No group has seen its fortunes decline more over the past 40 years than the white working class. Income, job security, even life-expectancy have either stagnated or dropped for the constituency that once was the linchpin of the New Deal coalition.
No group would benefit more from such key points in the Democrats’ agenda as universal health care, labor law reform or public works programs. The problem is that political support within the white working class for many such programs has dropped nearly to an all-time low. Some of that lack of support is due more to the source of such programs (the Democrats, particularly the Obama Democrats) than their substance: The white poor of Kentucky, for instance, have signed up in droves for that state’s Medicaid program, which the Affordable Care Act expanded, all the while maintaining their hostility to President Obama. The success of that program suggests that in time, the merits of universal programs – particularly when whites understand that they themselves, and not just minorities, are beneficiaries – may come to outweigh the antipathy to their creators. But the Democratic strategy can’t be to wait for this epiphany to arrive. More fundamentally, government has been so discredited within the white working class – in response to decades of Republican attacks on government, racially-targeted programs devised by Democrats, and the failure of government to arrest the long-term decline of the middle class – that the Democrats can advance only a few basic policies that have any chance of white-working-class support.
But those policy options do exist. To begin, Democrats could propose major investment in the nation’s sagging infrastructure, which would create millions of construction jobs. They could require much more domestic content in governmental procurement, and promote trade policies that discourage offshoring – policies that would boost employment in manufacturing. They could attack Wall Street for its role in promoting offshoring, and limit Wall Street’s clout by resurrecting Glass Steagall. They could propose anti-plutocratic corporate tax reforms – for instance, greatly reducing corporate taxes on those companies with low CEO-pay-to-median-worker-pay ratios, and greatly raising corporate taxes on those companies with high ratios. Polling shows near universal support for policies that revive domestic manufacturing, improve our infrastructure and attack the overpayment of top corporate and bank executives. If Democrats can disenthrall themselves from Wall Street and its contributions, they may win back some of the white working class yet.
Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post.