Looking 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 their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. Despite the very gradual demographic change that the book accurately projected, it is this limitation of the Democratic coalition that not only makes the Democratic candidate still very vulnerable during presidential elections but has allowed Republicans to hold stable control of the House of Representatives and dominate state-level politics across the country.
The most glaring weakness in the modern Democratic coalition is the decline of white working-class support that once provided a major pillar of the Democratic Party. In 2008, even in the midst of a massive and terrifying economic crisis and an unprecedented military fiasco, Barack Obama still received only 40 percent of the white working-class vote. In 2012, Obama’s share declined to 36 percent and in this year’s election, Hillary Clinton suffered an unprecedented 8 percent additional drop to an abysmal 28 percent of white working-class support, according exit polls.
The general interpretation of Trump’s gain among white working-class voters has been that he won this additional 8 percent support over the GOP’s usual 60 percent to 64 percent by adding a combination of more explicit racism and ethnonationalism, a direct appeal to a sense of economic distress and social abandonment, and a faux-populist, media-savvy identification with working people.
The many first-hand journalistic accounts of white working-class Trump supporters, particularly in the Rust Belt, have tended to be relatively sympathetic. While recognizing the substantial role played by Trump’s appeal to bigotry, these accounts generally portrayed white working people as angry over economic decline, frustrated with their loss of their former status in society, and deeply resentful of the ill-concealed distain of Democratic liberals.
On this basis, the debate has focused on two opposing proposals for Democratic strategy. The first views white workers’ support for Trump as largely motivated by racism, a view that leads to the conclusion that Democrats should abandon the attempt to regain white working-class votes and concentrate on raising the turnout of the existing Democratic coalition. The second proposal holds that white workers have legitimate issues and justifiable complaints about their economic circumstances and Democratic indifference. This leads to the belief that Democrats can regain the support of white working-class voters without having to compromise their existing platform, if Democrats just offer a firmly progressive, full-throated version of economic populism.
There is, however, a fundamental problem with both these views and, indeed, this basic way of thinking.
Both these approaches view the white working class as a relatively homogeneous social group—one whose members think about politics and make political choices and decisions in largely similar ways. In this conception, white working-class voters differ from each other essentially because they are arrayed along different points on a single political continuum, one that ranges from conservative Republican to progressive Democrat.
In reality, however, there are actually two fundamentally different kinds of white working-class voters. They differ not just in what they think (their opinions on issues) but how they think (their way of making political choices and decisions). Understanding this difference is the indispensible key to creating a successful Democratic strategy.
There are obviously important demographic subgroups and polarities within the white working class: young versus old, men versus women, and so on. But the existence of these demographic segments is actually not the decisive issue. In the practical political world of door-to-door canvassing for political candidates or in grassroots organizing campaigns, political strategy is always based on one fundamental three-way division of any target group—between those who are already on our side, those who are unalterably against us, and the ambivalent or persuadable group in the middle.
Here’s a very typical chart used in Democratic political campaigns:
Grassroots organizers who do door-to-door canvassing use the same basic framework. Here is Karen Nussbaum, president of Working America, describing in an internal memo the basic approach her organization employs:
Working America engages not the fixed 30-35% or so at each end of the political spectrum (including the firm conservatives who are not and never will be with us on the issues) but rather the 30-40% in the middle. Working-class moderates whose personal ambivalences make them swing voices in the public policy debates.
In the practical setting of particular campaigns, the need to focus strategy on the persuadable sector of a target group is always recognized, but in broad discussions of strategy the critical distinction between persuadable and non-persuadable voters frequently gets lost. In discussions about the white working class, in particular, the objective frequently becomes defined as “winning back the white working class” in general rather than “winning back the persuadable sector of the working class.” The first is an impractical objective that leads to impractical strategic ideas; the second is the basis for any successful political strategy.
Seen in this light, the key questions then become, first, are these “persuadable” white working-class voters basically similar to other more partisan pro-GOP white workers, or are they in some way a cognitively and psychologically distinct group? And second, what proportion of these persuadable voters can actually be convinced to vote for Democrats, and what proportion will tend to express their ambivalence in other ways, such as supporting independent candidates or refusing to vote at all?
Guess what: The conclusions you reach about the psychology of persuadable white working-class voters depends on the methodology you use to study them.
Most discussions of Democratic strategy are based on opinion polls and these, by their nature, tend to focus on people’s specific opinions about which candidate they favor or their views on particular political issues. But both the senatorial and presidential vote in 2016 showed that traditional polls failed to provide adequate guidance for political strategy. While national opinion polls did indeed accurately predict the presidential vote to within less than 2 percent, polls in key states substantially underestimated the likely strength of Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters on Election Day, leading to major errors in voter targeting and messaging. The newer techniques of “microtargeting” and “data mining” were also given glowing coverage in the press during the campaign. They were hailed as incredibly accurate ways to identify and communicate with voters down to the level of specific individuals—but the election results showed that their power and accuracy was vastly overhyped. Indeed, the results made clear that the major tools for understanding white working-class Americans were simply not adequate.
In the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to collaborate on the design and execution of a large, highly innovative focus group project that examined “persuadable” white workers in a more specific way and in greater depth then had previously been undertaken. The large battery of focus groups in this project were conducted for the Fair Deal Project by Guy Molyneux of Hart Research. Molyneux summarized his conclusions from this research in an article in The American Prospect’s Winter 2017 issue.
There were two innovative aspects to the Hart Research/Fair Deal focus groups. First, the participants were limited to a very carefully defined group of voters—individuals with less than a college education who were not firm or consistent Democrats or Republicans but rather were “independents” or very weak Democratic or Republican supporters. The participants were also limited to those who described themselves as either “middle of the road” or only “somewhat liberal” or “somewhat conservative.”
(Although people with a “less than college” education work in a wide variety of jobs, a substantial portion of the occupations held by the men in these focus groups were very distinctly the kinds of jobs that most people do think of as traditionally “working class”—mechanic, heating and air technician, laborer, plumber, truck driver, parts manager, shift supervisor, contractor, automotive equipment salesman, carpenter.)
Very few focus groups have ever focused this precisely on “ambivalent” or “persuadable” less-than-college-educated white working-class workers. The carefully narrowed focus makes a profound difference in the results, because a more typical focus group that also includes individuals with strong progressive or conservative opinions often tends to get shaped or even “hijacked” by the ideologues. Even participants who disagree with more extreme positions end up having to define their own opinions in reaction to the strong views that are expressed by others rather than being able to let their own perspective spontaneously emerge. In such situations, “middle of the road” participants never get to talk and share ideas with others similar to themselves.
The second important characteristic of these particular focus groups was simply their size. The project included eight different groups that included a total of 80 participants. This made it possible to create separate focus groups with standard, identical formats for specific demographic groups like young men, older men, young women, and older women, and to also situate four of the groups in the North and another four in the South.
This was also a key step. Heterogeneous groups that include both men and women and a range of ages make it very hard to clearly distinguish the views of the various subgroups involved. Men do not speak the same way in groups with women as they do among themselves, while older men will often acknowledge thoughts and feelings among themselves that they do not express in front of younger people.
As a result, with this design it became possible to separately examine the views of persuadable white working-class men and women as well as different age and regional groups. In this article, the views of white working-class men will be examined.
The most important characteristic of these middle-of-the-road white male workers is that they approach politics using a fundamentally distinct cognitive framework from that of white workers who hold a firm conservative or progressive ideology. In Molyneux’s Prospect article, he uses the term “white working-class moderates” as a succinct way to characterize these Americans—but it is worth noting that this is not how they generally would describe themselves. They themselves tend to describe their approach to making political decisions as using “practical common sense,” or “my personal philosophy.” They see themselves as trying to “think for myself” to “make up my own mind,” “do my own thinking” or “see both sides” of an issue. When analyzing a political topic, they will often use a distinct “on the one hand, on the other hand” mode of thought.
This is a fundamentally different way of thinking about political issues than the method used by individuals who are firmly committed to an organized political ideology. It is not just a matter of “what they think”; it is a matter of “how they think.” The many white working-class followers of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or the latest conservative televangelist all very emphatically reject the idea of trying to “see both sides” of political issues. They believe very deeply that there are radically distinct “right” and “wrong” views on all political issues and that their particular views are firmly and entirely based on the former.
One consequence of this difference between the two ways of thinking was very apparent in the way the individuals in the male focus groups in the project related to each other. There was virtually no angry, dogmatic assertion of opinions or deprecation of other people’s views—things that quite often occur in discussions in which ideologues participate. On the contrary, the individuals in these particular focus groups were entirely friendly and respectful to each other and frequently seemed pleased and stimulated by having the opportunity to share, exchange, and compare ideas with people similar to themselves.
Observing the groups there were three significant patterns that emerged:
I. These white workers were overwhelmingly cultural traditionalists—but their comments illustrated the fact that there is a fundamental difference between cultural traditionalism and conservatism.
Cultural traditionalism is often confused with conservatism because people who are ideological conservatives very often uphold and glorify traditional cultural ideas. But cultural traditionalism is a distinct concept from conservatism, one that refers to a set of basic social values that exist in working-class life and not to specific social or political views. Within this set of basic traditional social values, various perspectives can exist, perspectives that can range from firmly conservative to strongly progressive.
There are three major traditional values in white working-class culture: respect for religious faith, respect for military service, and respect for the character traits encouraged by small business, honest labor, and hard work. Each of these traditional values is supported by community social institutions like the church, the military, and the business community, and is continually reinforced by family, friends, and neighbors as a working person grows up in his or her community.
Working-class and small-business values. Unlike the industrial era when “working-class values” were defined by industrial labor, today working-class and small-business values significantly overlap, especially among groups like worker-contractors in construction. Pride in craftsmanship, the character-building value of hard work and self-discipline, and similar traditional working-class values are now intermixed with values related to small business—values like independence, individual initiative, and pride in making a small business a success.
The focus group participants expressed a variety of views endorsing these values as ones they deeply held and wanted to transmit to their children. They complained about the fact that the modern “lousy jobs” economy undermined these values, and that they could no longer find jobs where they experienced the pride that comes from being a craftsman, from doing “a hard day’s work and earning a good living” or making long-term sacrifices that provided a better life for their family. They also bemoaned the fact that the modern economy has made it very difficult to teach their children the character-building nature of hard work—the deep satisfaction of rebuilding a car engine or framing a garage addition by hand. They expressed classic attitudes about valuing the pride that comes from being a productive member of society. “I don’t want to just be given anything,” one said. “I want to earn my living.”
Alongside these traditional blue-collar attitudes, there was similar support expressed for the virtues of owning or working in a small business. Participants endorsed the importance of “not having to take orders,” of “being your own boss,” and being “independent.”
But their appreciation of small business was very different from the glorification of “free enterprise” or “the free market” extolled by conservatives. The participants sharply distinguished between their support for small business and their attitudes toward Wall Street or corporate America. They described large companies like Walmart, for example, as essentially predatory and exploitative, undermining local businesses and not serving as a positive force in the community. They felt equally negatively toward the destructive policies of banks and the financial system.
Supporters of candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 25, 2016.
Nor did their approval of small business automatically translate into support for conservative economic policies. As many opinion polls have shown, many white workers actually support a very substantial range of “progressive” economic views and measures. The participants in the focus groups approved of making corporate executives pay their fair share of taxes and requiring them to obey a range of rules and regulations about the environment and conditions of labor. In short, these culturally traditional workers could sound quite “progressive” rather than “conservative” on an array of economic issues.
The military. While progressives often equate support for the military with ill-advised foreign interventions and the neo-imperial ambitions of conservatives like Dick Cheney, this is quite distinct from the basic approval and identification that white workers feel for the military as an institution. It is rarely understood that for working-class people, a career in the military is widely seen as profoundly admirable, because military service upholds and honors very deeply held and distinctly working-class values: ruggedness and bravery, teamwork and group solidarity, loyalty and self-sacrifice. In the rest of American culture, these virtues are given a much lower value than more middle-class values like intellectual ability, acquisitiveness, ambition, competiveness, and the achievement of material success. For high school–educated young men and women who are often not “successful” in these latter terms, the armed forces provide them with the opportunity to be seen as role models and heroes to their parents, families, friends, and communities. In the eyes of working-class Americans, “our men and women in uniform” are in essence the most important “working-class heroes.”
The deep support and respect that exists for the military is most dramatically reflected in the overwhelming and deeply emotional support for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that the focus groups consistently expressed, and the intense anger and dismay they felt over the many failures they observed in treating the veterans as they deserved. In the focus groups, veterans were without question seen as the most admirable group in society and the most deserving of support.
Religious faith. The third pillar of white working-class cultural traditionalism is the firm belief that the Bible teaches good values and that religion is a positive force in family life.
The conservative perversion of this view is theocracy—the belief that Christians should have the right to impose Bible-based morality and rules of behavior on everyone. But among the “common sense,” middle-of-the-road sector of the white working class, there is a widespread and much more tolerant version of Christian belief, based in a more open-minded and forgiving understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. Although many white workers attend evangelical churches that are often viewed as pillars of the religious right, the popular stereotypes of white working-class evangelicals are often far from accurate. As the extensive sociological study Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want noted:
All evangelicals are often stereotyped as imperious, intolerant fanatical meddlers. Certainly there are some evangelicals who fit this stereotype. But when listened to on their own terms, many prove to hold a civil, tolerant and non-coercive view of the world around them … for every one evangelical opposed to pluralism there were others who voiced an equally strong commitment to freedom of choice and toleration of diversity.
The strong majority of the men in the focus groups reflected this relatively tolerant perspective rather than endorsing theocracy. But what they also strongly expressed was a sense that the basic Christian values with which they grew up were being actively discouraged by society. As some noted:
What about the Bible? Doesn’t that have a place in America anymore?
Why don’t Democrats talk about religion? Why don’t they ever stand up for it?
It is important to note, however, that, unlike ideological conservatives, the white working-class men in the Hart Research/Fair Deal focus groups did not place the blame for the decline in traditional values only on elitist liberals or the lack of religion in society. On the contrary, a surprisingly large portion of these participants’ anger was directed at the destruction of traditional values that was being caused by the greed and social indifference of modern business.
When asked about what has made America worse and undermined traditional values, these men repeatedly cited the corrupting effect on their children of cellphones, social media, movies and television, the fashion industry, and the internet. They saw these technologies as deeply destructive, making their pre-teenage girls behave like “sluts,” and their sons sneer at their father’s values. They expressed a genuine fury at the loss of control over their children’s lives. “There aren’t any casual ‘pick-up’ sports games in the neighborhood like there were in my day,” they complained. “Kids just come home and disappear into their rooms to play videogames and stare at their computers.” It is not “liberals” who have done this, in their view; it is the result of an economy and culture where profitability and market share have become the only goal.
The men in these focus groups also perceive the culture created by the major media companies as culpable for the polarization of national political life. A number of participants in the focus groups faulted the media in particular for continually exaggerating and sensationalizing incidents of racial conflict. The media, they assert, blows up every divisive incident that occurs or gives wildly disproportionate coverage to peripheral issues like bathroom access for transgender individuals. “Is this really the most important problem in America?” one asked.
It was not the substance of these particular issues that these men necessarily objected to; it was the massive, disproportionate morning-to-night discussion of issues like these that they felt had little relevance to their lives. They were acutely aware that the TV stations were promoting these topics simply because they produced high ratings and internet “page views,” not because the executives genuinely believed that these were really the most important social issues facing the country.
II. “Common sense,” "middle of the road” white workers do indeed respect and endorse core traditional cultural values, but they also endorse a more unexpected social value—a deep and genuine belief in “tolerance.”
During the various focus groups, some of the outside observers of the sessions were genuinely surprised by the spontaneous expressions of tolerance that emerged during the discussions. Their surprise was understandable. “Working-class whites” are so often equated with Trump supporters or hardcore ideological conservatives that hearing such views seemed quite incongruous.
But anyone who actually spends time with middle-of-the-road white working-class people knows that this is not unusual at all—indeed, it’s quite common. This should not be a surprise. If a person is willing to try to “see both sides” of an issue or view questions with an “on the one hand, on the other hand” mode of thought, the necessary psychological result has to be a willingness to accept that even if one has strong personal convictions, other points of view can and should be treated with respect as well.
In the focus groups, tolerant attitudes appeared again and again. Workers expressed “live and let live” attitudes about a wide range of issues connected to privacy, choice, and freedom. Various participants insisted that they “don’t want to try to run other people’s lives.” They were willing to accept a wide range of behavior that they personally might object to as long as it did not impinge on their own choices and way of life.
This was not some rare exception. One need only look at the wide range of issues on which the “on the one hand, on the other hand” mode of thought appears in the sentences below, sentences fundamentally built around the word “but” as the basis for reaching tolerant conclusions.
Politics: I may agree with the GOP on 90 percent of social issues … but that doesn’t mean I want to impose my views on everyone.
Religion: I think we need to let religion back in schools … but I’m not trying to push religion on anyone.
Health care: I’m not for socialized medicine … but we must help people in need.
Immigration: I’m not saying nobody can come into our country, because that’s not America … but to come in and not pay any taxes, that’s crazy.
Gay Marriage: In 100 years, I’ll never understand what a man can see in another man … but I got a friend in an interracial relationship and I think that’s a good thing, so who am I to be the judge of what someone else decides to do.
Again and again, the basic “on the one hand, on the other hand” way of thinking that is revealed in the use of the word “but” reappears. It is not occasional; it is common. Modern life exposes many white working people to diversity: the interracial couple who move in down the street, the gay man who handles the bookkeeping for the trucking company where they work. Twenty or thirty years ago, these kinds of personal experiences were rare in white working-class life; now they are routine, and workers have gradually adapted to the change.
Perhaps most dramatically, this even extends to attitudes about the emotional subject of race.
White workers in the groups very un-self-consciously expressed an old-fashioned “I have a dream” philosophy about race—a philosophy that is now often viewed by progressives as naïve. They sincerely stated that they judge people by their character, not by the color of their skin. Participants indicated that they know some “good” African Americans and some undesirable ones as well, and they feel no embarrassment in categorizing African Americans in this way. They express the same perspective regarding immigrants. They know one Mexican co-worker who is a “fine family man” and another who is “trouble” or “a bad dude.” They do not share the liberal view that categorizing non-whites in this way represents a perpetuation of stereotypes or reflects an unconscious racism. They believe that they judge white people according to the same standards they use for non-whites and consider themselves entirely admirable because they choose to view and treat people in this “color-blind” way.
Some progressives believe that statements of this kind are simply a smokescreen for an underlying racism, and that unless a white person explicitly recognizes the reality of systemic racism and acknowledges his or her own position as the beneficiary of “white privilege,” statements such as “I judge people as individuals” represent little more than rationalizations to justify racial bias. In fact, some will even argue that whites who express overt bigotry are preferable because they admit their bias rather than conceal it.
A vast number of commentaries have been written regarding this debate, but when it is viewed from the specific perspective of Democratic political strategy, one fact is inescapable: Virtually no overt racists are going to vote for Democratic candidates, while some white workers who hold this “I judge people as individuals” view can, in fact, be convinced to vote Democratic. Categorizing all white workers who hold this “I judge people as individuals” view as essentially indistinguishable from overt racists unavoidably represents a decision to abandon these potentially winnable voters to the GOP.
In the focus group sessions, the important difference between this perspective and explicit racism emerged most dramatically in regard to the videos of police mistreatment or the unjustified shooting of African Americans. Unlike the reflexive “support the police” attitudes racists and firm conservatives will usually express, these white working-class men very firmly agreed that in some cases the video clearly showed that the police officer was totally wrong and his conduct utterly inexcusable and indeed criminal. Their only objection was that such misconduct should not automatically be assumed to always be the case, and that all police officers should not be blamed for the actions of a minority.
III. In an ironic twist, the admirable trait of “common sense,” “middle of the road” white working-class support for tolerance becomes also a demand that liberals should be tolerant themselves and respect white working-class values as well.
The flip side of such workers’ support for tolerance, however, is a demand for respect for their own choices, lifestyle, and views. The men in the focus groups felt that the traditional values they were taught as children are good values and deserve respect. They deeply value core elements of traditional working-class culture like religious faith, patriotism and individual responsibility, and they do not accept the view that such values should be treated as inherently ignorant or reactionary. In fact, it is this dismissal of their values and culture that produces the greatest antagonism toward Democrats and progressives.
Supporters of candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 25, 2016.
This feeling is expressed most clearly in disgust with “political correctness,” which they see as attempt to impose upon them values with which they do not agree. Unlike conservatives, a number of participants in the groups admitted that over the years, they had gradually come to recognize that the biased cultural attitudes regarding African Americans that they’d held in the past were wrong and needed to change. They expressed sincere embarrassment at their previous views and felt pride at the way their views had evolved. But they simply would not accept that people who have no respect for the positive aspects of their culture should have the right to enforce upon them a whole range of rules and standards of behavior derived from a very different culture and social world.
Consider a few of the comments in the focus groups:
America used to be a melting pot and that’s good, but previous generations had to integrate, but now we’re so PC we can’t demand that any more. We get in trouble if we even raise the idea.
Let’s face it; you’re automatically the bad guy if you complain about this stuff.
Just because I don’t agree with gay marriage doesn’t mean I hate gays.
We’ve all run out of white guilt.
You shouldn’t have to worry about everything you say.
I really could care less what you do in your backyard, but don’t tell me what I have to do and believe in my backyard … freedom of speech … you’re supposed to be able to think and say what you want in America, but they want to force you to believe this and agree with that. No, I don’t have to agree with everything you say.
Liberals may disagree with these sentiments, but it is foolish to believe that they are no different from intolerant assertions that demand support for conservative ideology.
The most deeply and personally felt issue for a number of the participants in the focus groups was the imposition of what they felt to be political correctness on the job. More than a few participants noted that “people get fired and penalized over some little comment that should not be a big deal.” When several observers of the focus groups heard these statements, they dismissed them as exaggerations and viewed them as essentially a rationalization for tolerating racial or gender insensitivity.
A number of participants in the sessions, however, reported direct personal experiences with friends or acquaintances who did indeed suffer real on-the-job consequences in such situations. The fact is often forgotten that in modern working-class job sites like restaurants and other places where workers interact with customers, many lower-level workers no longer have any form of job security whatsoever. In such places, even relatively minor customer complaints or dissatisfaction can very easily lead to a worker’s demotion or dismissal without any recourse.
There is a deep irony here. In the union workplaces of the past, Democrats were proud to support the idea that a union shop steward should be available to defend an average worker from arbitrary dismissal if the employer was not able to demonstrate adequate cause. A worker was assumed to have the right to representation, and an accusation of “bad behavior” would have to be arbitrated, not unilaterally and summarily decided by the boss.
Today, however, few workers have such protections, and consequently feel vastly more vulnerable whenever a customer complains. The sense of reasonable job security workers once felt has been eliminated in the new economy, and workers have not failed to notice that their former defenders display no sympathy or even recognition of the change. It is an odd situation when liberals have no objection to arbitrary termination and assumed guilt for the worker in worker-employer disputes if the charge happens to be racial or gender insensitivity. If there were unions in such workplaces to defend workers from arbitrary dismissal, with Democratic support, Democrats would not be so universally viewed as being indifferent to white working-class concerns in this regard.
It is important to pause at this point and note a key fact. The three major psychological elements of middle-of-the-road white workers’ perspective—cultural traditionalism, support for tolerance, and demand for respect for their own culture—are not independent psychological traits that can be mixed and matched like Lego blocks. They form a mutually reinforcing mental framework that emerges from the basic “open-minded” mode of cognition that these men employ. Their respect for their own culture and views and their willingness to be tolerant of other perspectives are interrelated. Progressives cannot assume that they can detach white workers’ displays of tolerance (of which they approve) from these workers’ cultural traditionalism (of which progressives do not approve and wish they would discard). “Common sense,” “middle of the road” white workers’ basic mental frameworks cannot be taken apart and reassembled at will.
IV. “Common sense,” “middle of the road” white workers don’t see politicians as divided into left or right. They see them as all part of a single corrupt and parasitic new ruling class. Their hostility constitutes a modern form of class consciousness.
White working-class ideological conservatives view politics and politicians through a strictly ideological lens. They believe that government is inherently evil and they sharply divide politicians by those they agree with—those who want to make government small enough to “drown in a bathtub,” as conservative activist Grover Norquist once put it—and those they disagree with—progressives who think government plays a positive and vital role in modern life.
The white workers in the focus groups, on the other hand, expressed a very different perspective. In their comments, they described politicians not simply as sometimes individually corrupt but as part of an inherently and irredeemably corrupt system that requires politicians to sell themselves to special-interest contributors to get elected, and who inevitably use their position to become wealthy. They further perceive all politicians as living in an insular and elite artificial world of wealth and influence-peddling.
This view is not new. In their 1995 book, Congress as Public Enemy, political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theis-Morse described the views of the participants in their focus groups:
The American people have come to believe that the political system is run by a powerful professional political class (cut off from ordinary people) and that votes no longer make much difference because money rules. ... People believe that the Washington system runs on greed and special privilege.
They noted, in fact, that this perception was so strong that it represented “a new form of class consciousness.”
In fact, the continuity and connection between this view and the class consciousness of the previous 1930s trade union era can be seen in the fact that for most white working-class Americans, the popular Roosevelt-era caricature of the immoral, top-hatted millionaire, swilling champagne while orphans starve, has been completely replaced by the modern vision of the venal and corrupt politician, making backroom deals with cynical lobbyists in return for fat campaign contributions.
Stanley Greenberg’s Democracy Corps has conducted the most sustained and extensive polling research to study white working-class attitudes about systemic political corruption. The polling data the organization has accumulated on this subject now includes tens of thousands of respondents.
In 2015, in the Second White Working Class Roundtable, Greenberg expressed his conclusions as follows:
White working class voters … are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda—to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters.
In the Hart Research/Fair Deal Project focus groups, this uniformly cynical view was expressed again and again:
They [politicians] all come out millionaires.
The majority of politicians have sold their soul for the almighty dollar.
It is this intense categorical distrust and contempt for politicians and the political system as a whole that explains one of the most enduring frustrations progressives encounter in dealing with white working-class people. For 40 years, polls have repeatedly shown that majorities of white working people support quite a substantial range of basically progressive economic policies but, oddly, never vote for the Democratic politicians who promise to enact them.
The mystery disappears when it is understood that white working people tend to see Democrats as just as corrupted by the political system as Republicans are. Measures that Democrats themselves consider entirely altruistic policies to help not only the poor and needy but white working-class people as well are seen by white workers as cynical electoral bribery to buy mostly minority votes. The pervasive cynicism gives Democrats absolutely no credit at all for altruism.
In consequence, white workers refuse to believe that even programs that appear to be in their direct self-interest will actually work as promised. Instead, they assume that such programs will be undermined by corruption and vote-buying. They do not believe the promised benefits will ever “trickle down” to them.
As Guy Molyneux said in his Prospect analysis of this same focus group data:
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 rigged not only to the advantage of those at the top. The men in the focus groups complain that the rich and the poor get taken care of today, while those in the middle get left behind.
This view was perfectly summarized by one participant who said: “The left cares about the poor, the right cares about the rich. Nobody cares about us.”
Regarding the poor and minorities, there is a combination of genuine concern and willingness to help those who are genuinely in need, along with an intense fury and contempt for the lazy, the dishonest, and the criminal.
The participants expressed this dichotomy in many ways:
If you’re in a wheelchair, yeah, we’ll help you. But if you’re able-bodied there’s no reason you’re not working.
My mom is 70 years old. She has congestive heart failure. She has all kinds of health problems. She cannot work. She has not been able to work for 15 years. … So yeah, she lives off $900 a month in assistance. She gets $16 in food stamps. But I have a friend who has never worked a day in her life but has five kids and also gets $900 a month in food stamps. That is not fair.
When conservatives express broad generalizations about “welfare queens and Cadillacs,” it is reasonable for progressives to dismiss such statements as urban legends that mask simple prejudice. But the anecdotes offered in the focus groups were entirely different; they were highly detailed and specific stories of people—white people—who the participants knew personally, and who were frequently their own white neighbors and relatives. It was, in fact, precisely the very clear, detailed, and vivid personal knowledge they demonstrated about such people taking advantage of the system that formed the basis for their intense anger.
This same distinction between fairness and unfairness also appeared in the participants’ attitudes toward the wealthy. On the one hand, there was no antagonism for people who become wealthy through business success, and virtually no support for abstract “income redistribution” or punitively taxing the rich as a matter of basic social justice. But at the same time, there was a deep anger at the way the wealthy manipulated the system to pay lower taxes than ordinary workers or otherwise game the system to their advantage.
There was also a feeling that the rich had become increasingly separated from and indifferent to those below. As one participant stated: “They all live in gated communities these days and don’t serve in military. They don’t care about us and are happy to export our jobs all over the world.”
What kind of candidates will “common sense,” “middle of the road” white workers support?
The focus group participants were directly asked to list the characteristics they most wanted in a political candidate. The results revealed a very striking fact. While white workers who are ideological conservatives will predictably respond to questions like this by listing a wide range of conservative policies they would want a candidate to support, the middle-of-the-road participants in the groups responded in a very different way. What they most deeply and indeed passionately wished for were candidates with sound moral and ethical character, and a genuine commitment to the people they represent. Because they perceive all modern American politicians as corrupt, self-seeking parasites, the attributes they hope for in candidates are strong personal virtues like honesty, integrity, and authenticity.
The range and intensity of the feelings that were expressed are startling. Regarding greed and money, the kind of candidates they wanted were men and women who
See politics as public service, not a way to make money,
Focus on the needs of the people and not the special interests,
Care about the people of the country instead of just making their wallets bigger,
Are motivated by the needs of everyday citizens and not the high-dollar contributors,
Are not bought or corrupt, and
Don’t make getting rich their guiding principle.
The participants in the groups also wanted men and women who would be authentic, grassroots representatives of the communities that elected them. They said they needed politicians who
Know real people,
Live in the community they represent,
Have walked the walk and understand Americans’ struggles,
Remember where they came from and the people they represent,
Have worked their way up by themselves without family and friends who got them where they are,
Can be judged by their works, by what they have done in the past,
Live their ethics in their own lives, and
Should be honest and want to represent the voice of the people.
The participants supplemented these general views with specific ideas: that candidates should live on their government salary and reject all other income, and that they should come from and live in the very same community that elected them.
The participants also reaffirmed the basic values that candidates should personally embody: to defend traditional cultural values but at the same time to display tolerance and compassion for others.
It is important to notice that this distinctive, personal-character-based set of criteria describe a candidate who is profoundly different from many of the “blue dog” Democrats that progressives quite reasonably scorn. Such candidates pander to conservative hot-button issues to win votes, while at the same time do not seriously defend workers’ economic interests but rather take money from special interests and make no effort to reduce the influence of big money in politics.
The kind of candidate these workers are describing is very different—a candidate who upholds core traditional values but very emphatically does not compromise with intolerance, and who rejects the corrupt big-money system of modern political life.
The Implications for Democratic Strategy
In order to evaluate the implications of common-sense, middle-of-the-road white workers for Democratic strategy, the first step that needs to be taken is to clearly distinguish between presidential and state-wide elections for Senate and governorships on the one hand, and elections for more local political offices on the other. In presidential elections and in many large, demographically diverse states with high percentages of both minorities and college-educated voters, a Democratic candidates’ strategy will necessarily involve building a diverse coalition that may only require the support of a relatively small percentage of white working-class voters. In these elections, Democrats can often hope to win sufficient white working-class votes simply by choosing more attractive candidates than were offered in 2016, or gambling that the economy turns sour.
At the level of congressional districts and other more local elections, the GOP now routinely wins elections for a vast range of offices in significant measure by winning the support of very substantial majorities of white working-class voters. The GOP dominance among these voters then gives them control of state governments and the House of Representatives, resulting in conservative “veto power” over all social reform. To contest this dominance, Democrats must run campaigns in many districts where white working people are the largest single group in the electorate.
On the surface, the identification of a distinct middle-of-the-road sector of the white working class would seem like an entirely positive finding for Democratic candidates, since it offers a promising audience for progressive and Democratic appeals. As the preceding sections have shown, these voters are substantially more tolerant than are firm Republicans, they are strongly hostile to the modern big-money system of politics, and they hold relatively progressive or “populist” views on a significant range of economic issues. In 2012, according to exit polls, 36 percent of white working-class voters voted for Barack Obama—8 percent more than Hillary Clinton received in 2016—and 40 percent voted for Obama in the anti-GOP wave election of 2008. It would therefore seem that some segment of the 72 percent of white workers who voted for Trump this year should be open to Democratic appeals.
But the same analysis provided above also shows that there will be a very substantial sector of these middle-of-the-road white workers who will simply refuse to consider voting for Democrats. The reality is that the kinds of candidates who can effectively appeal to these voters will tend to have two important characteristics that will limit Democratic inroads with the group.
First, candidates able to successfully appeal to middle-of-the-road white workers will tend to firmly assert and embrace key traditional values. They may endorse common-sense gun regulations, but they will also categorically support the rights of citizens to own guns. They will reject the notion that America should impose Christianity on all Americans, but they will equally firmly assert that Christian faith is a positive force in many Americans’ family life, including their own. They will support a variety of populist measures but at the same time will firmly endorse the virtues of small business and individual initiative.
Second, they will tend to clearly embody white workers’ culture and values in their own personal life. Many will attend church on Sunday, others will have served in the military, or have a background in a working-class occupation or as the owner of a small or medium-sized business. Many will go hunting on fall weekends, listen to country music in their car, and be able to talk with firsthand knowledge and personal experience about the day-to-day problems of the white working-class people in the neighborhoods and communities they represent.
This presents two major problems for Democratic candidates. First, a very significant group of Obama coalition base voters will simply not feel comfortable supporting candidates of this kind. Like any other voters, they will prefer to support a candidate who clearly reflects and embodies their own culture and values rather than the culture and values of white working-class America. Many, in fact, will insist on firm liberal “litmus tests” for candidates and reject those who refuse to endorse specific pieces of progressive legislation or positions on issues.
At the same time, many middle-of-the-road white workers will resist voting for a Democratic candidate who seems to them to represent a variety of groups other than their own and who appears to see white working people as only one part of a disparate coalition. This was the most intense and passionate objection the participants in the focus groups had with Democrats—the sense that Democrats cared more about other groups in the Democratic coalition than they did about them, or that they were cynical political dealmakers who distributed government favors to different groups in return for votes.
Democrats have, of course, traditionally believed that offering social and economic policies and programs that objectively serve white workers’ real interests should be able to overcome such objections, but this ignores the profound importance that not just white working-class voters but all voters place on having a candidate who genuinely represents them. Surveys have revealed that a major element of Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters was not his specific positions on issues but rather his assertion that “I’m your guy”—that he was running to represent them and not anyone else. The reality is that a Democratic candidate who cannot convincingly project this sense of being a genuine, deeply passionate representative of white workers will simply not be able to win their widespread support.
As a result, the “common sense,” “middle of the road” sector of the white working class must therefore be seen as divided into two distinct groups: those who can be convinced to support Democratic candidates, and those who are alienated from the GOP but will simply not vote for Democrats.
In order to more clearly define the divisions within white working-class America, it is worthwhile to replace the basic three-part division used in Democratic political campaigns between firm supporters, firm opponents, and persuadable voters with a larger four-part framework:
There is no reliable research right now on the exact relative size of these groups, but the problem that leaps out from this chart is the group in section 2—those who are not firm GOP partisans but who will also refuse to vote for Democrats. Based on their voting patterns in recent elections, this second “will not vote for Democrats” group is very likely to represent a significantly larger segment of the white working class than the sector that is potentially open to Democratic appeals.
Thinking “outside the box” of traditional progressive or Democratic strategy
In conventional political strategy, it would therefore seem that, unfortunate as it may be, these voters should simply be ignored. But this is a deeply disturbing choice, because it inherently abandons these voters, conceding their votes to the GOP. The alternative, on the other hand, is to step back and to think outside the default framework of progressive strategy—that the only strategic objective worth pursuing is the election of Democratic candidates. This should indeed be the primary objective whenever possible, but, particularly at this critical time, it should not be considered the only conceivable goal.
One thing that became clear in the focus groups described above was the deep desire of the middle-of-the-road white working-class voters to vote for candidates who genuinely reflect their values and views—even if such candidates had no realistic chance of winning. A large proportion of such workers are profoundly disgusted with both political parties and the big-money system in political life. Many would appreciate the opportunity to express their position with a protest vote for an independent candidate, even if the result might be that a Democratic candidate would defeat a Republican.
What this means is that candidates who choose to authentically represent these workers could gain significant white working-class support if they ran as grassroots independents, with the inevitable consequence of splitting and weakening the dominant extremist wing of the GOP. These candidates could turn their lack of big-money financing into an advantage by attacking their opponents for being participants in the corrupt system of big-money campaigns. Moreover, as Trump has demonstrated, unique and unusual “populist” candidates can garner substantial free media coverage if their message is new and dramatic.
Granted, even with these strategies, raising sufficient money would present a major challenge. With the dramatically new level of political involvement that has emerged since the 2016 election, however, the possibility of significant small-donor financing for independent candidates is no longer beyond the realm of possibility.
The possible emergence of independent, middle-of-the-road, white working-class candidates is vitally important today. Any initiative that divides today’s dominant GOP coalition must be seen as a vital objective for progressive and Democratic strategy.
The current political situation has become profoundly dangerous precisely because Donald Trump has attracted an additional layer of often passionate support from many white working people, with an appeal that bears a recognizable similarity to the program and agenda of the European National Socialist and Fascist parties of the 1930s, and that resembles the appeal of the neo-fascist French National Front today. It is an appeal based on scapegoating and demonizing minorities, promoting a belligerent nationalism, and offering demagogic promises of massive public works projects and restoration of high-wage jobs in factories and mines. It is because of this new level of support from Trump voters that the GOP coalition has now gained complete control of all three branches of government, posing an unprecedented threat to America.
There is a vast number of white working-class communities in America where the GOP wins overwhelming “supermajorities”—where Democratic organization is literally nonexistent and Democratic candidates are simply not considered a serious alternative. In these communities, political competition is not a debate between liberal and conservative views but a competition among Republicans for who can claim the title of the “real conservative.”
In these communities where a meaningful Democratic alternative does not really exist, the emergence of independent “common sense,” “middle of the road” candidates who challenge this conservative consensus would be a highly positive development—particularly because in the future, Republican candidates who appeal to white working-class voters are almost surely going to incorporate Trump’s vicious white supremacist rhetoric and agenda into their campaigns. Independent, middle-of-the-road campaigns would break the apparent ideological consensus that conservative views now enjoy.
Even in predominantly white working-class communities, where a larger segment of the common-sense, middle-of-the-road white workers might be open to Democratic candidates, the simultaneous emergence of grassroots independent candidates would in many cases still be a net benefit to Democrats. Such candidates would tend to draw more support from Republicans than Democrats, helping the latter.
This would also be true in demographically diverse districts where Democratic candidates only have a chance of victory if they can win the strong support of all the other sectors of the existing Democratic coalition and just a relatively small minority of white working-class votes. Because it would split the GOP vote, a three-way race that included an independent candidate would still provide a greater opportunity for the Democrat to win a plurality than a two-way race against a Republican would provide the opportunity for winning an outright Democratic majority.
The GOP has won its current hegemonic position in white working-class America by uniting right-wing and more moderate white workers under the umbrella of “the real America” and convincing them that the only alternative to the GOP is distant and indifferent coastal liberal elites. The development of independent, common-sense candidates could undermine this strategy and isolate the racially prejudiced and staunchly conservative right wing of the GOP as a minority group in white working-class America. Given the unprecedented threat posed by Trump’s success among white working-class voters, this would be a development of tremendous importance that progressives and Democrats would clearly recognize as distinctly positive.
Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.