When progressives discuss strategies for winning white working class support they invariably focus on three factors – policies, narratives and candidates. The widely shared belief is that a charismatic campaigner with a firm populist program and clear progressive narratives could win back the support of white working class America.
There is however, one reality that this approach ignores. The fine-tuning of platforms, narratives and candidates was emphatically NOT the method by which Dems won and retained the support of white working class voters in the past. White working class support for the Democrats in the 1940’s, 1950’s and early 1960’s was based on two quite different factors – (1) that Dems from every sector of the party genuinely and sincerely viewed American workers as the heart and soul of their political coalition and (2) that workers had a set of important, bottom-up institutions that represented their needs and interests on a day to day basis and simultaneously cemented their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Trade unions, local Democratic organizations and liberal catholic and protestant churches all reinforced the sense of connection white working class people had with the Democratic Party.
Today, Republicans have grass roots connections with white working class voters and Democrats do not. This is the fundamental source of Democrats’ weakness. Without trusted grass-roots institutions as intermediaries to defend Democratic policies, reinforce and interpret Democratic narratives and produce “hometown” Democratic candidates, Democratic policies are easily caricatured as wild-eyed radicalism, Democratic narratives are easily ridiculed as the product of “limousine liberals” and Democratic candidates easily scorned as elitists. Even the most exquisitely polished candidate, platform and narrative cannot succeed if it is not linked to grass-roots institutions and advocates in the everyday community life of white working class America. The reality must be faced: rooms full of well-dressed professionals sitting around conference tables carefully discussing the selection of candidates and the fine-tuning of narratives and policies can never and will never by themselves solve the problem.
Building a grass-roots Democratic organization in working class America will not require compromising central Democratic values. The sector of the white working class that can feasibly co-exist within the Democratic coalition is the sector that is religiously and racially tolerant, non-interventionist in military affairs and pro-New Deal, suspicious of large corporations and unwilling to defer to agendas of the rich and powerful. As documented in my book, The White Working Class Today, there is a significant sector of working class America that embraces these views.
These white working class Democrats will, however, need to have their own clear and quite distinct identity within the Democratic coalition – a distinct “brand” that might be called “heartland democrats” or “traditional values democrats.” This “brand” would identify a distinct outlook that is culturally traditional, moderate on social issues and mildly progressive on economic issues.
Of course, Democrats do have another choice: they can go on hoping that new charismatic Democratic candidates will somehow begin to miraculously appear – candidates who combine the physical magnetism of Russell Crowe, the soaring oratory of John Kennedy and the progressive platform of Paul Krugman. It is now close to 50 years since Dems lost their working class support, however, and such Democratic saviors have still not appeared. It is better to finally accept that it is necessary to slowly, systematically and patiently rebuild the kind of community-level institutions and organizations that provided the foundation for winning working class support for Democrats in the past.
Andrew Levison is the author of The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support.