Working-Class Voters Hold Key to 2016

Presidential candidates from both parties are tossing around ideas about how to help everyday working Americans.

But something’s missing. Strongmen on the right are speaking almost exclusively to white, working-class voters, stoking populist resentment toward people of color—both immigrants and African Americans. Progressives, for their part, are calling for better wages and quality of life across the board, including for those vilified on the right.

To win in 2016 and beyond, candidates must reach out to both groups; they must speak to all working people. Those who focus exclusively on one group or the other will undermine their chances of winning the White House.

To understand this, think about two U.S. workers—let’s call them Angela and Joe. Angela is a domestic worker who makes $312 a week, gets one day off per week, and has no benefits. Joe, who used to make a pretty good salary at a manufacturing plant, now feels lucky to have a part-time job as a janitor. Like many domestic workers, Angela is a woman of color. And like many who have worked in the manufacturing sector, Joe is white.

Angela needs Joe. Joe needs Angela. And candidates need them both. That’s the secret to winning the 2016 elections.

Voters like Angela are important because huge demographic changes are on the horizon in the United States. By 2040, the rising American electorate—unmarried women, people of color and millennials—is projected to make up the majority of American voters.

But voters like Joe are important because the white working class still constitutes nearly 70 percent of our electorate. In 2016, Angela cannot win without Joe. Long term, Joe cannot win without Angela. And one could reasonably argue that a key reason both Joe and Angela are struggling in this brutally unequal economy is because they’ve been told that for one to succeed, the other must fail.

Inequality leaves both Angela and Joe with little room to handle daily challenges that keep piling up. They are working adults struggling to pay the bills and manage family responsibilities, oftentimes on both ends of the generational spectrum. Balancing child care or elder care on top of their increasingly insecure jobs can be incredibly difficult and isolating.

And as the population ages, this juggling act will only get harder. By 2040, adults over the age of 65 will represent more than 20 percent of the population and will require a large, well-trained home-care workforce. But the graying of America won’t be uniform. Within 30 years, demographers predict, the majority of people of color will be younger, while the majority of seniors will be white.

This shift could cut one of two ways. Either it will be polarizing and destabilizing, or it will bring Americans together toward real social and economic solutions that benefit us all.

The GOP primary debates have pitted Angela and Joe against one another. Conservatives have doled out hateful, right-wing rhetoric to working class voters who feel threatened by the prospect of becoming the nation’s minority. This only serves an agenda in which individual good fortune trumps a healthy multiracial, multi-generational democracy.

But in the end, Joe and Angela have much in common. She wants a living wage that can sustain her family. She wants to care for her family and one day be able to afford the care she needs. She wants the ability to retire when the time comes, while her children and her children’s children receive the quality education and real opportunity they deserve. And Joe wants all those things, too.

Whoever wins the White House in 2016 must unite the rising American electorate and white working class under the same vision. A healthy democracy will weave our communities and our interests together as one nation.

We face a choice: We can have a 2016 agenda that continues to ignore Joe and isolate Angela, or one that resonates with both of them and improves their quality of life. The candidate who speaks to everyone will build a truly powerful new American majority to achieve the equity, dignity and care that should define our future. This will make our country a place that works for everyone in 2040.

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