhaul the Democratic Party after a devastating loss: former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Almost 30 years ago, Clinton, like Sanders, struggled to find a way to win back the White House by attracting more white non-college educated voters, the backbone of the New Deal coalition, many of whom had left the party at least partly out of discomfort with the dominance of women and people of color in the Democratic coalition. Clinton promoted his humble origins, and so does Sanders. “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from,” Sanders declared in a speech soon...

The Outlook for 2018 and 2020

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with, from left, Representative John Yarmuth, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Representative Barbara Lee, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and Senator Chris Van Hollen speak to reporters about President Donald Trump's first 100 days, during a news conference on Capitol Hill. wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg T he basic political context for the discussion about white working class voters is the urgent challenge of the 2018 and 2020 elections. These elections will determine whether the horrendous outcome of the 2016 elections represented a wake-up call for progressives, or a nightmare that has only just begun. If Democrats do not make significant gains in the states in these two elections, Republicans will dominate another decennial round of redistricting that could place not only state legislatures but also the U.S. House out of reach until 2032. The odds of Republicans earning a “lock” on the House go up even more if...

Coda: When Appalachia Was Blue

How the Democrats won and lost it.

AP Photo/Harvey Georges
wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg J ohn F. Kennedy loved his Brooks Brothers suits and was particular about them. They had to be single-breasted, vented, made of dark blue worsted wool and typically augmented with shiny black wingtips. He wore these suits as comfortably as a lynx wears its fur. And he was wearing one on April 26, 1960, the day he sat down on a filthy set of mine car tracks in Mullens, West Virginia, to talk and joke with a crew of coal miners during a shift change at the Pocahontas Fuel Company He became “almost as grimy as the miners,” wrote the UPI reporter on the scene, and nearly electrocuted himself on a low-hanging electrical wire. “When he left the mine,” noted the wire service reporter, “his face and hands were as black as if he had been digging coal.” Later that day, Kennedy visited the river town of Welch, where he climbed on top of a nearby car and delivered an impromptu stump speech. “How can a candidate do anything for West Virginia if he doesn't come in here to...

Can the Democratic Party Be White Working Class, Too?

While Hillary Clinton was losing Montana by more than 23 points, Steve Bullock was elected governor running as a progressive Democrat. What can the rest of us learn from Montana? 

Justin Gest
This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here . wwc_homepage_logo-3.jpg N othing about Governor Steve Bullock bears a resemblance to President Donald Trump. The son of educators, he had a humble, unremarkable upbringing in the Rocky Mountain town of Helena, Montana’s state capital. He is less than comfortable in front of flashbulbs. A Columbia-trained attorney, Bullock is happiest being left alone to study his briefing notes or the minutiae of legislation in his quiet office. His interactions with constituents come across as a little forced but, humble and solicitous, his earnestness shines through. Bullock opened his first State of the State address in 2013 by saying, “My name is Steve and I work for the state.” While Hillary Clinton lost Montana by more than 20 points in 2016, Bullock was narrowly re-elected, winning by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent. He is cautious about interviews with the press—not because he overtly...