How Democrats Can Win Back the White Working Class and Increase Turnout Among Blacks and Latinos


(Photo: CNV Sioux Falls, SD Action via Flickr)

Demonstrators in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, urge fellow citizens to vote for the November 4 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. The demonstration took place on Saturday, September 27.

The voting turnout in this year's congressional and gubernatorial elections was the lowest since 1942. Much of the story was in young people, poor people, black and Hispanic citizens, who tend to support Democrats, voting in far lower numbers than in 2008 or 2012. The Democrats just weren't offering them very much.

But the other part of the Election Day story was older voters and the white working class, especially men, deserting the Democrats in droves—again, because Democrats didn't seem to be offering much. Republicans, at least, were promising lower taxes.

Turnout on average dropped from 2012 by a staggering 42 percent. But as Sam Wang reported in a post-election piece for The American Prospect, the drop-off was evidently worse for Democrats.

The two parts of this story seem to create an impossible conundrum for Democrats: Do more for minorities and the poor, and you presumably risk driving social conservatives even further into the arms of Republicans. But ignore the needs of those who need more government activism—and the Democratic base fails to turn out.

You could see the administration wrestling with this dilemma in the way it handled the question of deportations. It was an open secret that the White House had an executive order ready to go, one that would spare as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants with good records from being shipped out, and allowing them to work legally in the U.S.

But the tacticians of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee begged the White House to hold off until after the election, for fear of costing Democratic candidates their elections in tricky places like Colorado and Iowa. So the White House delayed, infuriating its Hispanic supporters. But Democrats blew their races in those states anyway. Now—when it makes no difference electorally—Obama is poised to issue the order.

The question of how to treat undocumented workers is tougher than other issues that divide working class whites from African Americans, Hispanics, the young and the poor. For there is one huge issue that potentially unites these diverse groups. (Hint: It's the economy, stupid.)

Obama failed to rally much enthusiasm from either camp because his proposals were so feeble, and because the administration continues to coddle the big banks, suggesting whose side Obama is really on.

Why not just embrace the $15.00 minimum wage? Minimum wage hikes by referendum were passed in red states as well as blue ones, on an Election Day not noted for progressive sentiments.

Minimum wage increases were approved in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota—not states with large minority populations. Guess who turned out to support these? The white working class! Why wasn't our president leading this parade?

The Republicans are dead-set against even a minimum wage increase to the $10.10 that the president has supported. So there's not much to lose. Why not demonstrate that you really care about working people—white, black, Hispanic, not to mention young people working for dismal wages—and dare the Republicans to oppose you?

Or how about embracing serious public investments on infrastructure to create good blue-collar jobs? Republicans, of course, will oppose these outlays. But that's the whole point. Make it clear who is on which side.

Obama does use his bully pulpit occasionally. But his choice of issues is sometimes odd.

The other day, the president chose to speak out in favor of net neutrality, deliberately contradicting his own Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and telecom industry, who is pushing a plan to allow the big guys to charge more for access internet fast lanes. (Who appointed this guy anyway?)

Net neutrality is popular with the public (to the extent that the public cares). I'm all in favor of Obama's position, but it's a fairly arcane and geeky topic compared to the subject of paying families a living wage.

If Obama is going to criticize his own appointees, how about speaking out against the Treasury Department and the Justice Department for coddling banksters? Or the Office of Management and Budget wonks for putting deficit cuts ahead of economic recovery?

How about embracing the movement to end the debt-for-diploma system of higher education? That might get more young people to turn out, and might dampen the appeal to millennial voters of faux-libertarians like Rand Paul.

There was a time when the black and white working class, the old and the young, could unite behind robust Democratic demands for a fair economy—a time when Democratic presidents played the role of teachers, and made clear which party was on the side of regular people. Until those demands are heard again, white working class voters disgusted with government are likely be swayed by Republicans—and blacks, Hispanics and young people are likely to stay home.


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