The piece I wrote for this collection of essays was deliberately intended to be provocative because I believe a major change in our political strategy is urgently needed. The argument that I make in my article is the same one that I made repeatedly to the Obama administration over the last 8 years and to the Clinton campaign last year. It is that a combination of the bank bailout and the deep recession that lasted through almost the entire period of recent democratic governance left all working people profoundly damaged and impoverished in a way that Democratic leaders never properly understood or acknowledged.
The bailout of the banks and the major Wall Street firms at the beginning of the Obama administration was the moment that defined the Democrats for millions of working Americans. Although the auto bailout was popular in some areas, the main image of democratic policy in the early days of the Obama administration was the multi-billion dollar rescue of major financial institutions. While preventing a massive depression was the right policy decision, working people, both minorities and whites, saw this stunning financial rescue operation and concluded that Democrats main economic goal and top priority was essentially bailing out the institutions and the people who were directly responsible for the crisis while doing virtually nothing for the millions who lost their homes or their jobs and who suffered massive declines in their incomes and standards of living. What was seared into their minds was the idea that under Democrats as well as Republicans government works for the irresponsible and rich and not for working people.
The political consequences were predictable. Obama’s approval ratings, which had been around 60% at the beginning of his administration, declined to the low 40’s during the 2010 and 2014 midterm election years. Democrats never clearly faced the fact that we were even hemorrhaging support among millennials. Obama’s approval declined 9% among this group in those years and their turnout declined as well. When this is combined with the steady and massive Democratic losses in down ballot races during those years, the simple fact is that we have been losing support among working people in unprecedented numbers for a long time and this massive decline must be the starting point for any serious rethinking of Democratic political strategy.
This rethinking must begin with a troubling question: there must be some very deep and profound reason why Democrats so often fail to campaign on the economy when it is crystal clear that this is a fundamental source of working people’s discontent. It was not just Hillary Clinton’s campaign that avoided running on the economy. Over the entire course of his presidency, Barack Obama’s central argument was that America was “making steady progress” and “headed in the right direction” when virtually all opinion surveys clearly indicated that this was not the reality that working Americans were perceiving or experiencing in their own lives.
The disturbing answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the bulk of Democratic decision-makers live in metropolitan areas that are culturally dynamic, economically flourishing and comfortably multicultural. Democratic leaders come out of that culture and just don’t wake up angry every morning about what is happening to working people. This cold reality has produced a deep cultural gap between Democratic leaders and all working people and particularly the white working class.
Democratic strategy must begin with the recognition that there are two fundamentally different economic projects Democrats can pursue. The first is just getting the economy back to where it was before the 2008 recession – a time, we must always remember, when working people’s incomes had not risen for two decades. Forgive my vulgarity, but that timid economic project is crap. Something like the TARP bailout was an unavoidable necessity as a way to avoid a massive depression but there is another economic project that Democrats should embrace instead of “just getting back to normal.” If the new jobs being created by the economy today pay significantly less than jobs did before the crisis, that fact should be our starting point and the fundamental basis for our strategy. We should wake up angry about that every morning and absolutely not be satisfied. Democrats should not offer an economic program that is based on the word “but” –saying, in effect, that “the economy has recovered but there are some who have not shared in recovery.” Raising working class incomes and economic security should instead be the central Democratic project and objective. Today Democrats are still defending the first economic project without getting to the real challenges raised by the second. This is what we must urgently change.
As my contribution to this discussion I’d like to offer what I call my top 5 demographic facts about the white working class.
Fact number five – They are rapidly declining. In 1980 70% of eligible voters were white working class (defined as people with less than a college education). By 2016 they were down to 45% – a 25 point decline. Making projections of future educational attainment is hard but at CAP we have projected that white less than college voters will decline to 35% by 2040 and to 28% by 2060.
Fact Number four – They are still an extremely large group. 45 percent of American voters ain’t chicken feed. It’s huge. And it’s very important to note that the exit polls give us a distorted picture of how large this group is because the exit polls chronically underestimate the number of less than college voters. In 2016 the exit polls showed the white working class representing 34% of the voters. At the same time the Bureau of the Census’ Current Population Survey, which we consider a more accurate survey, showed them representing 42% of the electorate – a really substantial 8 point difference. It’s also worth noting that this gap between the exit polls and the census has been quite consistent over time
Fact Number three – They are disproportionately distributed. White working class voters are significantly concentrated in Appalachia, the Midwest, the Great Lake States and the Dakotas. And moreover, they are not just concentrated in certain states but also in swing districts. For example, if you look at the rust belt as a whole, the typical swing district was 11 percent more white working class than the average and 16 percent less minority.
Fact Number Two – They delivered the election to Donald Trump. There was a dramatic shift to Donald Trump in 2016, particularly in key Midwestern states. The white working class vote for the Democrats crashed to about one third of white workers, a level which is historically dreadful. At the same time they also had higher turnout than in previous elections while the minority vote went down.
And the most Important Fact – Fact Number One
Democrats simply can’t win without them. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic. We must do better with this group than we did in 2016 or we will be unable to win elections at every level of government. This is true about winning the Electoral College, it is true about winning majorities in the House or Senate and it is certainly true of many state legislatures and governors. We must do at least somewhat better with white working class voters than we did in 2016 or the political future for the Democrats looks terribly bleak.
In our canvassing last year we had literally a million of what we call “Front Porch” conversations, largely with white working class moderates, and we could feel the disaster that was coming in our bones like an earthquake.
We could feel the ground shifting among every group that we spoke with – from reliable white working class democrats who were suddenly defecting to Trump to the women who were puzzlingly unmoved by Trumps sexism even if their 8 year old daughter was standing right next to them to the African-Americans who decided they just weren’t going to vote. A year before the election we had very clear advance warning from our grass roots conversations.
From our very unique and extensive experience, we have developed very extensive proof that the power of conversations to predict and influence people’s votes is very strong. We have confirmed this empirically with carefully designed research studies as well as with the constant reports we receive from the field. But even more important we have seen and demonstrated the power of face-to-face conversations to persuade. So Monday after the election we went back out in the field and we’ve been there ever since talking to white working class voters and citizens.
The good news is that even though in virtually every house we visit the television is showing Fox News, white working Americans are eager to talk to people who genuinely want to listen to them.
Here are three important things we have learned:
- You can tell people things they don’t know but you can’t tell them that things they “know” are wrong.
Let me give an example. In Columbus, we went to the house of a woman in her 80s who lived with her daughter in her 50’s. They did not care in the slightest about Russia, Comey or conflicts of interest. They simply refused to discuss the subjects because they had already decided that these topics were not important. But when we told this woman that Trump’s tax plan included eliminating the heating assistance program her daughter sunk into the chair with a pained look on her face and said “We are on that program and we depend on it. They can’t do that.”
Here’s another example. Jim is a construction worker who strongly supported trump when we spoke with him. But when we told him that the labor dept was going to cut back on job safety programs he asserted that he had been badly injured on the job and said “That’s not what he (Trump) promised us.”
The lesson that can be drawn from these examples is that if we are able to create friendly and respectful conversations we gain the opportunity to introduce new information, and as a result attitudes can gradually be changed.
- They like our agenda.
We talked to 350 swing voters recently about a 12 point progressive economic agenda. Rob, a 51 year old Trump supporter, was one of the people the canvassers talked to. He started by saying “I want the damn liberals to stop with all the investigation crap.” But then Rob also supported all 12 of the progressive policy proposals – including making it easier to start a union. And there were many others like him among the swing voters we spoke with.
- They are alienated from politicians if they know them at all.
A surprising number of the white working class Americans we speak with do not even know who their senator or governor is – and this is not because they are lazy or unintelligent. They have simply and logically concluded that they have absolutely no influence on what those politicians do at all. There is a widespread sentiment among white working class Americans that “Politicians just don’t know what my life is like” and that voting for one versus another will simply not make a difference.
So what do progressives and Democrats need to do?
The first thing is to really “be there” with white working people – to make relationships and talk to them year after year, all year round. Progressives and Democrats need to have conversations with working Americans before Fox News packages an issue in a conservative frame and the discussion becomes hopelessly polarized.
Secondly, we need an agenda that matches the needs of most working Americans. The fifteen dollar minimum wage and paid leave are not really the most salient issues for the people we most need to reach. The largest problem for most working people today is the lack of stable jobs that provide job security, decent wages and fringe benefits. Even today, the average worker earns 20 dollars per hour, not 15, so when we put the 15 dollar minimum wage as the centerpiece of our appeal to workers, we are not really responding to the most urgent problems of the majority. (In fact, from a political point of view the 15 dollar minimum wage now really acts more like a proxy for a candidate asserting that “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a progressive” then it directly speaks to the needs and aspirations of the average worker.)
Third, we need politicians who “show up.” Working people will never genuinely support candidates who they only see on TV commercials. They trust people who come from their communities and speak their language.
Lastly, we need to rebuild “bottom up” institutions that genuinely represent working Americans. Even though they have been cynically sabotaged by years of anti-union laws and anti-worker Labor Department decisions, local unions remain crucial. Unions are the institutions that most directly defend workers specific economic interests and they are the most important multiracial institution in working America. Unions or alt-labor organizations that operate as quasi-unions are an indispensible part of a progressive and Democratic resurgence in white working America.
When historians look back at 2016 I think they will be surprised that we were surprised. They will say “Didn’t you happen to notice that Wisconsin and Michigan had not only made a right turn and were under wall to wall GOP control but that the Republicans in those states had adopted much of the old Southern Republican agenda?”
They will say “you missed two fire bells in the night.” One was the study by Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton which noted that the white working class was actually experiencing declining life spans. The other was a study by a group called the Economic Innovation Group which measured business startups after the last recession. That study broke business startups down by whether they were in metro areas or in small towns or rural areas. In the economic recovery around 1990, in the largest counties only 13 percent of business startups were in metro areas. In contrast, in the recovery that began in 2010 the number of startups in metro areas had risen to 58 percent of the total. On the other hand, in counties with populations of 100,000 or less, in 1990 fewer than 32 percent of all the business startups were in those counties. In 2010, the percent of business startups in those counties was literally zero.
What this suggests is that, in the future, private investment is simply not going to occur in these small town and rural areas, a reality that strongly suggests that substantial public investment is necessary.
I have argued that when Democrats talk about the need for a fifty state electoral strategy, they damn well better have an economic development strategy to go with it. It’s great that Democrats have moved to more progressive positions on things like raising the minimum wage and advocating plans for paid sick days. But where they have yet to develop a coherent strategy is in regard to programs for job creation.
Public investment is one of central legacies of the New Deal. The Rural Electrification Administration and the TVA and the massive series of dams built across America not only transformed life in many rural areas; they transformed American politics as well. Public investment is now lagging behind in these same rural and small town areas and devising new initiatives in this field needs to become a central focus for Democrats. . The reality is simple. If Democrats want to be a presence in these kinds of districts they not only have to have a political presence but an economic agenda as well.
This is not easy. We need to think about what a 21st century analog to the WPA might actually look like? It is possible to devise policies to bring back factories but the reality is that factories simply don’t employ nearly the same number of people that they used to. Even the construction industry is now a lot more capital intensive than in the past. The WPA was able to put four million people on payrolls in two months because those workers used picks and shovels and we simply don’t use picks and shovels very often today.
The challenge is indeed complex, but I’m encouraged by the initiatives that I do see beginning to be developed. The Center for American Progress, for example, has a proposal for a modern “Marshall Plan” and the Century Foundation is talking about the revival of manufacturing. These are the kinds of initiatives that need to be encouraged and supported.
Saying that the future lies with rising populations and the Obama coalition does not imply that the future does not also lie with the white working class. This is particularly true in the very large number cases where there are genuine communalities of interest between the two parts of the Democratic coalition. It may sound like an old-fashioned union slogan, but the white worker in Ohio and the Black worker in Philadelphia really do have profound interests in common. A startling fact is that white labor force participation has been falling for some time and the statistics for white men are starting to look similar to those of African Americans. The challenge progressives and Democrats face is how to stimulate employment for both of these communities and how to speak to those issues in a way that resonates with both groups. Not surprisingly, unstable jobs and low wages show up continually in our doorstop conversations with both Black and White working class Americans.
Donald Trump understood a key fact about white working class Americans: working people have not heard anyone speak directly to them as workers in quite a while. Donald Trump talked about steelworkers. He talked about miners. His solutions were cynical and demagogic but simply calling out to these workers directly and showing that he was aware of them and wanted their support had an absolutely electric effect.
As Ruy noted a few minutes ago, the math is indeed clear. To reach the 51 percent needed to create a governing majority, Democrats need the support of not only the young and minorities but a sufficient share of white working class voters as well.
At Working America we are continually going out in the field and asking people what’s on their minds in a very open and non-judgmental way. There are two important facts we have noted:
First, when we look at where we as a progressive community spent our time in the last election, it is abundantly clear that we were talking to ourselves. 80 percent of the direct voter contact in last election occurred in big urban counties and only in the last two months and almost entirely among people who were already part of the Democratic base. It is unnecessary to emphasize the fact that talking to oneself is not a recipe for winning the support of anyone else.
Second, since the election we have found that the biggest predictor of partisan behavior is how a person gets his or her information. More than half people we speak with get their information from Fox News, and among this group Donald Trump has a powerful advantage. On the other hand, about a quarter of the people we speak with get their news and information from print sources and they were strongly for Hillary. The TV watchers were +12 for Donald Trump. The readers were +30 for Hillary
Now we know that there are certain things that work. Maintaining personal contact with people and engaging in repeat engagement makes a huge difference. We do not have the vast platform that Fox News provides the GOP and it is only by making grass-roots contact and building face-to-face relationships that we can fight for the support of the people who now see us only through the distorted lens of the conservative media.
Finally, the hard and slow process of grass-roots political persuasion has to begin now or we will suffer even greater losses in 2018. If you use opinion scales that rank people from strong Democrat to strong Republican and look at average scores in Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2016 and then compare that to the 2010 midterm election what you see is that the electorate becomes 6 percent more Republican in mid-terms so that’s what we are in for in 2018 if we do not aggressively struggle against that trend.