For today’s Democratic Party, gaining trust and support from white working Americans, men and women without college degrees, is no easy project. In many states, Democrats appear to be an alliance of upper-middle-class professionals and low-income racial minorities, yet votes must be attracted from any white working men and women, too. The white working class may be a gradually declining segment of the U.S. electorate, but it remains electorally and morally vital for a party that claims to speak for the American majority. In the South, attracting much more white working class support any time soon may be Mission Impossible for Democrats. But it can be done in all other regions including the Midwest if Democrats are prepared to make jobs and higher wages central.
White men and women without college degrees are deeply skeptical that either government or the Democratic Party is on their side. That’s what pollsters reveal – but why would anyone need polls to know this? Just drive around America outside of upper-middle-class enclaves. Look around and listen to people living in exurbs, rural areas, and small or medium-sized cities. Steady jobs with decent wages have disappeared; roads and bridges are in decay; businesses are often struggling. Pawn shops and dollar stores pepper the landscape amidst shuttered shopping malls. Families struggle and often fall apart. Women feel overburdened working low-wage jobs while raising children, and men feel defiantly resentful because they cannot find jobs with wages and benefits sufficient to sustain a family. Why would people living and working in these circumstances feel anything but left behind and ignored by government – and why would they believe Democratic candidates who repeatedly promise to make things better at election time and then fail to deliver?
Republicans captured by far-right voters and monied ideologues have succeeded in undermining government and creating gridlock – and let face it, this is a big problem for Democrats who must use government to deliver real economic improvements to many constituents, or else look impotent. The spectacle of gridlock in Washington DC, especially when a Democratic president arrives at the White House with solid electoral majorities, naturally leads working people (of any color, really) to lose faith that government can act on their behalf. The laws Democrats do manage to pass fail to address core working class concerns about jobs and better wages; and their occasionally successful enactments are easily pilloried as special rights for groups like gays or welfare benefits aimed at racial minorities. The charges may not be true at all – Affordable Care is good for all working Americans, for example – but working people, especially white men, are deeply skeptical of complicated laws designed to compensate for low wages rather than improve the supply of well-paid jobs that people can use to boost family fortunes through their own efforts at work. Their skepticism is easily stoked into resentment against Democrats, especially when a black president is in the White House.
The only way Democrats are going to make headway with these men and women is to champion straightforward, easy to understand measures like big minimum wage hikes and equal pay for equal work rules. Calls to fund obvious job-creating projects like weatherizing buildings, repairing bridges, and spreading high-speed Internet services to all communities make sense too. And so do calls for paid family leave, because such laws can be enacted in the states or nationally without taxpayer funds. They can use a simple social insurance model, in which small payroll contributions from employers and employees create a vital new family benefit for all employees.
Democrats will never appeal to most ordinary working Americans by amping up promises to enact new rights rules, environmental laws, or government programs preferred by this or that sliver of privileged constituents. Calls for straightforward job creation, wage increases, and benefits for working-aged families are the kinds of steps all working Americans can readily understand and support. If Democrats continue to champion these priorities year after year, and enact them in states or at the national level whenever they can, working-class voters, whites as well as minorities, will come to see that it really matters for them if Democrats gain majorities.
Another Clinton in the White House won’t hurt, either. For many working-class Americans, including whites, “the Clintons” signify better economic times for regular people. Whatever happens in 2014, Democrats have real openings in 2016 and beyond, if they make the right appeals to working class whites and manage to deliver for them.
Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, and the Director of the Scholars Strategy Network, a national association devoted to expanding the public contributions of univer-sity-based research scholars.