Regaining the Working-Class Vote

Why Democrats are losing the blue-collar support and how they can win it back.

| November-December 2001

The Democratic Party has had 12 months to digest the weirdest presidential election in history, and it has dutifully continued to vilify Ralph Nader, ignore Al Gore, and fight any meaningful campaign finance reform. But none of these obsessions will help Democrats dethrone Dubya in 2004 unless they come to grips with the working class.

You remember the working class: hard hats, pickup trucks, country music, domestic beer, tractor pulls. Folks who don’t know Goethe from Gatsby. In the Bush-Gore face-off last year, a clear majority of white working-class Americans gave their vote to Bush—despite Gore’s populist rhetoric and his strong union backing. Why? That question should be haunting Democratic Party leaders.

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It’s not a new question. As Andrew Levison writes in The Nation (May 14, 2001), Democrats have been trying to woo blue-collar workers back into the fold ever since Alabama’s Governor George Wallace mobilized white working-class “hard hats” in 1968 with his third-party run at the White House. But their attempts have been largely trumped by Republican strategists like Kevin Phillips, Lee Atwater, and, more recently, Karl Rove, who understood better than their Democratic counterparts how to tap into working-class values—particularly distrust of government and disdain for technocrats.

Part of the problem, Levison argues, is that many still view the white working class in terms of stereotypes left over from the ’60s—“the popular image of all workers as deeply reactionary ‘Archie Bunkers,’ ” as he puts it. In fact, workers today are neither as intolerant nor as angry as their classic profile would indicate. Still, there are certain perspectives that bind workers together and inform their political philosophy: work, community, and country.

The workplace for these people is not a fulfilling or particularly satisfying part of their life. It’s physically demanding, often dangerous, and generally boring—a job, not a career. And unlike their white-collar supervisors, they don’t obsess over maintaining the proper balance between work and family. Indeed, they see middle-class managers as missing out on the good life on their way up the corporate ladder.
In contrast, workers see themselves as “more authentic and sincere and aware of the important things in life,” Levison writes. They also believe they’re more likely to place friendship over success, and to uphold honesty and good character as core values.

Combine these attitudes with a national identity “closely linked with a populist identity as ‘the people’ or ‘ordinary citizens’ ” and you get a picture of working-class values “strikingly different from the usual media portrayal,” Levison argues.

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