Our discussions of “the white working class” sometimes seem framed by understandings we reached three decades ago, as though we’re still fighting over how to win back Joe Lunchbucket, Reagan Democrat. But Joe and most of his buddies – and most, though not all, were male – are probably committed Republicans now. The most important single step we can take to court whites without a college degree is to remember they aren’t a monolithic or homogenous group. Organizing among women and young people – particularly unmarried younger women – is probably going to yield the most voters.
To say this is not to recommend that we ignore older white men. I have no doubt that a firm commitment to economic populism will help Democrats with many of these voters, male and female. Although Obama lost white non-college voters to Mitt Romney 2-1 in 2012, he essentially tied with that group in Ohio and Wisconsin, thanks to strong campaigns focused on the president’s efforts to rescue the auto industry and save manufacturing jobs.
While polls show that decades of GOP messaging tying government to minorities has led them to distrust government and be skeptical of its expansion, there remain a few issues on which white working class voters are even more liberal than the norm.1 They support expanded family and sick leave, for instance, another sign that so-called women’s issues have become economic issues for struggling families, even if Democrats have been slow to pitch them that way. White working class voters also want Medicare benefits protected, so Democrats ought to put a stop to the austerity politics that have led party leaders to flirt with destructive “grand bargains” that would cut Social Security and Medicare. They are also more likely than others to say “Wall Street hurts the American economy more than it helps,” meaning the rise of populist Wall Street critics like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Sherrod Brown, to name just two, ought to help appeal to this group.
Finally, it’s important that Democrats make clear they want the votes of the white working class, and don’t talk down to them. I’m wary of using language like the “coalition of the ascendant” or the “rising American electorate,” though I understand their appeal. But such terms seem to be consigning white working class voters to a coalition of decline and irrelevance. Luckily these voters are probably not a demographic that’s tuned into recent Web debates over whether certain radical “people of color” even want white allies. But even sensible liberals can talk about the white working class in condescending, off-putting ways. We should remember that “white” is not a synonym for “Republican,” and make clear we want to not merely consolidate the Obama coalition but expand it.
Joan Walsh is an editor-at-large of Salon.com and an MSNBC political analyst.