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Why Democrats Need the White Working Class

WHATS THE MATTER with White People is really about what’s the matter with the white working class—more specifically, with the way they vote. Joan Walsh’s concern is with how the white working class has strayed from the New Deal coalition and from the Democrats. She explains and examines this thesis using her own experience: the political evolution of her New York working-class Irish Catholic family, most of whom followed the classic path from New-Deal-lunch-pail Democrats to Nixon-and-Reagan devotees.

Walsh is a more-or-less unreconstructed New Deal liberal who believes economic universalism is the glue that can and should hold the Democratic coalition together. As she puts it: “Democrats do best when they can unite around a vision of economic improvement for everybody.” That, in her view, was what made the New Deal coalition so successful. So how did it all go so wrong, both for the white working class overall and for her own family? (Walsh and her college-educated father are the only ones who have kept faith with the Democrats through the Nixon-Reagan years.)

Her answer is three-fold. First, she gives a great deal of credit to the Republicans for successfully using social and cultural issues—race, abortion, gays, guns, drugs, faith, crime, and so on—to obfuscate economic ones. In this view, she has plenty of company, including Thomas Frank, whose book What’s The Matter With Kansas? was focused on this point. Second, she blames the slowdown in income growth, the disappearance of secure middle-class jobs for less skilled workers, and dramatically rising inequality, for undercutting faith in government. White working-class voters increasingly saw government as ineffective and taxes as wasted on social programs for others, especially undeserving minorities. Republicans also get considerable credit for shredding the social contract, destroying union power, and deregulating the market, but Democrats were also culpable, she believes, by acquiescing to these changes and becoming increasingly oriented toward Wall Street.

This brings us to the third and most distinctive part of Walsh’s argument: the role that Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, have played in alienating the white working class. In her view, the retreat of the white working class became an excuse for liberal Democrats to vilify this group, magnifying their shortcomings into a cartoon portrait of hopelessly racist and mean-spirited enemies of progress. This accelerated the white working class’s bitter departure from the Democrats. It also ensured that identity politics displaced class politics within the Democratic Party. As Walsh puts it: “I watched one area of common ground emerge on the left: more and more observers seemed to believe that so-called people of color … shared more interests with one another than with any white Americans.”

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Walsh’s ire at this development is not only political but also personal. It is personal because these white working-class objects of derision include her own family. She knows first-hand the complexities, the experiences, and the fears motivating their rightward shift. In many ways, she echoes the views expressed by Obama in 2008 in his celebrated campaign speech in Philadelphia on “A More Perfect Union”: behind the seemingly reactionary impulses of people like her relatives were real concerns and problems. It is also personal because Walsh has been attacked with the blunt weapon of identity politics—disparaged simply because of her “white skin privilege.” She rightly argues that such ad hominem attacks have no place in reasoned political discourse, including, and perhaps especially, on the left. But clearly these attacks have stung her deeply.

Walsh believes that Democrats must reject identity politics and quit assuming that white working-class voters are beyond the reach of progressive appeals. And this is not just a matter of fairness. The most important reason is pragmatic. Even in an era when shifting demographics are benefiting the Democrats, “no matter what kinds of coalitions the Democrats can assemble to win an election, it will be harder for them to restore America’s economic potential without the support of the white middle and working class.” Here she is on very firm ground. Electoral weakness among the white working class can be finessed in some elections (2008, perhaps 2012), but it deprives the Democrats of the stable majority support they need around the country and within Congress to implement activist programs the country desperately needs. And if a Democratic administration runs into trouble, the potential for blowback from an unfriendly white working class is always present (as was seen in 2010).

So Walsh’s call to re-engage with the white working class should be heeded by the left, though to do so they must put aside some preconceptions. She reminds us that joining the white working class together with minorities, youth, and educated professionals is a dream that goes back to another Irish Catholic, Robert Kennedy, whose presidential campaign on this theme was cut short by assassination.

I share Walsh’s conviction that now is a good time to revive that dream. But how? This is where it gets tricky. Walsh believes that Occupy Wall Street and the “99 percent movement” have raised the awareness among the white working class that inequality is not only bad for them but also emanates from the economically powerful, and not from the government. That may be true, but so far we have little evidence that consciousness-raising has had a big effect on their views about Democrats or the role of government. Another observation is more promising: the modern Republican Party tends to put the white working class in the crosshairs. From Charles Murray’s widely praised (among conservatives) book on the decline of white America to the increasingly libertarian emphasis on makers versus “looters and moochers” to the attack on public sector unions, Republican targets increasingly include broad swathes of the white working class. This is truly an opening for Democrats, if they care to take it.

Walsh’s insistence on re-engaging with the white working class, powerfully backed up by her personal story, is the signal contribution of her book. If she has not exactly prescribed how Democrats can successfully reach the white working class, she has forcefully reminded us that this is a problem that must be solved. Democrats would be well advised to embrace this imperative.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation and fellow of the New Politics Institute.