Mark Schmitt

The “white working class,” as a demographic concept, is elusive – its politics look different if you define it by income or education (whites without a college degree is a group that skews much older, but using income includes many younger people who will ultimately earn more), if you exclude the South, or look at men and women separately. Some portion of the white working class, especially men in the South and border states, are now the very core of the Republican base, and that won’t change, while white union members, especially in key states in the upper Midwest, remain strong Democrats. Andrew Levison has argued that the white working class should be understood “as a coherent and cohesive social group,” but there’s little evidence of it. Does a young single-mother nurse in Maine really feel she has more in common with an angry Tea Party retiree in Arizona than with her Latino co-worker or neighbor? Still, Levison is correct that narrowcasting solely to the young and female among the white working class is too limiting.

On the ground organizing, such as Working America’s strategy to reach households that aren’t union members but look like them, is one part of the solution. The other is an agenda that actually speaks to the lived experience of those white working class voters who aren’t already committed to economic and social conservatism. Democrats have finally begun to embrace the basics of an economic agenda – a minimum wage increase, a commitment to full employment, and of course, the full realization of the Affordable Care Act. But there is more to the well-being of the working class than cash and benefits. Democrats need to talk about the experience of work – and family – in the new economy, as it affects both men and women. The stories pile up about workers’ increasing lack of autonomy – clocks that stop at every break, unpredictable scheduling, inflexible rules, requirements that workers support their bosses’ political activities, jobs with no sick days at all. Sure, much of this is the effect of a slack labor market in which employers can get away with anything. But waiting for full employment doesn’t change the experience of a dad whose daily life is run at the whim of his boss, who can’t be certain that he can leave in time to see his kid’s softball game, and all for $15 an hour. Time and freedom, and not just cash, need to become part of the progressive conversation with the working class of all races.

The right talks compellingly about freedom and has gained adherents since 2008 – but it’s always as freedom from government. But the lack of freedom that most of us — and especially low- and middle-income working people – actually experience increasingly comes from employers, not government. Progressives need to reclaim the idea of freedom (and not just by the rhetorical trick of redefining freedom as an adequate income and social insurance), and put it in the context of family and personal time.