Saturday, June 4, 2016

White Working Class - The Republican Base?

While reading a recent New Yorker, I came upon a sentence that made me stop in disbelief.  “The base of the [Republican] Party, the middle-aged white working class, …”

I was aware that many working class whites had become Reagan Democrats and that many were at the heart of the Tea Party’s strength.  But that things had gone so far that this part of the traditional Democratic base had now become the Republican base stopped me in my tracks.  Was this true?  What in the world had happened?  

As I thought through my answer to this question, I sadly realized that it was true and how it came to be.  The factors:  economic woes, race, class/elitism/intelligence.

The Democratic Party has been the party of the “common” person for most of its history in that it has championed the rights of the worker, immigrants, and the poor.  Whereas the Republican Party has been the party of the moneyed establishment and was (and still is) steadfastly against any advancement in the rights of the lower classes, including workers.  Not surprisingly, the Democrats were rewarded with the loyal votes of white working-class America.

The first break in this alliance came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under the leadership of President Johnson and the Democrat-controlled Congress.  Working class whites in the South, together with many white collar whites, left the Democratic Party in droves and became the key to the solid Republican South.  The percentage of working class whites voting Democratic in 1960 and 1964 was 55%; in 1968 and 1972, 35%

While this situation improved during the 70s because of Watergate and a sharp recession, the defection returned with the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan.  White northern and midwestern working class men had begun feeling the pinch of stagnating wages and the loss of jobs.  They were attracted to the “can do it” energy of Reagan, his patriotism, and just him as a person.  He was not an intellectual; he was someone they could relate to.  The Democratic candidates during the period, by comparison, did not have charisma, nor exude energy, nor were they flag-waving patriotic … and they were definitely intellectual and spoke like it.

The economic problems of the white working class also increased their resentment over Democratic support for things like affirmative action, welfare, and women’s rights.  They saw the Party as going to bat for everyone but them.   And so again in 1980 and 1984, working class whites voted Democratic only 35%.

While Bill Clinton (who was more down-to-earth and not so intellectual) did somewhat better, the numbers again went down with Al Gore and John Kerry.  And that has continued in 2008 and 2012 with Obama.

Pre-Civil Rights Act, the issues binding the white working class and the Democratic Party were economic.  In that period, Democratic progressivism was mostly about economic prosperity.  Post-Civil Rights Act, the issues driving them away were their worsening economic situation and the Democratic’s new emphasis on social liberalism, including most recently the advancement of gay rights.

The white working class has always been conservative on social issues.  During the past 40 years they have also come to feel that the Republicans will do a better job with the economy.  And so even though the Republican Party has never shown any real interest or caring for the plight of the working class and instead has done the bidding of corporate America, whose interests are usually diametrically opposed to that of the working class, we see this continued phenomenon of working people voting against their economic interests.

There is evidence that with the Trump candidacy this trend will only increase.   Through his outrageous statements regarding Latino immigration as well as his support for protectionist policies to protect American jobs, he may be attracting even greater white working class support.  

For example. it was reported that in one depressed county in Pennsylvania, working class white Democrats are “flocking to Trump.”  Before the primary, 4,647 Democrats and independents in Luzerne County switched their registration to Republican, nearly four times the number of Republicans and independents who changed their registration to Democrats.  One caveat about this example, since Luzerne County is in the coal region, Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised and much publicized comment about putting a lot of coal miners out of work may have more to do with this switch than Trumps comments.  Nevertheless it is troubling.

In the forward to the 2011 edition of We Still Hold These Truths, I noted the following about the plight of the working class.  (Many today may be surprised to hear blue collar workers referred to as part of the middle class, but for decades they were because their unions provided them with very-well-paying jobs.)

“The middle class is made up mostly of nonprofessionals … people with only a high school degree. As manufacturing and other middle class jobs have disappeared, their standard of living and the quality of their lives has been drifting downward. The recent recession only exacerbated the trend. In March 2011, 12 percent of those with only a high-school diploma were unemployed compared to 4.5 percept of those with college degrees and 2 percent for those with professional degrees. The greatest impact has been on men … in 1967, 97 percent of men 30-50 years old in this cohort were employed; in 2010, just 76 percent were. Not only has this resulted in economic problems for these men and their families, these pressures have brought about greater interpersonal stress, with a resulting increase in divorce rates and other examples of social dysfunction. The greater income inequality that developed during this period has also resulted in heightened actual and felt lifestyle differences between the middle class and those with more income and education.”

I wrote then that the world the working class knew since WWII has been turned upon down resulting in them being scared, angry, and alienated.  I chided Democrats for not highlighting this important shift in the American social fabric.  They talked about the need to protect the middle class (everyone always does), but the evisceration that had already occurred was not mentioned … Democrats had and have not shown that they feel the pain of the working class …  and practical measures to reverse the trend are not much of anything.

This year, Hillary (assuming she is the nominee) must show that she feels the pain of the working class.  She must distance herself from her Wall Street backers and show that she is willing to fight for measures to protect workers and bring back jobs, even if those measures are against corporate interests.  Although at this point it may well already be too late.  Hillary has been around long enough that people already have a very fixed opinion of her which new-sounding words from her can probably not effectively overcome.

Also, as I have been urging for years, Democrats must expose Republicans for the hypocrites they are.  They never have and they never will do anything to support the American working class.  Trump may make noises that appeal to the working class, but his policies are not Republican Party policies and they will never be enacted.

Even if Hillary can win without these votes because of the changing electoral demographic, the American worker cannot be left in the dust. They are in pain.  They are a natural part of the Democratic Party’s constituency.  Their well-being is important to the economic stability and health of our society.  Republicans will in the end do nothing to help ease their pain.  Democrats must step up to the plate.