Is There a Case for Liberal Optimism?

At National Journal, Ron Brownstein marshals evidence to show that, despite the large benefits they’ll reap from the Affordable Care Act, white working class voters are convinced that the program will hurt their prospects:

According to figures provided by Kaiser, in their latest survey, 35 percent of non-white respondents believe that the law will benefit their family. That compares to just 14 percent who believe they will be worse off (the remaining 39 percent don’t think it will make much difference). Whites offer nearly a mirror image: just 18 percent believe the law will leave their family better off, compared to 38 percent who believe they will be worse off as a result.

The skepticism among whites is most concentrated among whites without a college degree. Just one-in-seven of them believe health care reform will personally benefit them or their family. Among college whites about one-in-four expect to personally benefit from the reform.

On a similar note, here’s Josh Eidelson, at Slate, noting the intense disdain for unions among nonunionized working-class whites in Wisconsin:

“Unions had their place,” a woman named Jerri told me soon after I arrived in Wisconsin last week. “They did their part back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and then they got too big, and are abusing their power.” Jerri and her husband, Tim (both declined to give last names), were eating at a bar in Wauwatosa, the purple Milwaukee suburb that’s home to Scott Walker. They both work in sales: She’s in retail at the mall; he’s in wholesale, selling caskets. Tim said Walker’s union “reforms” were necessary because local politicians had been “looking out for the union” instead of “people like me.” He said unions are for people who don’t “feel they should have to work very hard.” Jerri complained that unions “are sucking off my teat.” Public workers’ benefits, she said, “should be the same as anybody in any kind of private job.”

I think you can attribute downscale white skepticism of the Affordable Care Act to the a broader disdain for programs that are perceived as helping minorities. Most people don’t know much about the ACA, and I’m sure that—like welfare—many voters assume that the program will primarily benefit minorities and immigrants. In a world where zero-sum thinking dominates, it’s no surprise that those closest to the margins fear loss.

I wonder if this doesn’t also apply to public sector unions. It’s not just that members receive better pay and benefits than their non-unionized private sector counterparts, but that public sector unions are more likely to have minorities (who are over represented in public employment). The complaints captured by Eidelson sound very similar to popular complaints about “welfare queens” and “lazy immigrants” who use up government benefits.

This isn’t an original thought, but the current environment makes the question much more salient—is it possible to have a multicultural society and a robust welfare state? Or will racial resentment always create a barrier to political solidarity?

I know that a lot of liberals see demographic change as the great hope, but even if the United States becomes a majority-minority country, I’m skeptical that racial resentment will dissipate. Which is to say that if I have a broader question, it’s this: is there room for optimism? Or was the 20th century's period of middle-class prosperity a historical fluke?