Regaining the Working-Class Vote

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.

These values have little to do with a rigid, conservative view of social and moral issues–the “hard hat” profile of the Wallace loyalists. But they do challenge technocratic belief systems and the authority of the “expert.” Levison recalls the first Gore-Bush debate as a striking example of why many working-class viewers favored Dubya: “Gore’s heavy reliance on facts and figures, and his failure to engage Bush’s aphorisms with equally clear statements of the ‘common sense’ behind his proposals, was perceived by many blue-collar workers as reflecting an absence of solid underlying values.”

What Gore strategists in particular, and Democratic Party leaders in general, failed to understand was that these “values” did not translate to issues such as gun control or abortion but had more to do with the candidate’s personal philosophy. Is he trustworthy? Does he see ordinary citizens as the source of commonsense solutions to everyday problems? Is he able to bridge the “fundamentally different worlds” that working people and the upper middle-class inhabit?

“Democratic political candidates have already become accustomed to reciting a litany of respect for home, work, and family when they are on the campaign trail, but this is far from sufficient,” Levison explains. “It is necessary to face the uncomfortable reality that there is still a vast cultural chasm and a profound lack of understanding that separates the college-educated from the 45 percent of white American men who are manual workers.”

And somewhere within that chasm lies the perception that working people are nothing more than “the sum of their economic difficulties,” as Levison puts it–victims to be rescued, a political cliché. “In short, most educated Americans have little sense of the texture and the complexity of working-class life, of its richness and satisfactions as well as its problems and discontents,” he writes. And without this understanding, liberals and progressives will find it hard to convince working Americans that they’re capable of representing their political interests.

It is, unfortunately, a problem made worse by the fact that our society offers fewer and fewer opportunities for real human contact between the classes. But even the last election left them at least one reason for hope. When union leaders took Gore’s message directly to their members, they responded by delivering an overwhelming majority of labor votes to the vice president.

“The significance of these results is difficult to overstate,” Levison notes. “They demonstrate that when workers are presented with a progressive message by campaign workers who come from an institution that is part of working-class life, and who share their culture and values, a substantial majority can be convinced to support progressive candidates and programs.”

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