Monday, December 1, 2014

Jamelle Bouie: "Why Democrats Can’t Win Over White Working-Class Voters"

Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie (left) considers the fact that the Democrats, supposedly on the side of labor, lost working-class white voters by 30 points in the midterm elections. In his view, it's partly racism, but also "something broader." These voters, he argues, resent the Democrats' associations with black Americans and feel that the party offers them little. Republican presidential candidates from Nixon to Reagan to Romney have run on this resentment. Bouie proposes that the Democrats support universal policies that will appeal to working-class whites. He's not optimistic, however, that the party or its 2016 presidential frontrunner will adopt a new "muscular liberalism":

...Specifically, whites were bewildered and infuriated with liberals who defended rioting communities—correctly noting the decades of deprivation and abuse that led to those violent outbursts—and pushed anti-poverty programs to address the underlying conditions. Black incomes rose while at the same time, many white incomes were beginning to stagnate or even fall. Why was the government spending our tax dollars on them, working-class whites asked, when they destroy their neighborhoods and refuse to work, and we’re losing our jobs and our homes? In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein captures the basic attitude by relaying this comment from a white construction worker, directed at George McGovern, “They’re payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”

Part of this was just racism. For most of the post-war era, whites were empowered by the federal government to separate themselves and their lives from black Americans. For the white middle class, federal aid built white suburbs and white schools, and for the white working-class, it built segregated housing projects and cities. The civil rights revolution brought blacks and black demands to their doorsteps, and for the white working class—which couldn’t just leave for the suburbs—it fueled a backlash.

But part of it was something broader. After all, there wasn’t a backlash to government programs writ large. Then, as now, working-class whites are ardent supporters of Social Security and Medicare. But to them, our retirement programs came with an implicit social contract: If you work and contribute to society, society will care for you into your old age. By contrast, you didn’t have to work to benefit from anti-poverty programs, in fact, you could riot and still receive government benefits. To these whites, the New Deal and its successor programs rewarded self-reliance and independence. The War on Poverty didn’t. And they hated it.

...Democrats can adopt populist rhetoric, but there’s no guarantee working-class whites will buy it. Indeed, in parts of the country—like the Deep South—it’s a lost cause. The Democratic Party is too associated with blacks and too associated with welfare to win over enough whites to make a difference.

Put another way, for a new rhetoric of populism to work—or at least, attract the winnable whites...it needs to come with a commitment to universal policies that working-class whites like and support. (It’s no coincidence that the most liberal working-class whites belong to private and public sector unions.)

But the United States doesn’t have a political party to support that kind of social democracy. Instead, it has the Democratic Party, a collection of disparate interests which—at its best—is nervous about economic liberalism and hesitant to push anything outside the mainstream. And worse, it has a presidential frontrunner who—more than anyone else—is connected to the kinds of elites and the kinds of policies that would push the party away from the muscular liberalism it needs.


Kevin Drum offers a similar perspective in Mother Jones.

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