The Challenge of the White Working Class Vote

by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin

In the last three presidential elections, the Democratic candidate lost among white working-class (non-college) voters by an average of 22 points. The worst performance came in 2012 when Obama lost this group—once the bulwark of the Democratic coalition—by a staggering 26 points (62-36).

The loss of this key demographic is mitigated to some degree by its shrinking size. The numbers of white working-class voters will probably dip to just 30 percent of all voters by 2020 and 44 percent of white voters. This is a dramatic decline from 1988, when white working-class voters were 54 percent of all voters and almost two-thirds (64 percent) of white voters.

Some argue that since the ranks of the white working class are declining, Democrats should simply rely instead on their rising “Obama coalition” of minorities, unmarried and working women, seculars, Millennial generation voters, and educated whites living in more urbanized states. Yet it would be a grave mistake for Democrats to count on this strategy.

For one, the Democrat’s deficit with working-class whites was the key reason for the G.O.P. landslide in 2010, and could hand the Republicans another big win in the upcoming mid-terms. Despite their declining numbers, white working-class voters will be an ever-present threat to progressives in elections and to progressive governance as long as so many remain so hostile to the party.

The Democrats don’t need a majority of white working-class voters to come over to their side. But Democrats do need to deny the Repubicans the supermajorities of white working class-voters that they counter-mobilize today. Moreover, broadening the party’s appeal to white working-class voters should greatly reduce the threat posed to the Democrats when other constituencies, such as Latinos or younger voters, for example, exhibit only modest turnout, which is particularly a problem during off year elections, or waiver in their support
for the Democrats.

Furthermore—and this is critical—by depriving the GOP of their uncontested supermajorities among white working-class voters, Democrats would finally force today’s intransigent Republican party toward the center. It is only those supermajorities that allow Republicans to thumb their noses at the rising Obama coalition and dig in their heels at the smallest progressive change.

Take that crutch away and the electoral arithmetic becomes so dire that GOP strategy will have to change simply to remain competitive. True, a more moderate and reasonable Republican party would attract more voters who now vote Democratic, but overall it would be a plus for progressive governance by improving the climate for legislation that actually addresses social problems.

Is there reasonable hope that such a coalition can be formed? We believe there is.

Start with the evolution of the white working class itself. Over time, we expect that generational change will make the white working class more liberal and open to progressive agendas. This will occur as white working-class Millennials gradually take the place of generally more conservative white working-class Baby Boomers and older Americans.

Democrats generally receive greater support among Millennial white working-class voters than among older white working-class voters. This gap peaked in 2008 when Obama’s margin was 30 points better among 18-29 year old white working class Millennial voters than among their older counterparts.

This generation gap is partially explained by the fact that white working class Millennials are substantially more liberal on social issues. For example, in the 2012 National Election Study, 54 percent of white working class Millennials thought gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry, compared to just 34 percent of older white working class cohorts. They are also more likely than older cohorts to be secular in religious orientation, another indicator of liberalism. In the 2012 Democracy Corps post-election survey, 33 percent of white working class Millennials reported no religious affiliation
compared to 14 percent of their older counterparts.

And perhaps most important, today’s young white working-class voters are notably more liberal on issues concerning the role of government, which have been an especially strong factor in moving the white working class to the right over time. (Most academic analyses agree that these issues were far more important in causing white working class defection from the Democrats than were social/cultural issues).

An example of how large a generation gap exists within the white working class on the role of government comes from a 2010 Hart Research/CAP survey. It found that 61 percent of Millennial non-college-educated whites favored a strong government to deal with today’s complex economic problems, compared to just 38 percent of older working-class whites. White working-class Millennials are also very close to white college-educated Millennials in their views on this issue, in contrast to older white working-class individuals who are more
conservative than older white college-educated cohorts.

One might fear a growing, reactionary backlash among the white working class, young and old, as they find themselves contending with an increasingly diverse society. This is possible but data from a 2013 CAP/PolicyLink/Latino Decisions poll suggest that the white working class is far less resistant to diversity than generally supposed.

The poll asked, for example, whether “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to many different cultures.” Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the white working class agreed.

The same number agreed that “A bigger, more diverse workforce will lead to more economic growth.” Similarly, 62 percent agreed that “diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive, ” while 58 percent agreed that “people will become more accepting of their differences and more willing to find common ground.”

Or again, 57 percent agreed that “with more diverse people working and living together, discrimination will decrease.” Finally, 52 percent agreed that “the entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population”.

Further, as we would expect, white working-class Millennials are significantly more open to rising diversity than the white working class as a whole, so generational replacement will simply enhance these positive sentiments. For example, 75 percent of white working-class Millennials think Americans will be enriched by exposure to many cultures and 73 percent believe a bigger, more diverse workforce will lead to more economic growth.

All this suggests that the white working class is likely to change over time in ways that should make it more receptive to progressive appeals. But which appeals? It is not enough to gain a somewhat more receptive audience; the sale must still be made. What, if anything, do progressives have in their portfolio that might particularly appeal to the white working class, while also appealing to the base groups of their rising coalition?

There is a burgeoning progressive narrative and policy focus that might be able to fulfill this role. This new narrative is based on the idea that rising inequality actually undermines rather than fuels growth. This “equitable growth” or “middle out economics” school of thought points to a growing body of evidence that reducing inequality is not merely compatible with growth, but can be a significant contributor to both the quantity and quality of growth. The broad argument is that the economy grows from the “middle-out,” and that the true heroes in our economic drama are not corporations and the wealthy but rather a robust and growing middle class. With such an approach, the economy can work for everyone, not just the wealthy few, as it does today.

Data from a 2013 CAP/Hart Research poll show that this argument has strong support from the American public. Start with the idea that the economy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy few. In the poll, Americans identified this as the single most important goal for the nation’s economic future. While voters also rated many other goals as priorities—job creation, a strong future for the next generation, a stronger middle class—none resonated nearly as strongly as having an economy that works for all Americans.

And note that this is more than a call for a larger economic pie. The final clause—not just the wealthy few—is what makes this phrase so resonant. It speaks to Americans’ growing conviction that our economic system now benefits only the wealthy and corporations, while the deck is stacked against everyone else.

This approach offers a compelling contrast to the discredited conservative agenda of plying the rich with tax cuts and other goodies on the trickle-down theory that the wealthy will create jobs for the rest of us. Instead, it posits that a relentless focus on the economic health of the middle class, together with expanding opportunities for the poor and working class to move into the middle class, are the best ways to grow the economy.

This in turn points to a policy agenda heavy on investment in the middle class—its living conditions and sense of security, its skills, its entrepreneurial capabilities—and in the conditions that allow the middle class to succeed—modern infrastructure, cutting- edge scientific research and dynamic new industries that can provide middle-class jobs. And it leads away from a policy agenda focused on deficit reduction, which has been a loser for progressives and simply reinforces already-existing anti-government tendencies.

For most Americans, this is a moral as well as an economic story. The public believes that virtuous behavior (especially hard work) is not being properly rewarded today because of barriers erected by the wealthy and powerful. In the CAP/Hart poll, three quarters agreed that “the rules in America have changed—hard work and sacrifice are not rewarded anymore.” And 63 percent say a very high priority is providing more opportunity to those who work hard and struggle to provide for their families.

This approach draws strong support from the various elements of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”― minorities, unmarried and working women, Millennial generation and more secular voters, and educated whites living in more urbanized states. But crucially this “middle-out” approach also draws solid support from white working-class voters.

For example, two thirds of the white working class characterizes “an economy that works for everyone, not just the richest 1 percent” as exactly what America needs today (9-10 on a 10 point scale). And 82 percent of these voters agree that “the middle class is being squeezed and we are increasingly becoming a nation divided between the rich and everyone else.” In addition, by a 2:1 margin (67-33) white working class voters agree more that “Government is too concerned with what big corporations and the wealthy want, instead of helping the middle class” than that “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals”.

These data suggest that the middle-out approach is the most feasible way to fend off continued anti-progressive surges among white working-class voters, who are inclined to indict the government for their increasing economic insecurity. Provide these voters with upward mobility into an expanding and dynamic middle class and progressives will be able to capture more of their votes—not a majority, but a strong enough minority to stabilize the new progressive coalition and insulate it from rightwing backlash, as well as force the GOP to move toward the center. Conversely, leaving these voters in their current frustrated condition (Obama approval rating: 29 percent) is guaranteed to produce periodic meltdowns that will play havoc with progressives’ ability to win elections and govern, while allowing extremists to continue to dominate the Republican party.

How should this middle-out economic model be presented to white working-class voters? For starters, it’s imperative that progressives begin framing their economic and social agenda in class-based terms that allow white voters to feel that they, too, are part of a movement to use government action in support working people. The toxic racially-focused discourse about the social welfare state that underlies many contemporary and historical debates about the role of government serves no one’s interests, particularly progressive proponents of an activist state. There’s simply no reason for progressives not to broaden their appeals based on class lines.

The survey evidence is clear that white working-class voters are as supportive as others for large-scale public action to address chronic joblessness, income disparities, and unequal education and social opportunities. A massive study on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty conducted by the Half in Ten Campaign and the Center for American Progress found that more than two-thirds of white non-college voters supported 11 out of 11 policies to fight poverty—from an increase in the minimum wage and subsidized child care to an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and even a national jobs program to combat unemployment. Support among these voters topped 80 percent for universal pre-k, expanded Pell grants for low-income families, and affordable child care. White non-college support slightly outpaced white college graduate support in many cases and was basically on par with the views of African Americans and Latinos.

This “Bobby Kennedy” vision of an activist and supportive government that serves the values and interests of all working people across racial and ethnic lines is vital to the long term success of progressive governance. To succeed, progressives must resurrect his dream.

Footnotes appear in the pdf “print” version.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He is also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author or co-author of six books.

John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. He is the co-director and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP.

An edited version of this article appears in the June issue of The Washington Monthly.