It is important to emphasize at the outset that there are wide variations in the voting patterns among the white working class by state. As Jack Metzgar and I found in 2008, even among seemingly similar states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, there is significant variation. This is an important consideration in framing a message that will attract the WWC.
Working-class whites will vote their economic interest if it is fully explained and accessible. For example, many WWC voters may have been more attracted to President Obama’s recent speech on “infrastructure projects” if he had referred to ‘public works’ and explained the kinds of construction, engineering and support jobs they would create. Several years ago, think how quickly the Occupy Movement changed the national debate from austerity by using percentages to highlight inequality.
Macroeconomic programs can be easily understood if framed properly. For example, federal programs can be better understood by explaining direct benefits on individuals, multiplier effects, job creation, and impact of tax policies and education in creating employment opportunities. Simplicity in messaging is important, but Democrats need to go at least one level deeper in the explaining “workers’ spending power” as the primary engine of economic growth.
This is not rocket science. Senator Sherrod Brown is among the most progressive members of the Senate and he hails from a State that has a significant WWC electorate. Yet, his programmatic explanations to constituents are clear and straightforward, leaving his critics disarmed.
Lastly, progressive messages cannot be didactic. White workers are especially resentful of how they are represented and, often, devalued and used. This is particularly important now with the discussion of the “new service economy.” Many feel they have been reduced to electoral artifacts, erased from current political debates except during political campaigns.
It is doubtful that progressives can ever attract a majority of the WWC nationally. But if demographic change continues, progressives only need to swing 10% of the WWC to achieve decisive electoral victories. This will be difficult given the differences between what is said during campaigns and the realpolitik of governing.
John Russo is the former director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and is current a visiting research fellow at the Metropolitan Institute (Alexandria) at Virginia Tech.