Can a middle-class economic agenda and a reform government agenda unite the Obama Coalition and the white working class?

by Ed Kilgore

One of the hardiest of perennials in progressive political discussion is the direction of non-college educated white voters–a.k.a., in the era of mass higher education, the White Working Class. There are a variety of reasons for this preoccupation. For one thing, much of the progressive policy legacy that has been extended and contested in recent decades is rooted in a New Deal Democratic Coalition squarely based on the white working class. That this group of voters is now arguably a component of the Republican “base” is a source of both political frustration and moral self-doubt for progressives.

At the practical level, steady declines in support among white working class voters have diminished Democrats’ geographical reach while increasing the party’s already heavy dependence on young and minority voters who do not participate proportionately in non-presidential elections. More generally, white working class Americans represent a puzzle to Democrats who constantly appeal to their economic self-interest and the positive role of government in their lives, but who nonetheless for hotly debated reasons continue to give a majority of their votes (at least in presidential elections) to a Republican Party deeply committed to trickle-down economics and limited–sometimes disabled–government.  In the past many Democrats sought to neutralize alleged cultural conservatism among these voters by muting or even negating their own cultural liberalism, with mixed results and a lot of regrets. More recently, many progressives have come to rationalize the problem as a product of inherently reactionary southerners saturated with racial resentments, or dismiss it as a phenomenon prevailing among a shrinking minority of economic and demographic losers.

No progressive political analyst has devoted more passionate attention to this dilemma over the years than Stan Greenberg, an adviser to presidents and global leaders who first came to national prominence studying the Reagan Democrats of suburban Detroit.  Greenberg has returned to this topic again and again in his polling and strategic work, and now is offering fresh data and analysis suggesting a path–though not an easy path–for a Democratic revival in key segments of the white working class, and among the unmarried women who overlap with the white working class by definition and by affinity of views.

Greenberg concedes that certain non-college educated white voters, the “most religiously observant, racially conscious and rural” voters in the South and the Mountain West, are mostly beyond reach of any progressive message at present; most also live in states with formidable Republican majorities. But beyond those limitations, he finds robust support for a progressive agenda and message that includes “policies to protect Medicare and Social Security, investments in infrastructure to modernize the country, a cluster of policies to help working families with child care and paid leave, and new efforts to ensure equal pay and family leave for women.” But among both white working class voters and unmarried women, what undermines support for this agenda is a deeply felt antipathy to government as corrupt, beholden to wealthy special interests, and incompetent to achieve progressive goals.
This is a dynamic that observers like Greenberg have been noting for years. But now, he believes, it has become critical:

We have arrived at a tipping point at the outset of the 2016 election cycle, where the demand to reform government is equal to or stronger than the demand to reform the economy. More accurately, reform can make it possible to use governmental policies to help the middle class. In short, it is reform first.

Greenberg is convinced the conventional wisdom that issues like cleaning up the influence of money over Congress or campaigns are bloodless “process issues” of interest only to “wine-track” voters is dead wrong.

White working-class and downscale voters are open to a bold Democratic agenda and prefer it to a conservative Republican vision for the country. To win their support, however, voters are demanding, with growing ferocity, that Democrats battle against America’s corrupted politics and for a government that really works for the average citizen.

This second part of the “reform” agenda is especially difficult for some progressives: a demand that government be streamlined to become a more efficient instrument for vindicating middle-class interests.  This is, interestingly enough, of particular concern to women (both white working-class women and unmarried women generally).

Add together the middle-class economic agenda and a reform agenda and you have, says Greenberg, a potent message that can unite the Obama Coalition with a higher percentage of the white working class, with women from all backgrounds especially supportive.

The “reform first” strategy is sufficiently provocative that this Second White Working Class Roundtable — sponsored jointly by The Democratic Strategist and The Washington Monthly, is devoted to discussing its implications. The contributors will include John Judis; Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin; Mark Schmitt; Joan Walsh; Richard Kahlenberg; Karen Nussbaum; John Russo; and Jack Metzgar; Andrew Levison; and myself. The Washington Monthly will roll out an essay in my Political Animal column each day and we may hold follow-up discussions as well.

We hope this will become a watershed discussion that will not only cast light on what progressives can do to appeal to a broader coalition of voters, but dispel some myths as well.

Ed Kilgore is the principal writer for the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.