The White Working Class and the Future of American Politics
As the smoke has cleared from the 2012 elections, it is now apparent that the coalition of progressives and moderates that re-elected Barack Obama has essentially reached a political and electoral stalemate in its struggle with conservatives and the GOP.
Although Democrats received more votes than Republicans—not only in the presidential race but also in the races for the Senate and House of Representatives—Republicans have proven themselves highly skilled at using the rules and procedures of Congress to paralyze the normal activity of government. Republican obstruction has insured that Obama and the Democrats cannot pass major legislation, make normal executive branch appointments, staff many existing agencies or enforce a range of laws already passed by Congress and now on the books.
Although the long-term demographic trends are favorable for progressives and the Democrats, there is little realistic hope that this basic stalemate can or will be broken in 2014, 2016 and even for some years beyond simply by maintaining or increasing the turnout of the core Obama coalition. Demographic change is inexorable, but it is also slow.
To create a stable Democratic majority anytime in the foreseeable future, the Democratic coalition that elected Barack Obama needs to win the support of a significant group of voters who now vote as part of the Republican coalition. As the 2012 elections demonstrated, the group that (outside the South) has the greatest potential in this regard is the white working class. These are the high school or community college educated men and women who work in blue collar or lower level white collar jobs and whose pay provides neither a genuine “middle class” income nor meaningful economic security.
In 2012, Obama and the Democrats were assisted by an extraordinarily favorable combination of circumstances in their outreach to this group—a uniquely aloof and unsympathetic Republican candidate, a series of profoundly provocative and insulting actions by GOP governors in critical Midwestern states and a weak but nonetheless discernible economic recovery in the months before Election Day. Democrats cannot count on these factors being repeated in the future; quite the contrary, the GOP, despite its intense ideological myopia, will not intentionally repeat exactly the same set of tactical and strategic mistakes it made in 2012.
As a result, both on the positive side and on the negative side, the white working class is now a unique—perhaps THE unique—swing voter group for the future. On the positive side, permanently increasing the level of Democratic support among white workers
to the 40% Obama received in 2008 could actually insure a genuinely stable and reliable Democratic majority for many years to come. On the negative side, if in 2016 white working class support for the Dems falls to or below the 33% it hit in 2010, a GOP president becomes a very real possibility.
In order to successfully appeal to this critical group of voters, Democrats will need to do more than create a few clever TV ads or emphatically repeat Democratic campaign clichés left over from the 1950’s. Four decades of isolation and mutual distrust have left many Democrats with little or no understanding of who white working class Americans are, why they think the way they do or how to win their support. To genuinely appeal to these Americans, Democrats will have to re-think their entire attitude and approach.
That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of this book.