Ever since the election, reams and reams of paper has been dedicated to the issue of how Democrats in the last election relied too much on anti-Trump sentiment and demographic trends to deliver victory for themselves, and failed to craft a message of economic populism that could appeal to working class voters. And the subtext, if not explicit text, is usually that this discussion is focused on white middle American working class voters in particular.
And, let’s be honest, I probably don’t need to waste a lot of time filling people in on the dimensions of that whole thing. Instead, I just want to focus on one aspect of that: the way conservatives and “centrist” commentators boast, and cosmopolitan liberals fear, that “appealing to the white working class” means “abandoning, or even spitefully rejecting, socially liberal principals, and embracing a parochial, insular Trump-esque worldview”.
And it frustrates me that so much of the argument has been framed that way, because quite frankly both sides in that argument are relying on this cartoonish caricature of the white working class that get’s perpetually reinforced in the popular imagination. Namely, that it’s dominated by people like coal miners, farmers, and other workers in extractive industries, predominantly rural, predominantly conservative and religious, predominantly small town/rural, constantly decked out in rural cultural ephemera, totally insular and inflexible, and if not explicitly racist then at the very least being a barely constrained pressure cooker of racial resentment. They all wear trucker hats and hunt and complain all the damn time about panty hose regulation and want to punch hippies for being “too PC”, etc. etc. etc. The white working class often gets conflated with rural cultural ephemera, with people playing prominently in the public image.
As it happens, this is all wrong. It’s wrong in the literal sense that the demographics of the white working class doesn’t look like that. It’s wrong in the sense that it trivializes and oversimplifies the thoughts and motives of a large portion of the population. But the Democratic party has a way of playing exactly to this misconception. It’s why they continue to think “being populist” means putting Steve Beshear in an East Kentucky diner, or appealing to “the guy with the confederate flag on his truck”, or forever and always trying to recreate Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. And people, rightfully, see through it. Not just because it’s shallow and trite, but because it flies so far off the mark as to what those middle American voters they should be appealing actually want or are like that it’s just kind of insulting.
So I was originally planning on covering this whole topic in one go, but things started to run long, so instead I’ll just content myself to covering the demographic side of things.
The Typical “White Working Class Person” Looks Nothing Like What The Popular Imagination Thinks They Do
First off, we need to note that the white working class is not predominantly a small town or Red State phenomena. In fact, the truth is almost the complete opposite. As the Washington Post noted after the election, about 70 million people in the "white working class" live in or around large and medium sized cities, against only about 20 million who live in small towns and rural areas*. Like pretty much any group, the white working class is predominantly suburban. It’s true that places like rural Arkansas likely than average to be made up of working class white people, but the average working class white person isn’t from places like rural Arkansas, in fact only a small minority are. And this is a significant point because regional variation is important. As the Brooking’s Institute noted sometime ago, outside the south the tendency of white working class people to defect to the Republicans is less a consistent shift over time, and more an occasional thing that happens when Democrats do a bad job.
(*Keep that link open, by the way, it’s a good piece and I’m pulling a large part of these numbers from there)
Second, the image of white working class people as being culturally conservative and reactionary is also fairly inaccurate. For one thing, they're actually less religious than most people. They’re also more likely to be casual marijuana users. And while I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the vast majority of them also don’t hunt, don’t watch NASCAR, and think “Larry the Cable Guy” is fucking awful.
On the other hand, the common picture of the white working class voters as being uniquely motivated by racism is somewhat true, but nowhere near enough to support the idea that the group is uniquely, or monolithically racist. About a 39% of white people with no college degrees say being white is a very important part of their identity, compared with 29% of people with college degrees. If we use that as a proxy for general racial sentiment, that means someone in the white working class is about a third more likely to be racist, which is significant but hardly overwhelming. And, truth be told, I suspect most of that difference comes down to regional distribution, i.e. the south and much of the southwest are disproportionately working class.
As for occupational mix, while I don’t want to come across as trivializing blue collar workers or the importance in tipping elections, it’s important to note that like pretty much any group at this point the working class is overwhelmingly dominated by service workers and low level white collar workers. While at one point it was true that most working class people worked in primary or secondary industries, today the majority works in retail, low level administrative jobs, healthcare service workers and things of that nature,while relatively few are factory workers, truckers, or other such blue collar jobs, and only a vanishingly small portion works coal miners or in another extractive industries. Nor is it particularly accurate to portray those industries as being exceptionally associated with the working class at this point, being that those industries are capital intensive and now rely on people with highly advanced technical skills to function. This is to say, framing “working class appeal” as a promise to bring back the coal industry or some such thing is just generally inaccurate because the vast majority of working class people don’t work in those industries.
It’s also worth noting that, as Jacobin pointed out, a lot of these white working class voters who went so strongly for Trump weren’t so much defecting proletariat won over by the promise to deport all the Mexicans and bring back the coal industry as people from petite bourgeois occupations, like managers and small business owners, whose motives for voting Republican are a lot more straight forward. Even among labor unions there are subsets like law enforcement unions and trade unions which are often functionally similar to small businesses. Typically these are the types of union members who would be won over by people like Reagan or Trump, not industrial workers who are way more resistant to their sort of white identity politics than people give them credit for.
And a lot of this goes for a lot of this goes for maladies of the white working class as well. Narrowing economic opportunities isn’t just about the collapse of manufacturing or the coal industries in bombed out small towns. The opiod epidemic is a primarily suburban problem by this point. Similarly, these problems are not exclusive to the working class either. Indeed, the fact that being a college educated suburbanite is no longer a golden ticket to avoid poverty or social dysfunction forever is just as compelling as a reason for embracing economic populism as anything else.
Democrats Keep Misinterpreting Bill Clinton’s ’92 Campaign As Some Kind Of Eternal Indicator Of How The White Working Class Works
To some extent, it’s understandable that so many have come to think about appealing to the white working class in these term. It’s essentially what Bill Clinton did back in the 90s and it seemed to work. It did make a lot more sense back in the 90s, since after all Democrats still needed to win whites in the upper south in order to win electoral majorities. Those voters were shifting defecting from the Democratic party in droves, while on the other hand New England and large states like New York, California and Illinois still hadn’t moved decisively into the Democratic column to compensate. Winning back those voters not only seemed like the most practical way to go, it may have been the only way to go.
And arguably, this did create the hard choices for the Democratic Party in terms of either winning those voters or sticking to socially progressive goals that people allude to today. In part, because these places were more conservative to begin with, and in part because the populism of places like Arkansas hinged in large part on stoking hostilities of whites on the margins against not only the large landholding class, but also their slaves/former slaves and keeping them down. And union politics, while successful here and there, were not broadly successful. Indeed, much of the region’s self image was shaped by the idea that they poached jobs from northern states that had unionized themselves into being uncompetitive (I’d also argue that a lot of people frame outsourcing in basically those terms).
But leaving aside that how reductive this is of the motives of voters in the upper south (more on that later), it’s also completely besides the point. Shifts in voting behavior mean Arkansas and Kentucky aren’t the bellwether for anything nowadays, in fact they’re core Republican voters. Where Democrats lost in the last election wasn’t the upper south, but the Midwest, which is socioeconomically very different and hasn’t really been shifting against the Democrats on any sort of consistent basis (indeed, up to 2016 the trend seemed to be trending leftward). Shoring up support in those places requires a different playbook than the one Clinton used in ’92. Indeed, he actually did pretty unspectacularly in the Midwest, all things considered. And even to the extent that Democrats can make inroads into the south, they can do so vis-à-vis states like North Carolina or Georgia whose demographics and economic pictures are changing their politics in their favor.
All this is to say is that it’s a bit nonsensical that reams and reams of newspaper editorials have been printed framing the whole issue in terms of what a coal miners in West Virginia or some evangelical Christian guy in North Dakota who works in an oil field thinks. I mean, yes, Democrats should be able to appeal to those voters in the same sense that in theory they should be able to appeal to anyone. I’d also say they could easily work out a message that appeal to those voters without compromising core principles (more on that next week). But there aren’t actually that many voters who look like that, there are even fewer in places that Democrats need to win, and the “typical” member of the white working class doesn’t really look like that.
So far I’ve been talking about this in dry, demographic terms. The other side of that frustrates me about is the way the typical discourse on the topic tends to frame a large segment of the population as some monolithic alien thing hermetically sealed off from the world when in reality we’re talking about a large group of unique, complex individuals with whom most of are intimately connected with or, for that matter, are. I’ll get more into that in part two.