Magazine article The American Prospect

The Democrats' 'Working-Class' Problem

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Democrats' 'Working-Class' Problem

Article excerpt

It's not only with whites. It reaches well into the party's base.

The road to a sustainable Democratic majority--nationally, locally, and in the states--must include much higher Democratic performance with white working-class voters (those without a four-year degree). Nearly every group in the progressive infrastructure is busy figuring out how Democrats can get back to the level of support they reached with President Obama's 2012 victory. That is a pretty modest target, however, given the scale of Democratic losses. It underestimates the scope of the problem and, ironically, the opportunity.

The Democrats don't have a "white working-class" problem. They have a "working-class" problem, which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats' losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.

Fortunately, Democrats have the opportunity to consolidate, engage, and perform much better with all of working America. I say "opportunity" advisedly, because better performance requires Democrats to embrace dramatically bolder economic policies and to attack a political economy that works for the rich, big corporations, and the cultural elites, but not for average Americans.

Bernie Sanders's "revolution" and attack on big money was much closer to hitting the mark than was Hillary Clinton's message, and he won millennials and white workingclass voters in the primary. It is not surprising that white working-class voters then went for Trump, and that some Sanders voters went for the Green Party in the general election, but the Democrats' working-class problem goes way beyond what Sanders broached.


Working-class Americans pulled back from Democrats in this last period of Democratic governance because of President Obama's insistence on heralding economic progress and the bailout of the irresponsible elites, while ordinary people's incomes crashed and they continued to struggle financially. They also pulled back because of the Democrats' seeming embrace of multinational trade agreements that have cost American jobs. The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation's growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens'. Instinctively and not surprisingly, the Democrats embraced the liberal values of America's dynamic and best-educated metropolitan areas, seeming not to respect the values or economic stress of older voters in small-town and rural America. Finally, the Democrats also missed the economic stress and social problems in the cities themselves and in working-class suburbs.

These are big structural challenges, but we have plenty of evidence that they can be addressed and that Democrats can speak powerfully to these working-class voters about them.

The core problem is President Obama's handling of the economy. Confronting this problem won't make me popular. The president and the Democrats heroically rescued America and the global economy, restored the soundness of the financial system, and managed the economy back to a full recovery. But incomes for most Americans fell during this period and the top 1 percent took all of the income gains of the recovery--a subject that mainstream Democrats barely mentioned and did not fight to address. The president of the United States was the main messenger for the Democrats, and his consistent economic message to the country--from one year after the crash through last year's presidential election--was this: The recession has been transformed into a dependable recovery, our economy is creating jobs, and we are on the right track, but the Republicans drove our economy "into the ditch" and are doing everything possible to obstruct our progress. …

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