Thursday, August 9, 2018

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the White Working Class But Were Afraid to Ask

I have a book recommendation for you. If you want to understand the white working class in an ideology-free, objective way, I recommend the data-packed, but lucid, new book by Justin Gest, The White Working Class, from Oxford University Press. He asks, and answers, all the basic questions you may have about this group's size, politics and attitudes--and why this group's politics and attitudes are currently the way they are. I don't always entirely agree with Gest's takes on these questions but his views are always solid, well-reasoned and factually-based. I can ask for no more.
While you're at it, you should navigate over to The Washington Monthly website and read my old friend Andy Levison's excellent new article on "What Democrats Still Don't Get about Winning Back the White Working Class". It's a long article but very much worth reading. Here are some key parts:
"Essentially, a decades-long campaign by conservatives has succeeded in creating among the broad majority of white working class and small town/red state Americans a deeply embedded view of Democrats as the party of the educated urban elite who impose their liberal agenda through a cynical alliance with minorities.
Democrats are aware of this perception, of course, and routinely complain about the conservative “information bubble” that is created by Fox News and other media. But many continue to base their campaigns on the hope that if they can only somehow figure out how to craft exactly the right package of proposals and programs—either progressive or moderate—they will somehow break through and convince these voters to support Democrats once again.
But it is now necessary to seriously consider the opposite possibility: that class resentment is so powerful and deeply entrenched that Democratic plans and proposals never get seriously considered by white working-class and small-town/red-state voters in the first place. They are, instead, dismissed at the outset because they come from a party that is perceived to represent groups and interests that are deeply alien and antagonistic. The Affordable Care Act, for example, was never seriously examined by white working-class Republican voters. Its provisions were wildly caricatured (“Death Panels”) and the measure described as quite literally a sinister socialist conspiracy simply because Obama and the Democrats had proposed it.
It is, therefore, now necessary to accept that Democrats have to develop a completely different mental model of how these voters actually do make their political choices—a model that will suggest alternate strategies for how Democrats can break through the wall that now separates them from many white working-class and small-town/red-state Americans...."
Levison notes that the white working class, despite its current insulation from, and resistance to, Democratic appeals actually embodies quite a bit of ideological diversity:
"[T]there is actually a wide and nuanced range of social opinions and perspectives. Among devout Christians, for example, there is a deep divide between two interpretations of the message of Jesus Christ. The first is intolerant and absolutist and leads to the belief that Christians should impose their beliefs on society as a whole. The second is rooted in the compassionate elements in Christian teachings and faith and, as a result, is more tolerant and accepting of diversity. Equally, racial attitudes among white working people span a wide range, from overt racist bigotry to a more relaxed “live-and-let-live” acceptance, the difference based more on individual psychology and personality characteristics than commitments to any specific social or political doctrine.
These divisions are clearly visible in daily white working-class life. Popular country music now includes a number of artists who express acceptance of gay men and women and condemn misogyny in a way that is dramatically different from two or three decades ago. In evangelical churches, even before the recent wave of family separations, there was an ongoing debate about what a true Christian’s response to immigrants ought to be. During the Obama years, many evangelical churches were making active efforts to invite African-Americans to their services until the 2016 election poisoned the atmosphere. More generally, transcripts of focus groups and ethnographic interviews repeatedly reveal the degree to which the realities of modern life have changed former patterns and attitudes. Many white working Americans now have some non-white or interracial couples living in their neighborhood and personally know gay men and women. The attitudes of a significant number are consequently more open-minded than they were years ago. But these debates and divisions are largely invisible to many urban and educated Democrats because they occur inside the three-level ideological cocoon.
It is vital to recognize that these divisions exist because they are the key to developing more successful Democratic strategies. Many Democrats have recoiled against all Trump voters because the bitter racism and crypto-fascism that is on display at Trump’s rallies seem like clear proof that anyone who supported Trump in 2016 must be equally racist and anti-democratic. The reaction is understandable but based more on emotion than analysis. After all, about one in ten African-Americans and about one in four Latinos voted for Trump in 2016, and unless one is prepared to seriously argue that they are also genuine racists, it is necessary to recognize that a range of other factors—from low information to class resentment to an inchoate desire to “shake things up”—also played a role in his election. The reality is that Trump’s white working-class supporters are divided between a deeply racist, intolerant sector that is beyond any realistic hope of persuasion and a distinctly more tolerant sector that is potentially open to Democratic appeals and can be reached with messages that are specifically crafted to appeal to their very distinct social outlook and political views."
So: how to reach the reachable? Levison's basic take, explained in much more detail in the article, is:
"Given the reality that simply proposing programs and policies that are objectively in white workers’ interests is insufficient to win their support, Democratic candidates must instead visualize the method of appealing to these voters as a two-stage process.
First, they must develop a specific communication and persuasion strategy designed to break through the conservative “bubble” and become accepted as a legitimate part of the political discussion that goes on between the different sectors of the white working-class community. Second, once this is accomplished, they can begin to debate and challenge their Republican opponents regarding specific social and economic policies and programs."
Easier to say than do I suppose. But I think Levison has accurately characterized the white working class challenge and how to meet it. I hope his article gets the wide attention it deserves.
The debate over moderate versus progressive policies is irrelevant unless Democratic candidates can first establish a basic level of trust with these voters.

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