Democrats and progressives have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the 2020 election. Polls have consistently indicated that former Vice President Joe Biden has a commanding lead. Yet, frankly, I’m scared about this particular election—and future ones as well.
What frightens me is that while Democrats try to reach out to various voter groups, many of whom are combating systemic inequality that must be addressed, they are forgetting one with legitimate grievances of its own. I’m talking about the Trump base: white, blue-collar workers (or non-workers) who are struggling to make a living. These Americans are largely overlooked by the Democratic establishment or even viewed with disdain.
The odd thing is that blue-collar white people used to be the core of the Democratic constituency. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, after all, was designed to help them find new ways of securing livable wages and job security.
Now, they are forgotten Americans. Forgotten, at least, until Donald Trump saw them, their anger and how to exploit it. Yet although Trump won in 2016, he is not their true leader, nor are the Republican politicians and pundits who support him. They are pseudo-leaders, purveyors of hate, conspiracy, fear and policies that only hurt the working people who vote for them and their ability to provide for their families.
In recent years, the Trump administration and Republicans have passed a massive tax plan that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy, opposed raising the federal minimum wage, tried to give employers workers’ tips, proposed cutting their food stamps, rolled back regulations that protected their physical safety and, of course, attempted to take away their affordable health care. The Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to help blue-collar workers through federal anti-poverty initiatives, which studies show primarily benefit working-age white people without a college degree.
What too many Democrats still do not understand is that many white, blue-collar Americans think they are better than “other people” who receive government aid. They would rather have higher status on some artificial scale than higher income. As Barack Obama said in 2008:
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.
Those are tight grasps.
It is very difficult to help people who do not want to help themselves or accept other people’s help, and the Democratic establishment’s assumption that financial aid will be enough to persuade blue-collar voters has so far not panned out.
But that does not mean the Democratic Party should ignore them. As long as their anger and self-pity are allowed to fester, other groups, including Black people, Latinos and immigrants, will be held hostage. While poor white people often cannot successfully advocate for themselves, they can be major obstacles to the advancement of other deserving groups. Look no further than opposition to Medicaid expansion to see how they vote against their own economic interests and concurrently hurt others.
Identity politics becomes negative when one of two things happens: (a) fighting among the individual groups about whose agenda gets top priority becomes so intense that no one gets what they want, and (b) a group with its own identity issues becomes excluded.
As Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas, points out, the new dominant core of the Democratic Party is professional workers. Most of these people are white, well-educated and upwardly mobile. They are teachers, doctors, engineers, attorneys, architects, top-level administrators, investors and more. In essence, these professionals have stolen the core of the Democratic Party from FDR’s working-class base.
This professional class wants to have its interests protected like any other group in our society. Professionals want their achievements honored and preserved. They are a class of credentials, and their certificates separate them from others. All the education and training they received must be honored. If a group’s identity can be defined by who is not a part of the group, then professionals are those among us who are certified to be employed in a small assortment of occupations. These people find their interests protected in part by the Democratic Party.
The bottom line is that simply offering economic stimuli will not bring blue-collar white people back into the Democratic camp. The question is, then, how can Democrats appeal to them?
A partial answer can come from winding the clock back nearly 90 years to the New Deal. FDR and the Democratic Congress developed successful ways for many white people who were suffering economically to accept government assistance. Many of the New Deal programs were not direct handouts; they were employment programs. Among the first programs to be passed was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which immediately hired unemployed people to work on public land projects, including upgrading national parks and building infrastructure.
Too many poor white people see their farm subsidies or school lunches as welfare. They consider that to be for “other people.” What they need—in fact, what we all need—is well-paying secure jobs.
Democrats, if you set your sights on the forgotten people and help them through programs that don’t offend them, then they will begin to vote with you.
This opinion piece is cross-posted from Newsweek Magazine.