White working class and Democrats

Drum’s somewhat take on the talk on wage stagnation and the Democrats’ problem in winning working class white Democrats.  I don’t think he’s totally right, but I definitely think he’s onto something:

why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn’t for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.

It’s pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But it’s there. And although it’s bound up with plenty of other grievances—many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic1—at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

And like Tomasky emphasizes, the key here is not reality, but perceptions.  Democrats need to changes these perceptions.  That, of course, is the hard part.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to White working class and Democrats

  1. John F. says:

    The answer is to make government work for them (me & my family?) through universal access to health care, education, child care (affordable housing would be nice, too) and stop coming up with arbitrary determinations for who is truly needy which not only breed resentment but also create perverse incentives towards dependency that does not go unnoticed. If there is one singular colossal failure of liberalism in the U.S. it is the constant exclusion of economically marginal working people from beneficial programs that they need to survive and thrive. Want to know why the WWC grassroots loathed Obamacare? It wasn’t ideologically; this explains it.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I was following you to the end. Doesn’t the big expansion of Medicaid and the subsidies for insurance directly benefit the working class? The truly poor already have traditional Medicaid.

      • John F. says:

        It doesn’t matter what it is, it matters what the impression of what it is. Obamacare was not sold in a way that emphasized that working people would benefit. Sure, they would get some benefits, but it was really created to help the millions who didn’t have access to care, you know, the poor, the black, and the lazy. Which is what liberalism stands for to many of these white working folks. They believe it’s an ideology of exclusion; those arrogant, over-educated, know-it-alls, that take our hard-earned tax dollars and give it to lazy “others” who milk the system and have for generations because that’s all they’re good for. Now, if they could just seize all the opportunity America has handed them and make something of their lives. Like me. After all, the liberals handed them affirmative action… They have more opportunities than I do now.

        True universal reform would have started with the premise that old people, young people, uniformed people or people that once wore a uniform, as well as really poor people don’t deserve health care, everyone does. But by lobbing away the “deserving” from the working people, liberals have created systemic and recurring resentments by the people who perceive of themselves paying for everyone else in the “deserving” category. There’s simply no logical or moral arguments to be made for why anyone in these constituent parts of America deserve health care (and other government services) more than those the Democrats/libruls/Nancy Pelosi/the Kenyan Muslim socialist, have given our tax dollars away to….except veterans because they fought for this country, and service members because they currently are, and children because they can’t fend for themselves, and the old because they earned it… Our government policies should be informed more than an emotional stirring over patriotism, obligation, or deservedness. We either all have a right to access health care or none of us do. The resentments we create and exacerbate will continue to smolder as long as we continue to make decisions about how to use other people’s money to help an artificially established deserving group of people, to the exclusion of others. Instead of looking for the solution to what ails a limited set of people we should align ourselves to collective solutions which seek to help everyone, in ways that are focused on their problems. Universal health care would solve the need for the vet, service member, child, and the poor, but it would also take a tremendous load off the backs of all working people, and we need to fight for them not because it’s morally right but because it’s fair.

        I suspect I’m preaching to the choir on this particular policy but I believe there may exist some sympathies among many Democrats in this country towards only supporting a deserving segment because that’s all we believe we can get pushed through on the policy, or that’s what will keep the coalition intact, or simply just because they don’t think we should have to pay for someone living at 1% more than some percentage of the federal poverty level to have access to this or that. I don’t think dems realize just how much these beliefs hold them back from enlarging the tent and accomplishing their larger goals. They don’t recognize that the problem isn’t with Kansas, it’s with them.

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