Mapping the White Working Class

Mapping the White Working Class

A deep dive into the beliefs and sentiments of the moderates among them

December 20, 2016

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This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

In the wake of the 2016 election, a long-standing debate within progressive circles has been reignited: Whatever shall we do with the white working class? The question arises because for the past two decades, white working-class voters have marched steadily to the right. What was a competitive constituency for Democrats in the 1990s—and had once been its foundation—has emerged as a strong base of support for the Republican Party.

Progressives have had a sharply polarized response. On one side are those who maintain that we must redouble our efforts to win white working-class support. Even though its share of the electorate is in decline, the white working class remains too large for any movement seeking majority support to ignore. These progressives counsel a healthy dose of economic populism to win back these voters’ allegiances.

On the other side are those resigned to losing them. Whether motivated by disgust with these voters’ allegedly retrograde social views, or just world-weary pragmatism in the face of an apparently unstoppable trend, this camp argues that progressives should give up on winning back white non-college-educated voters and make other plans. They look instead to the “rising American electorate” of millennials, people of color, and highly educated whites to produce a progressive majority.

At first blush, the 2016 election seems to provide clear vindication for the don’t-give-up camp, as the white working class took another decisive step—more of a leap, really—to the right. Supporting Trump by a massive 39-point margin nationally, they clearly played a decisive role in delivering Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to Donald Trump. In electoral terms, the urgency of reversing at least some of  this erosion is clear. However, the scurrilous nature of Trump’s campaign, and its obvious appeals to racial resentment and xenophobia, only hardened suspicions by many progressives that seeking support in the white working class is implausible, unprincipled, or both. So the debate continues, with lines drawn perhaps even more sharply. Wooing the white working class is mathematically necessary, but also hopelessly immoral—or just plain hopeless.

To escape from this box, progressives must recognize that the white working class is not a monolith, but contains a wide diversity of political views. About half of non-college-educated whites identify as conservatives, and nearly all of them have become reliable Republican voters. On the other end of the spectrum is a small group of liberals, who regularly vote for Democrats. Consequently, most working-class whites are either completely unavailable to progressive candidates or (less commonly) already in the progressive camp.

In between is a critically important subset of potentially persuadable voters, the white working-class moderates, or “WWCMs.” About 35 percent of working-class whites have moderate or “middle of the road” political views, which means WWCMs represent about 15 percent of the overall electorate, or approximately 23 million registered voters. While Trump won the working class conservatives by an overwhelming 85 points (Clinton got a mere 6 percent), he had a much smaller 26-point margin among the WWCMs. That margin is double Mitt Romney’s 13-point edge in 2012, and this swing had a decisive impact. If Clinton had performed as well as Obama with those moderates, it would have doubled her national popular vote margin from 2 percent to 4 percent. Even if she had just lost ground among these voters at the same rate she did among white working-class conservatives, she would almost certainly have won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Several months before the election, I conducted a deep study of these moderate working-class white voters on behalf of Americans for a Fair Deal. We convened eight focus groups with these voters in Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Appleton, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rather than focusing on the presidential candidates, we held broader discussions about the nation and its political system, and explored both the barriers and opportunities that progressives face in working-class communities. Sadly, I cannot report that these sessions “solved” the puzzle of the white working class. But the research findings confirm the real possibility that progressives could make inroads with these voters in the future, and take an important first step forward in identifying strategies for reaching them.

Most progressive explorations of the white working class’s rightward shift frame it as a baffling mystery: How can these non-wealthy Americans vote against their obvious (to us) economic self-interest? The usual explanation is that conservatives’ mastery of “hot button” culture war issues and racial anxiety serve to distract and divert the white working-class voters from recognizing their “true” interests. The obvious solution, then, is to somehow increase the salience of economic issues, perhaps by offering a sharper contrast to conservatives’ economic agenda.

However, our focus-group conversations suggest that it would be a mistake to project this familiar ideological template onto these moderates. In fact, they are considerably less culturally conservative than the stereotype suggests. White working-class moderates do perceive a decline of moral values in our nation, but the values these working people fear losing include progressive values as well as conservative ones. Many are disturbed by what they perceive as a rise in selfishness and lack of concern for others, calling for more “compassion” and more support for those who need it, especially veterans and the disabled. The issues traditionally at the center of the nation’s “culture wars”—abortion, homosexuality, drugs—come up only sporadically, while many express a “live and let live” attitude toward America’s changing social mores.

Survey data confirm that these voters have a very different cultural outlook than conservatives. For example, 67 percent of white non-college conservatives report being very concerned that “many government programs violate my personal moral values,” but just 25 percent of the moderates share this concern.

If the moderates are not as culturally conservative as usually assumed, then why aren’t they already in the progressive camp? It would seem that without that roadblock, their economic self-interest would naturally lead them to the left. But that is not what we see.

The fundamental problem is that white working-class voters do not perceive progressives (or Democrats) to better represent their economic concerns. Polling showed that voters overall divided fairly evenly on whether Donald Trump (46 percent) or Hillary Clinton (42 percent) would do a better job of dealing with the economy, yet Trump enjoyed a 27-point advantage (57 percent to 30 percent) on this question among non-college whites, and an enormous 42-point advantage among non-college white men. This result cannot be explained by Trump’s intermittent economic populism. In 2015, by 73 percent to 27 percent, white working-class voters said that the federal government, far from helping them, had made it harder for them to achieve their goals, and by a 4-to-1 ratio said that the federal government’s economic impact was negative.

So the presumption that the cultural or religious values of white working-class voters are superseding their economic priorities fundamentally misrepresents the reality. In our focus groups, few moderates articulated any sense that Democrats have an economic agenda or philosophy that would help them, or are animated by concern for people like them. While they didn’t trust Republicans either, we heard nothing suggesting that Democrats are even seeking to improve economic conditions or economic opportunities for them, or that those outcomes would result if only Democrats could just implement their agenda. Even if white working-class voters agreed to base their votes entirely on economic concerns, it is not at all clear Democrats would prevail.

AP Photo/Claire Galofaro

Terry Wright, a 59-year-old retired union painter, adjusts the U.S. flag on his porch in Portland, a white, working class neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. 

To be clear, we saw no evidence that these voters have rejected a progressive economic policy agenda. As confirmed in numerous polls, many elements of that agenda—higher taxes on the wealthy, reining in Wall Street, ensuring paid leave for workers—are popular. But these voters’ somewhat abstract desire for more progressive economic policies is undercut and overwhelmed by their deeply negative view of government, which includes a strong aversion to spending and government intervention in the economy. While they are economic progressives, in important respects they are also fiscal conservatives.

Given that Democrats are seen as the party of government and Republicans the reverse, the reflexive aversion among working-class moderates to “government spending” has real political consequences. Indeed, our participants’ single greatest worry about the Democrats is that they “favor too much government spending,” eclipsing by far the number who feel that Democrats “don’t respect my values” or that Democratic economic policies “don’t help me.” As some of our focus group participants commented:

“I think that government should run their government like we have to run our household. We all have to live under a budget. There’s only so much money to go around.”

“You guys should all be happy Congress is not getting anything done, for the simple fact that it won’t affect you when they pass regulations that cost people money. I mean, when they make laws, it costs somebody money down the road.”

While progressives need to confront the reality that working-class white moderates’ economic outlook is less progressive than usually assumed, there is a silver lining: these anti-government views do not reflect a philosophical embrace of conservative free-market ideas. These voters have no principled objection to government intervening in the economy on behalf of working people; on the contrary, they would welcome it. They simply have no confidence that Democrats (or anyone else) would make this happen in the real world.

At the root of this skepticism is their profound distrust of, and alienation from, the political system. Overwhelmingly, they believe that the nation’s political leaders are not serving the country well, and the notion that politicians of either party might care about their economic situation feels inherently implausible (if not laughable). Their distrust of government makes them susceptible to conservative attacks on progressive  proposals that invariably rely on government action. To a disturbing extent, these working-class voters have rejected politics as a meaningful way of improving their communities or nation.

It would be hard to overstate the disconnect WWCMs feel from current politicians, whom they see not only as greedy and self-interested, but also as out of touch with the people they are supposed to represent. The principal political division perceived by these working-class voters is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between politicians and ordinary people.

“They have millions and millions of dollars. They don’t know that I live off of, like, a very low amount. You know, I live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t give a crap about me. They don’t give a crap about none of you.”

These voters agree that the economic system is “rigged,” as populists like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders like to say, but with a crucial difference: It is not rigged only to the advantage of those at the top. They complain that the rich and poor both get taken care of today, while those in the middle get left behind. Many report that their families have at times been unable to receive needed help because they “make too much.” Doubtless some of these stories would fall apart upon close inspection, but this perception of an advantaged poor is widespread and powerful. Progressives must find a way to speak to this sense of a forsaken middle and to signal that they do care about providing opportunity and help to those who earn a bit too much to qualify for public assistance.

“Sometimes I feel that there’s too much focus on the very rich and the very poor, where I feel that most Americans fall somewhere more in the middle. And I think the very rich are going to be OK, ultimately, and the poor, I’m okay with helping them. … But, I think just focus on the middle class.”

Progressives often wonder how white working-class people can vote Republican despite believing that the GOP is the party of the rich. The mystery is solved if we understand that “the party of average people” is not the only possible alternative to the party of the rich. They see Democrats as working on behalf of a series of interest groups rather than the public interest. In their view, the allocation of government benefits reflects political calculation, not any moral or economic principles, with both parties lavishing benefits on their respective constituencies. The GOP version (handouts for the wealthy) may be less attractive, but from the white working-class perspective both stories translate into “not for me.”

There can be no doubt that a sense of racial resentment and grievance lies behind some of these comments, as well as a failure to recognize or acknowledge the reality of continuing racism. At the same time, it was striking what we did not hear said on the topic of race. People did not rail against affirmative action, blame African Americans for crime, or claim that white people faced more discrimination than people of color—all of which were staples of discussions with working-class whites 20 years ago (and likely would be today in sessions held with conservatives). In a survey my firm conducted on the eve of the election, 53 percent of white working-class conservatives said the nation’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity was a negative change for the nation, but just 36 percent of moderates felt the same way (only slightly higher than white voters overall).

Progressives clearly must not pander to or ignore racism as a strategy for reaching the white working class. Fortunately, they don’t have to. Boosting white non-college moderates’ support for Clinton by just 5 percent or 6 percent would have delivered her the presidency. Democrats can lose the votes of every one of the 36 percent who are uneasy with America’s increasing diversity, and still make the progress required to win elections. Progressives must not make the error of assuming that outreach to white working-class voters implies or requires a diminished commitment to racial justice.

In this context, it’s a mistake to define progressives’ challenge as persuading white working-class voters to ignore or set aside conservative cultural values in favor of pursuing their economic self-interest. Progressives must convince them that government policies really can help them economically and strengthen their communities, and that political engagement is a plausible way to make things better. That will require both offering a compelling economic vision, and patient, on-the-ground organizing.

Encouragingly, our focus group participants rallied around an openly progressive economic vision offered by a hypothetical candidate (which appears below), much preferring it to a conservative small-government appeal:

Too many politicians have given in to the power of corporate lobbyists instead of doing what’s best for our nation’s economic future. CEOs and billionaires keep getting tax breaks, while our bridges crumble and our schools fall behind. Our economy is weakened because politicians put their political career first, instead of making investments that benefit all Americans. We must grow our economy, so we can create the jobs our country needs and improve incomes for average people. We should invest in infrastructure, medical research, and new technologies to create thousands of good-paying jobs and strengthen our nation. We should improve education and training, so American workers can compete in the global marketplace.

Despite their distrust of government, these voters will embrace a progressive message that openly calls for expanded public-sector investment. They have a long list of things they believe government should be doing or doing better: improving education, making health care more affordable, supporting veterans, ensuring that seniors enjoy a secure retirement, and so on. Ultimately, the ideal of “small government” has much less appeal to them than a government that actually acts to strengthen the economy and help average people.

The populist criticism of politicians made by our hypothetical candidate—that they have been captured by wealthy interests—resonated with our participants and helped break through their well-earned skepticism. It spoke to their frustration with current political leaders, while suggesting the possibility of having government truly work on behalf of average people—exactly the change they are looking for. To some extent, politicians are even better targets today than the bankers and CEOs that progressives routinely assail. These voters’ anger is much more directed toward the politicians who sell out than the corporations that buy them. They expect special interests to seek political influence. Elected officials, in contrast, are supposed to serve the public. So these voters feel more betrayed by the elected officials.

The growth-oriented tone of this vision appealed to our participants and helped to make the message feel less “political.” Progressives cannot win over these voters simply by saying, even implicitly, “We will give handouts to white working-class people, too.” These voters are proud of their independence, and the last thing they want is anything resembling a “handout.” A successful appeal must clearly signal that progressives care about those in the middle, not just those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but it must be done in the language of economic revival and expanded opportunity.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

A worker assembles construction supplies at Northeast Building Products in Philadelphia. 

Breaking through these voters’ skepticism and restoring their trust in the political system will be challenging, and will take time. In the short term, it likely means that the conversations progressives have with working-class whites will need to start outside the framework of elections and political parties. Community organizations and non-elected community leaders must be the “tip of the spear” as progressives seek to engage white working-class communities.

To build strength in these communities, progressives will also need to identify specific issues that engage their interest and speak to their economic needs. Ideally, these issues and the campaigns promoting them will also help combat the notion that progressives care only about helping the poor while neglecting the needs of average working people.

There are many progressive policy priorities that might lend themselves to such organizing, including tax fairness, job creation though community investment, and affordable higher education. Let me suggest just one issue that usually receives little attention but illustrates the kind of concrete impact on working-class lives we need. The WWCMs we spoke with strongly embraced the idea of expanding programs that help non-college-bound youth get the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. This issue could really have surprising power as an organizing issue. Many working-class voters (and others) worry that public schools focus exclusively on preparing students for college, while neglecting the equally important task of preparing non-college-bound students for successful transitions into the workforce. They enthusiastically endorse proposals to provide quality vocational education, apprenticeships, and other programs that would expand opportunities for young Americans—including many of their own children and grandchildren—who are unlikely to pursue a four-year degree after high school.

Fundamentally, WWCMs feel that society does not value people who work with their hands. A set of policies aimed at non-college youth would not just meet an important economic need for working-class families, it would also make an important moral statement that these young Americans matter and have contributions to make. It would place progressives more clearly on the side of working families.

“Not everybody is college material, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and that’s what’s wrong with society nowadays. If you don’t have a college degree, we can’t hire you. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Engaging this critical bloc of voters is an enormously challenging project for the progressive movement, and will be the work of years if not decades. Our research did not unearth a magic bullet that will transform white working-class voters into progressives. But we did find clear openings that give progressives a chance for productive dialogue and engagement with the white working class. It is absolutely possible to erode some of the barriers standing between progressives and white working people. If progressives are willing to engage them in a smart and targeted way, they will make significant gains within white working-class communities in the years ahead. 

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