Is there a white working class? During the 20th century, it was not a term most wage-earning, European-Americans called themselves; regional, ethnic, religious, occupational, and political divisions mattered to them more than any unified identity — except American. I think that is pretty much the case today as well. Does a 55-year-old churchgoing Southern Baptist grandmother who clerks at a Wal-Mart in rural Alabama consider herself part of the same group as a 25-year-old UPS driver from New York City who believes in no religion, has tattoos all over his arms, and wants his union to more aggressively defend his interests? And what about the increasing number of white working people who are marrying and/or having children with Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans?
The lack of a strong group consciousness doesn’t mean progressives cannot appeal effectively to both that Wal-Mart worker and that UPS driver. The “most important single step” would be a program one might call “common-sense liberalism” and a rhetoric to match it. The program would include: affordable, reliable health care; a minimum wage which increases along with the cost-of-living; a job creation plan focused on repairing the nation’s infrastructure and developing a green economy; a progressive income tax which eliminates corporate loopholes; stricter regulation of the financial industry, including mandatory jail terms for the worst white-collar criminals; and a constitutional amendment, like that sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Mark Begich (D-AK), which would ban any spending by “corporate and private entities” on candidates and ballot measures.
Yes, these are familiar ideas. But they are also popular ones. White wage-earners without a college education know the odds against them being able to lead a secure life with better opportunities for their children have grown longer in recent years. The election and re-election of a black president lionized by wealthy liberals may have increased the deep cynicism they already had about the federal government. A sincere and ardent advocacy of ideas that would help balance the economic scales may not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of alienated white working people. But short of an unlikely mass revival of unions in the private sector, I cannot imagine anything else that can.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent, [www.dissentmagazine.org] and teaches history at Georgetown University. His latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.