The Democrats' 'Working-Class Problem' Is Worse Than We Think
The road to a sustainable Democratic majority—nationally, locally, and in the states—must include much higher Democratic performance with white working-class voters (those without a four-year degree). Nearly every group in the progressive infrastructure is busy figuring out how Democrats can get back to the level of support they reached with President Obama’s 2012 victory. That is a pretty modest target, however, given the scale of Democratic losses. It underestimates the scope of the problem and, ironically, the opportunity.
The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.
Fortunately, Democrats have the opportunity to consolidate, engage, and perform much better with all of working America. I say “opportunity” advisedly, because better performance requires Democrats to embrace dramatically bolder economic policies and to attack a political economy that works for the rich, big corporations, and the cultural elites, but not for average Americans.
Bernie Sanders’s “revolution” and attack on big money was much closer to hitting the mark than was Hillary Clinton’s message, and he won millennials and white working-class voters in the primary. It is not surprising that white working-class voters then went for Trump, and that some Sanders voters went for the Green Party in the general election, but the Democrats’ working-class problem go way beyond what Sanders broached.
What is the Democrats’ working-class problem?
Working-class Americans pulled back from Democrats in this last period of Democratic governance because of President Obama’s insistence on heralding economic progress and the bailout of the irresponsible elites, while ordinary people’s incomes crashed and they continued to struggle financially. They also pulled back because of the Democrats’ seeming embrace of multinational trade agreements that have cost American jobs. The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation’s growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens’. Instinctively and not surprisingly, the Democrats embraced the liberal values of America’s dynamic and best-educated metropolitan areas, seeming not to respect the values or economic stress of older voters in small-town and rural America. Finally, the Democrats also missed the economic stress and social problems in the cities themselves and in working-class suburbs.
These are big structural challenges, but we have plenty of evidence that they can be addressed and that Democrats can speak powerfully to these working-class voters about them.
The core problem is President Obama’s handling of the economy. Confronting this problem won’t make me popular. The president and the Democrats heroically rescued America and the global economy, restored the soundness of the financial system and managed the economy back to a full recovery. But incomes for most Americans fell during this period and the top 1 percent took all of the income gains of the recovery—a subject that mainstream Democrats barely mentioned and did not fight to address. The president of the United States was the main messenger for the Democrats, and his consistent economic message to the country—from one year after the crash through last year’s presidential election—was this: The recession has been transformed into a dependable recovery, our economy is creating jobs, and we are on the right track, but the Republicans drove our economy “into the ditch” and are doing everything possible to obstruct our progress. He closed the 2016 election with this appeal: We created 15 million new jobs, incomes are rising, poverty is falling, and you must get out and vote to “build on our progress.”
Closely bound up with the “progress” narrative was the bailout of the Wall Street banks with taxpayer money. Wall Street excess took the country’s economy off a cliff and Democrats rightly came to the nation’s rescue by passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But the bailout of the banks was, and remains, a searing event in American consciousness—and one inextricably linked to Democratic governance. While the bailout came at the urging of President Bush and his Treasury secretary, it was embraced by then-candidate Obama and passed with Democratic votes in the House and Senate. It was under President Obama that the government signed off on the executive bonuses for TARP recipients and under Obama that no executive was punished for criminal malfeasance. It should come as no surprise, then, that one year after the Housing and Economic Recovery Act’s passage, the majority of voters thought the big banks, not the middle class, were the main beneficiaries—and they were damn angry about it too.
That mix of heralding “progress” while bailing out those responsible for the crisis and the real crash in incomes for working Americans was a fatal brew for Democrats. It was evident in the double-digit drop in Obama’s approval ratings in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania in 2010. (Note this is 2010, not 2016.) His approval rating rebounded to nearly 50 percent in most of those states in 2012, but it fell sharply in 2014 in Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota. Obama’s approval rating the year before the 2016 election hovered between 40 percent and 42 percent in Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Ohio.
These are the states that figured in the well-told retreat of white working-class voters from the Democrats. But introspection among progressives—including those at the White House—failed to see the retreat of hard-pressed working-class voters in the new American majority of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials, most of whom do not have a four-year degree. While the president was calling on these base voters to come to the polls to defend the progress we’d presumably made, these voters, too, were angry about the claims of jobs and about Wall Street’s undimmed influence. They knew these jobs paid dramatically less. They saw the government rescue the big banks but do next to nothing about the home foreclosures and lost wealth in their Hispanic and black communities. That is why about 40 percent of the Rising American Electorate disapproved of how the president was doing his job in both 2010 and 2014. Every segment of this progressive base underperformed on vote and turnout in 2010, and their disengagement in 2014 gave us the lowest off-year turnout in any election since World War II and with it, another Republican wave.
The electoral consequences were particularly acute among millennials. Weighed down by student debt and the weak job market, millennials pulled back in 2010 and importantly, did not come back in 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot. Their vote share was down 2 points from 2008 (from 17 percent to 15 percent), and their level of support for Obama was down 9 points (from 66 percent to 60 percent). Mitt Romney won the white millennials by 7 points.
Democrats’ unified control of government under Obama and the Democratic Congress began losing working-class Americans’ support right from the outset, but progressives never collectively paused to take stock of why.
Trade is a key issue that has separated Democrats from many working-class voters. That separation grew wider with Obama’s battle for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and with Trump making his opposition to it central to his vow to represent “the forgotten Americans.”
In 2015, more than 70 percent of Democrats in the Senate (33 of 46) and 85 percent of Democrats in the House (160 of 188) had voted against giving Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the TPP. The party’s presidential candidates were strongly opposed to corporate lobbyists dominating the drafting of TPP and to major provisions that would have granted foreign corporations the right to sue for damages over U.S. consumer and environmental protections. But working-class Americans clearly associate Democrats with support for multinational trade agreements—even though they are passed with mostly Republican votes in Congress—because Democratic presidents have been their main champions over the last 25 years. NAFTA was enacted under President Bill Clinton (with my support, as I was then the president’s pollster, and over the very strong objections of my wife, Representative Rosa DeLauro). Obama made passage of TPP a consuming priority at the end of his presidency.
Support for trade and trade agreements is greatest on the West and East Coasts, among Hispanics and Asians, and most importantly, among college graduates, particularly in the big cities where Democrats govern. But the white working class, who live amid the remains of the manufacturing sector in the industrial Midwest, strongly oppose these trade agreements with increasing ferocity, particularly the men who were disproportionately employed in manufacturing.
The Obama presidency produced a partisan realignment on trade, reinforcing the class and gender bases of the two parties that will disrupt the politics of both, if it hasn’t already. Before 2008, Republicans were more supportive of NAFTA than Democrats, but at the end of Obama’s presidency, GOP support for NAFTA collapsed, pushed off the cliff by Trump. Democrats, on the other hand, became more favorably disposed to NAFTA.
With Trump centering his campaign on bringing back American jobs by withdrawing from and renegotiating trade agreements, the Republican base voters emerged as those most opposed to multinational trade agreements.
Despite Obama’s efforts, Democratic voters also shifted against trade in principle and the TPP specifically over the course of the campaign—including big shifts among millennials (a 22-point shift in margin), white unmarried women (21-point margin shift), all unmarried women (15 points), and minority voters (9 points). Yet Hillary Clinton went silent on TPP in the closing weeks of her campaign, even as Obama and his administration stumped publicly for its enactment, though there was virtually no chance a lame-duck Congress would pass it. That magnified the Democrats’ working America problem, and perhaps decisively so in the Rust Belt.
Immigration is the next critical element of the Democrats’ working-class challenge. Since 1990, the world has watched a massive increase in global migration, and, remarkably, one in five of these migrants lives in the United States. The number of immigrants in the United States doubled from 23 million to 46 million during this time, and our largest metropolitan areas are being shaped by accelerating migration and increasing numbers of foreign-born people living there. More than three million, roughly 37 percent, of New York City residents were born outside of the United States; 60 percent of Miami’s residents and almost 30 percent of Houston’s residents are foreign-born.
Despite Trump’s ascendance, America remains one of the few places in the world that views immigration as positive, but Americans’ reactions have a strong class and race component that reinforce the conclusion that there is a working-class challenge cutting across partisan lines. In Democracy Corps’ election night survey, it was white college-educated women who embraced immigration most strongly, and not surprisingly, white working-class men who were most cautious. But do not assume that African Americans do not share some of those concerns; many in our focus groups raise anxieties about competition from new immigrants.
But reactions to legalization for the undocumented reveal some of the emotional and economic dynamics at play. Americans are fairly positive about the economic effects of legalization and see many of these immigrants as hard-working, but they do worry about the costs. More than 60 percent believe granting legal status would lead to greater competition for public services and more than half believe it would take jobs from American citizens. Those numbers are not driven entirely by Republicans. Indeed, 41 percent of Democrats think those immigrants would “take jobs from U.S. citizens,” and more important, half of Democrats believe granting legal status “would be a drain on government services.”
Obama, who led the battle for immigration reform, was fairly trusted on this issue, as he always began by defining “real reform.” It meant “stronger border security,” and his administration did in fact put “more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history.” “Real reform” also meant “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship” that included “paying taxes and a meaningful penalty” and “going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
Pro-immigration advocates won majority support for comprehensive immigration reform only after the public became confident that leaders wanted to manage immigration and that they took borders and citizenship seriously. The reform that passed the U.S. Senate increased enforcement at the border, introduced new technology to ensure lawful employment, expelled those with criminal records, and allowed a path to citizenship for those who paid a fine and back taxes and learned English. That combination allowed progressives to proudly advocate a new law that would greatly expand the number of legal immigrants and make America more culturally and economically dynamic.
By the time Hillary Clinton was running in 2016, however, the path to citizenship moved to the center of her offer, as did concern for immigrant rights in the face of Trump’s promised Muslim ban and Mexican border wall.
A month into Trump’s presidency, Democracy Corps and the Roosevelt Institute conducted focus groups with white working-class Trump voters who had previously supported Obama in Macomb County, Michigan. It was clear how central concerns about immigration, borders, foreignness, and Islam were to their receptivity to his call to take back America. Many thought Clinton, on the other hand, wanted “open borders.”
I am confident Democrats will once again lead a multicultural America in the same way America has forged unity from such diversity in the past. We build on a unique framework for immigration and a unique history. Even this ugly interlude will not keep America from its exceptional path.
The final dynamic distancing Democrats from working-class America is the party’s alignment with the economically and culturally ascendant in America’s metropolitan centers, where Democrats win office and govern. As Clinton’s winning popular vote margin grew to nearly three million, concentrated in an ever-smaller number of urban counties, the Brookings Institution revealed that fewer than 500 Clinton-won counties produced two-thirds of the nation’s GDP in 2015.
Perhaps that is why President Obama and Secretary Clinton sounded so satisfied with the state of America and its future. In nearly every speech for most of his presidency, including in his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama rightly declared that America “is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.” When he and Clinton closed the 2016 campaign in Philadelphia, Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Raleigh, Cleveland, and Columbus with their upbeat take on America’s future, they symbolically aligned the Democrats nationally with the economically and ascendant cities—and they barely noticed anything amiss in smaller cities and towns and rural America.
They were also aligning the national Democrats with a liberal narrative and moral frame that values equality, equal rights, and fairness. They are more empathetic and worry more about harm to the vulnerable. They are more open to diversity and celebrate differences and outside cultures. They value a kind of individualism that emphasizes personal autonomy, self-expression, and sexual freedom for men and women. They welcome the emerging pluralism of family types and reject the traditional family and gender roles. Education is the path to individual fulfillment and opportunity, and science and technology are the keys to learning discoverable truths. They consciously do not turn to traditional authority for moral absolutes, and they devalue those who depend on faith-based conclusions.
Those who hold to a conservative moral frame, by contrast, accept faith-based moral absolutes and respect traditional authority. They honor an individualism that is grounded in personal responsibility, industriousness, strong work ethic, self-reliance, self-restraint, and self-discipline, which guard against idleness and dependence. They honor the traditional family and the male breadwinner role. They value patriotism, love of country, and those who defend it from our enemies, and they believe American citizens come first.
What the national Democrats’ embrace of the liberal moral frame and America’s economic ascendance misses is not just the plight of nonmetropolitan America, but also the reality on the ground in the big cities, which are ground zero for our country’s greatest challenges. Any Democrat running for mayor in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles knows this, which is why Mayor Bill de Blasio’s critique of “two New Yorks” was so resonant. It is in these cities where large numbers of residents are struggling economically, with low-wage jobs and sky-high costs of living, where poverty and segregation stubbornly persist, where millions of children are raised by single parents, and where inequality is most stark. At the same time, the increasingly diverse ethnic and racial mix in the cities is full of working-class communities where both liberal and conservative moral frames matter. For example, like the more conservative working-class whites, African American women place a high premium on faith in God and the need to put American citizens before immigrants. That is why the simple embrace of metropolitan America’s liberal values and economic elite hurt Democrats with working-class voters in both the big cities and in rural America.
Fixing the Democrats’ working-class problem
The rift between Democrats and working-class Americans was painfully widened by how Democrats governed and campaigned nationally. The party was not up to the great challenge of leading an America that is more culturally diverse and racially conflicted, more urban and younger, more economically and socially unequal, and more corrupt. All of those challenges, however, are also a call to action.
After the 2014 debacle and in advance of the 2016 presidential cycle, the Women’s Voices Women’s Vote Action Fund, with which Democracy Corps partners, produced a frank report on disappointing results in our base. They highlighted the unmarried women whose vote for Democrats dropped 7 points from 2012, and the fact that Democrats lost white unmarried women by 2 points. That is when we made the connection between white unmarried women and the white working-class women who are now a majority of the white working class.
Both groups see only a precarious path to the middle class. Both believe jobs don’t pay enough to live on and that the middle class pays a lot of taxes. Both groups, more than other voters in the Rising American Electorate (RAE), expressed concern about welfare-spending and getting control of the border. When we tested a bold Democratic economic agenda against the Republican agenda, white unmarried women embraced the Democratic offer with great enthusiasm, and this agenda trailed the Republican offer by only 8 points among all white working-class women. The results were so promising, we proposed at the outset of the 2016 cycle that progressives adopt an “RAE+” strategy to reach the working class more broadly.
Given how disastrously Clinton performed with white working-class voters in the end, it is important to recall with data that she was poised to over-performwith the white working-class women compared with Obama in 2012, when Mitt Romney won white working-class women by 20 points. During the presidential debates, Clinton closed Trump’s margin with white working-class women to just 4 points in NBC/Wall Street Journal’s national polling—and those voters did not break away from her until the last week, after Clinton went silent on the economy and change. These white working-class women, who form a majority of today’s white working class, were open to voting for Clinton, perhaps in historic numbers.
Not surprisingly, white working-class women form a big portion (40 percent) of the independents and Democrats who voted for Trump in the end. While Republican Trump voters think of themselves as middle-class, and two-thirds say they would have no problem handling an unexpected $500 expense, these non-GOP Trump voters think of themselves as working-class and would struggle to handle the sudden expense. They are also, in contrast to the Trump Republicans, pro-union.
But, in what may border on campaign malpractice, the Clinton campaign chose in the closing battle to ignore the economic stress not just of the working-class women who were still in play, but also of those within the Democrats’ own base, particularly among the minorities, millennials, and unmarried women. It likely diminished turnout in the cities and Clinton’s vote across the base.
Obama’s final campaign speeches spoke of an economy that moved from recession to recovery and created 15 million jobs with rising incomes and reduced poverty. But if you look at people’s view of the economy on the night of the election, three in five scorned that rosy economic outlook—led by nearly every group in the Democrats’ base. “Jobs don’t pay enough to live on and it is a struggle to save anything,” said 70 percent of minorities and 65 percent of unmarried women in our postelection survey. A majority of unmarried women said they could not handle an unexpected $500 expense, putting them most on the edge. That is the heart of the Rising American Electorate, and their judgment on the economy was very close to white working-class women’s.
The failure to see that the problems of working America run right through the new American majority cost the campaign a chance to produce a very different result in this election.
As I have written in The Guardian and Democracy Journal, Clinton’s strong performance in the debates produced big gains for her regarding which candidate was better suited to handle the economy and taxes, and to stand up for the middle class and against special interests. After the debates, she was near parity with Trump on handling the economy—closing an 11-point pre-convention gap.
Democracy Corps’ national survey conducted after the debates and shared with the Clinton campaign showed that more attacks on Trump’s temperament and his treatment of people and women barely moved voters. In contrast, a compelling economic message demanding “an economy for everyone, not just the rich and well-connected,” attacking trickle-down tax cuts “for the richest and special breaks for corporations,” and promising an agenda to “rebuild the middle class” moved unmarried women (including white unmarried women), millennials, and white working-class women.
This experiment showed—retrospectively, alas—that Democrats can reach working-class Americans both in our base and well into the swing electorate, including the white working class. It is time to make that challenge task number one.
Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.