Is there a viable progressive strategy to increase white working class support in the “Conservative Heartland”?

By Andrew Levison

The central argument that Stan presents in his Washington Monthly article is the idea that white working class people may express support for populist policies and programs on opinion surveys but that this will simply not translate into political support for Democratic candidates so long as these voters perceive government as overwhelmingly corrupt and controlled by special interests.

As Stan says

These voters, we shall see, are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda…yet they are only ready to listen when they think Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform is the price of admission with these voters. These white working class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.

Stan has been vocal in insisting on this point for over a decade and has developed a substantial body of survey evidence to support this conclusion. Here are some of the key surveys that his organization, Democracy Corps, has conducted in the last several years regarding attitudes toward government corruption and government reform:

2012 – In Congressional Battleground Voters Intensely Concerned about Money in Politics
2013 – Revolt Against  Washington and Corrupted Politics
2014 – Voters Ready to Act against Big Money in Politics Lessons from the 2014 Midterm Election

As Stan notes, however, within this broad national trend there are actually two very distinct challenges:

The hurdles to reaching the white working class look so daunting because of the success of Republicans in building up huge margins with those voters in the South, plains and Rocky Mountain regions.  Obama won only 25 percent of white non-college voters in the South and 33 percent in the Mountain West…Voter attitudes do indeed put most of these voters out of reach.

It is important to remember, however, that three-fourths of American voters live outside this GOP Conservative Heartland. In the rest of the country, the battle for the swing white working class and downscale voters is very much alive…On Election Day 2012, Obama won 40 percent of the white non-college voters outside the Republicans’ regional base. That number still poses a problem, but it would not take major gains with these voters to change the Democrats fortunes in these areas.

For many Democratic political strategists the immediate reaction to this basic reality has been to conclude that Dems should basically write off the difficult regions and concentrate their resources on areas where Democratic candidates are within striking distance of victory. There are, however, two substantial arguments against this approach:

First, this approach implies depriving grass roots Democratic activists and supporters in the “conservative heartland” regions of anything beyond the most minimal resources. While every national electoral strategy inevitably involves allocating scarce financial resources, this is a morally and socially distasteful option because it implies literally “giving up” on these regions to a substantial degree and accepting the idea that the GOP has them permanently under its control.

Second, this approach effectively insures the perpetuation of very weak state and local party organizations in these regions, a result that inherently guarantees a vicious cycle of continually low Democratic support on Election Day. This approach to allocating resources was deeply debated during and after the 2002 and 2004 elections when Howard Dean proposed the “50 State Strategy” as an alternative to the narrow targeting of only carefully selected states and precincts and the arguments that advocates of the 50 state strategy presented at that time remain as significant today as they were then. Focusing all resources on only a subset of targeted states and precincts leaves little or no margin for error on Election Day and does nothing to systematically build a progressive political infrastructure that will eventually become vital in many areas where demographic change is gradually creating more competitive political environments for Democratic candidates.

It is important to note that the results of the 2010 and 2014 elections very substantially strengthened the case for continuing to invest more than token effort and resources in currently low support areas because they made it clear that Democrats must eventually attempt to regain control of many of the state legislatures and congressional districts that they have lost in recent years or face a permanent inability to enact their agenda, even if they can consistently win the White House.

But what political strategy can possibly make any significant difference in these heartland areas where the level of support for the Democratic Party is currently so dramatically low?

To analyze this question, Democratic strategists need to begin by focusing on one key fact: that even in these conservative heartland communities many “liberal” policies advocated by Democrats are significantly more popular than the Democratic Party itself.

As Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Rutgers University noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

Alaska elected a Republican senator and passed a recreational marijuana initiative, along with an increase in the minimum wage. North Dakota elected a Republican congressman and rejected a Personhood amendment. Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota elected a Republican senator and governor, and passed a minimum wage increase. This led Zachary Goldfarb to write in the Washington Post that: “Americans will vote for Republicans even though they disagree with them on everything…on the biggest issues facing Congress, [voters] still agree with Democrats. That includes issues like raising the minimum wage, making the rich pay more in taxes, letting illegal immigrants stay in the United States, taking action to stem global warming, legalizing same sex marriage and fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it.”

My research suggests a key reason why this happened: our partisan identities motivate us far more powerfully than our views about issues. Although voters may insist in the importance of their values and ideologies, they actually care less about policy and more that their team wins.

This “team spirit” is increasingly powerful because our party identities line up with other powerful identities, such as religion and race. Over the last few decades, Republicans have generally grown increasingly white and churchgoing, while Democrats have become more non-white and secular. This sorting of identities makes us care even more about winning, and less about what our government actually gets done.

This helps explain why all of the five states noted above voted for liberal policies even though they have substantial proportions of white churchgoing Republicans. Indeed, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota have some of the highest percentages of white churchgoing Republicans of any state.

When social and partisan identities align, we begin to detach our votes for candidates from our policy interests. The most important thing is to stick with the team. It doesn’t matter if the team you voted for opposes the very policy you voted to enact.

This disjunction between the level of support for liberal or progressive policies on the one hand and for the Democratic Party on the other can be seen in every region of the country but the discrepancy is dramatically more apparent in the “conservative heartland” than in non-heartland areas.

It is easy to say that the heartland areas are “uniquely conservative” because of a volatile mix of historic white racial attitudes in the South and religious fundamentalism and anti-government conservatism throughout the heartland areas as a whole, and in one sense this is self-evidently true. But, considered more carefully, this really does not explain a great deal. In fact, in a certain respect the explanation is tautological—the three factors noted above do not “explain” the increased conservatism of the heartland regions so much as they define it.

To understand the distinct characteristics of these heartland regions that makes their pro-Democratic tilt so much lower not only than the levels of support that exist in other areas but also than the level of support for various liberal reforms, we must begin by distinguishing between two very distinct concepts:  cultural traditionalism and conservatism.

In both heartland and non-heartland areas of the U.S., white working class Americans are overwhelmingly cultural traditionalists. Their political opinions are deeply shaped by four basic value systems rooted in the major social institutions of working class life—the church, the military, small business and the school system. These institutions systematically inculcate the values they represent—patriotism, religious piety, free enterprise and the “American system of government,” creating an interlocking set of value systems that define right and wrong, true and false and good and bad.

In non-heartland areas, such as the formerly industrial regions of the East and Midwest, however, there were also countervailing value systems in working class life as well. Trade unions, precinct level Democratic clubs and liberal catholic churches provided support for an alternative value system that supported New Deal liberalism.

In the conservative heartland regions these countervailing institutions did not exist and, as a result, the four traditional value systems seemed entirely hegemonic. They were not and are not visualized as “conservative” or even particularly “political” ideas by working people in these communities but rather as obvious, self-evident truths that ought to be completely apparent to anyone with even a modicum of “simple common sense”.

But within the framework of the essentially universal respect for traditional social institutions and culture in white working class life, there nonetheless exists a profound division between conservative and progressive outlooks—a split that is expressed as the difference between basically tolerant and intolerant views on social issues and between basically conservative and somewhat more populist economic views. This profound division is generally not understood or even perceived by many educated liberals and progressives because both points of view are expressed entirely within the language and cultural framework of working class cultural traditionalism.

During Wednesday night prayer meetings at roadside Evangelical churches, for example, some individuals will support a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens because that is “what Jesus would want us to do.” Some white working class plumbers and carpenters who revile “government” in general will nonetheless firmly support “populist” policies like expanding Social Security benefits, protecting Medicare from privatization or even guaranteeing access to health insurance despite preexisting conditions because they interpret these social policies as benefits that hard working people have “earned” with years of labor and therefore fully deserve. Some white working class military veterans will oppose future involvement in far-away wars not on pacifist grounds but on the basis of their own personal experience in warfare. It is because of individuals like these that opinion polls consistently detect a variety of “progressive” attitudes among white working class voters at significantly higher levels than their partisan leanings.

(Note, however, that these poll results should not be misinterpreted as demonstrating the existence of a coherent group of consistently “liberal” or “progressive” white working class men and women who would seem likely to be easily won to the Democratic cause. Rather, in most cases, different white workers have different specific and individual issues on which they depart from the conservative consensus while retaining conservative views on others. An avid hunter or outdoorsman, for example, may support wilderness protection and other environmental measures while disliking illegal aliens. A Texas rancher whose family has worked with Mexican cowhands for generations will support a path to citizenship but simultaneously dismiss welfare as a handout. Families with gay members will support same-sex marriage but oppose all abortions).

When it comes to political parties and candidates, however, the situation is far less ambiguous. The inescapable fact is that in the heartland areas over the last 40 years the GOP has powerfully identified itself as the champion of core traditional cultural values and successfully branded Democrats as the representatives of alien groups and philosophies. As a result, in these regions the GOP appears to white working class voters as the embodiment of “common sense” and the “real America” while Democrats are viewed as the representatives of city-based minorities, university-educated elites and limousine liberals.

This demonizing of the Democrats is, as a matter of fact, a much more powerful force in the conservative heartland than is the positive appeal of the GOP itself as a political party.
As Jonathan Chait recently noted:

[political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster] introduce a phenomenon they call negative partisanship. That is to say, voters form strong loyalties based more on loathing for the opposing party than on the old kind of tribal loyalty (“My daddy was a Democrat, his daddy was a Democrat …”) that used to prevail. The party system has split along racial, cultural, and religious lines, creating a kind of tribal system where each party’s supporters regard the other side with incomprehension and loathing.

This analysis is echoed by other political scientists as well. As Dana Milbank notes:

It has long been agreed that race is the deepest divide in American society. But that is no longer true, say [political scientists] Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood… Americans now discriminate more on the basis of party than on race, gender or any of the other divides we typically think of—and that discrimination extends beyond politics into personal relationships and non-political behaviors. Americans increasingly live in neighborhoods with like-minded partisans, marry fellow partisans and disapprove of their children marrying mates from the other party, and they are more likely to choose partners based on partisanship than physical or personality attributes.

The substantially increased role of negative partisanship in American politics leads to a profound difference between the way daily political life operates in the conservative heartland and non-heartland areas today. In the non-Heartland areas individual political loyalties are indeed often just as intense as in the heartland areas but within local community and daily neighborhood life politics is nonetheless understood and accepted as contested—at little league games and church socials Democratic and Republican white workers are friendly to each other and socialize together comfortably despite their deeply different political views. They accept the idea that some of their neighbors think differently than they do and that some yard signs in their neighborhood will support candidates other than their own.

In the conservative heartland areas, on the other hand, politics is simply not contested. Every single yard sign in many neighborhoods and communities will support candidates of the Republican Party leading to what sociologists call a “spiral of silence”; people with dissenting views decide not to express their opinions in public while advocates of conservative opinions loudly and confidently dominate daily social life. As Lydia Bean, a perceptive observer of conservative evangelicals recently noted, for example:

Many outsiders assume that evangelical mobilization is a rather top-down affair: pastors and national elites tell evangelicals to get out and vote for conservatives. But I discovered that a much broader set of volunteer or “lay” religious leaders play a key role in weaving politics into local religious life. The Sunday School teacher who makes off-handed derogatory remarks about “liberals.” The small group host with the portrait of George W. Bush on her fridge. The pro-life friend at church who reminds you to get out and vote this November—and to remember that the Democrats are for abortion, Republicans are for life.

These local opinion leaders translate national conservative messages into the everyday social worlds of evangelical churches. I call them “captains” in the Culture War, because they are embedded in the everyday lives of their followers. By contrast, James Dobson, Glenn Beck, or Mike Huckabee are “generals” in the Culture War over issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Culture War captains are the people in your life who model what it means to be a good Christian, who help you map your political identity against out-groups like “liberals,” “feminists,” and “gay rights activists.”

When election season rolls around, evangelicals are already primed with a shared narrative about American national identity, which blames the country’s moral decline on activist “liberals” trying to limit the religious freedom of Christians. This narrative is promoted by Christian Right interest groups, but it is also promoted by media sources and organizations that are not perceived as “political” by rank-and-file evangelicals.

For example, most evangelicals in my study saw Focus on the Family as a resource for parenting and personal devotion, not as a partisan operation. Likewise, pro-life activists whom I interviewed did not see themselves as “political” leaders. For them, the pro-life movement was a thoroughly religious movement; indeed, most of their activities with pro-life groups involved prayer and Bible study, not protest and advocacy.

So when Republican candidates invoke Culture War narrative in campaigns, their claims resonate with language that is continuously reinforced by ostensibly non- political, spiritual practices. Conservative frames resonate with evangelicals in election years, because they are reinforced in their everyday religious lives by local leaders who model a conservative political identity.

The same social process operates with other social issues. Grass roots advocates of the National Rifle Association provide local opinion leaders who are unchallenged when vocally opposing gun control, anti-Moslem advocates provide local opinion leaders who advocate militaristic foreign policies without challenge and so on across the entire range of national issues.

Faced with this daunting political environment, the difficult question is the following: how can progressives build a progressive infrastructure in regions where direct election-year door-to-door organizing among white working class voters can—at best—only increase the vote for Democrats by a few percentage points before grinding to a halt.

The key to an answer lies in correctly defining the basic cognitive structure of existing white working class attitudes and then seeking strategies to promote change from “within” that framework, so to speak, rather than attempting to transform it from the outside.

The key features of the existing white working class attitudes in the conservative heartland areas are the following:

  1. A perception of cultural traditionalism as a set of “hegemonic” values—as a series of common sense realities about which every normal person obviously agrees.
  2. A personal and idiosyncratic mixture of tolerant and intolerant or conservative and populist attitudes displayed by different individuals on a range of specific social
    and economic issues.
  3. An overwhelming dismissal of the Democratic Party as representing fundamentally alien social groups and political philosophies.

A major reason why it is so difficult to change these attitudes is that they are mutually reinforcing. A canvasser going door to door in white working class neighborhoods next year to promote the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, for example, will continually encounter counter-arguments that jump directly from one of these three factors to another in what seems to the respondent as a single, seamless and coherent web of objections.

But while it is extremely difficult to attack this entire complex cluster of attitudes directly, individual elements of it can be weakened and destabilized by forms of progressive organizing that do not require wining immediate support for Democratic candidates but rather promote intermediate ideas that weaken the grip of the dominant conservative ideology without requiring a wholesale transformation of attitudes.

There are two general approaches that can be employed:

The first is single-issue organizing, generally on specific economic issues. Spontaneous grass-roots protest groups have emerged in a wide variety of working class communities on issues like toxic dumping, fracking, and other immediate community problems. Working on a broader, multi-issue basis, the largest and most sophisticated organization following this strategy in white working class communities is Working America which builds grass roots organizations around whatever local issues residents see as most pressing. Using this approach, Working America has built significant local organizations in a wide range of white working class neighborhoods across the country. Although relatively little known, the full extent of Working America’s organizing outreach is remarkable as Working America’s Executive Director Karen Nussbaum explains in her contribution to this roundtable (another description of Working America’s activities is given HERE and HERE.

It is important to note that while organizing around specific local issues is not initially partisan in character, the issues that are raised almost invariably lead to a focus on corruption and indifference to white working class communities by various levels of government and from there suggest the need for various kinds of government reform. In the conservative heartland, the relevant state and local governments are invariably run by the GOP, thus inherently imparting a partisan element into grass-roots mobilization of white workers around local issues. As a result, initially nonpartisan organizing efforts by Working America have often led to increased political participation and pro-Democratic mobilization.

Second, single-issue organizing can also provide a foundation for political campaigns by independent political candidates. There is an unoccupied and available political “niche” in conservative heartland districts for genuine grass-roots white working class candidates who depart in some respects from the GOP’s rigid free-market economic orthodoxy and bitter social intolerance while still exhibiting  authentic “real American” cultural traditionalism. In the 2014 elections, for example, an eclectic group of independent candidates in Kansas, Alaska and North Dakota significantly weakened the political stranglehold the Republican Party ordinarily held in these areas by advocating a variety of mixtures of conservative and centrist positions.

On one level suggesting even passive support for independent candidates would seem to be in conflict with the larger goal of maximizing Democratic voting. But when one takes into account that at the current time many white working class voters in conservative heartland areas will simply and categorically refuse to vote for a Democrat, the role of independent candidates takes on a different and potentially more productive character.

Independent candidates have the potential to increase the divisions and conflicts between the extremists and the moderates within the GOP, an outcome which would be profoundly healthy for the future of America. In some cases it may be possible for Democrats to throw their support to independent candidates with whom they judge they can work with in the legislature on some issues as an alternative to splitting the vote three ways on election day and insuring a GOP victory. In other cases, the threat posed by independent candidates may allow moderates within the GOP to break the control the extremists now hold over the primary process. Right now, the extremists who participate disproportionately in GOP primaries can force all candidates to embrace their agenda because the candidates know that, regardless of how much they have to grovel and pander to the extremists in order to get the nomination, they can then be confident of winning the general elections in their heavily Republican states or districts. With the threat of third party independent candidates potentially depriving them of a majority in the general election if the primary process forces them to move too far to the right, more moderate GOP candidates will be forced to fight for control of the local parties once again.

In the long-run, of course, the goal for Democrats must always be to win popular support for Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party itself. But in the short term, in conservative heartland districts competing in three way contests with Republican, Democratic and also independent candidates, or supporting independent candidates for office can be more advantageous to Dems than participating in two way contests that the GOP is essentially guaranteed to win. Anything that weakens GOP unity and undermines its currently hegemonic position in conservative heartland districts has the potential to benefit Democrats in the long run.

It is true that demographic change is gradually eroding the foundations of GOP dominance in many heartland districts but, as the most recent projections show in most cases Democratic majorities are not in the cards in the near to medium term future. Under these circumstances, seeking to weaken the GOP’s currently unchallenged hold over the loyalty of white working class voters in heartland areas by supporting single issue organizing and certain independent candidates is a sensible interim strategy.

Andrew Levison is the author of The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support.