Bringing the White Working Class Into the Progressive Majority

Robert Borosage

These are excerpts of remarks delivered April 9 at the Conference on a New New Deal in Washington, sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.


Let me offer a simple set of propositions.
 

1. Conservatism has failed—and conservatives, while they cannot admit it, understand that. You’ve heard this before, but it is important to repeat it. The failure is not simply that of clueless George. Conservatism failed not because the Bush administration was incompetent, although incompetence has been its hallmark. It failed not because Bush and the DeLay Congress were corrupt, although corruption has been pervasive. Conservatism failed because it is wrong. Wrong about the world. Wrong about the economy. Wrong about the society.

Its imperial and military fantasies led directly to Iraq, surely the worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. Its market fundamentalism generated Gilded Age inequality, a Depression-era financial crisis, stagnant wages and rising insecurity, and left America the world’s largest debtor, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Their celebration of deregulation and scorn for government ended up poisoning our kids, with uninspected toxic toys and diseased lunch-room foods.

2. We are headed into not simply a change election, but an election that has the potential to mark a sea change, the end of the conservative era that Reagan launched in 1980 and the beginning of a new era of progressive reform. The election will take place in the midst of an unpopular war and a recession, with over three-fourths of the country looking for a dramatic change in course. Democrats will surely pick up seats in both the House and the Senate.

Democrats know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But the potential is there for an election that changes our course.

3. A new progressive majority is forming. You can see it in the Democratic victories in 2006; you can see it in the astounding turnout in Democratic primaries in 2008: young people turning out in unprecedented numbers; Latinos doubling their share of the primary vote; African Americans and single women raising their participation.

4. A key test of the viability of a new coalition will depend on the votes of the white working class, defined as white workers with less than a college education, still about half of the voting population. This was the heart of the Roosevelt coalition. And they are now the heart of the conservative coalition that dominated our politics over the last 30 years.

America has changed dramatically since the New Deal. As a recent paper by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz points out, in 1940 three-quarters of the population 25 and older were high school dropouts or never went to high school; 5 percent had college degrees. In 2007, only 14 percent were high school dropouts; 29 percent had college degrees and another 25 percent had some college. The white working class now is composed largely of white-collar, not blue-collar workers—people in sales, clerical and service jobs, rather than in industrial jobs. This white working class is smaller than the New Deal working class, better off than the New Deal working class, more educated, more white-collar and far less unionized. In the 1940s, unions represented 60 percent of the Northern blue-collar workforce. Today, unions are less than 10 percent of the private workforce.

Since Nixon, Republican majorities have depended on winning a supermajority of white working class votes. Ronald Reagan won these voters by 61 percent to 35 percent in 1980. Al Gore lost them by 17 percent; Kerry by 23 percent. As minority voters become a greater percentage of our population and of the vote, the Republicans will seek to expand these margins among the white working class.

There are ongoing arguments about why Democrats do so badly in this population. Part of the explanation traces back to the Civil Rights movement, and the Southern strategy of the Republican Party begun under Nixon. By making itself the party of white sanctuary, Republicans anchored their party in the South and attracted voters alienated by the civilizing movements of the 1960s.

Some of the switch, as we’ve seen, came from cultural appeals and from the Republican claim after Vietnam to be the muscular party of national security.

But a large part of the decline, I would argue, came because Democrats stopped making sense on economics. As Kevin Phillips put it, Democrats went from “taxing the few for the benefit of the many” to “taxing the many on behalf of the few.” Republicans made Reagan’s mythic “welfare mother” a racial cue to hard-pressed white workers. Democrats went from a policy of exporting goods to exporting jobs, and from a party anchored by labor to a party funded by Wall Street. Conservatives won the argument that government couldn’t really help, and they, at least, offered to cut your taxes—perhaps the only raise you might hope to see.

And then the corruption and incompetence of conservative presidents from Reagan to Bush helped prove their ideological point that government was the problem and not the solution. Now voters are convinced that government is controlled by entrenched corporate interests, wastes billions of taxpayers money and can’t organize a two-car funeral—and the past six years of the Bush administration has made that case.

Progressives have to prove that government can work. That it can make health care and college affordable. That it can help generate good jobs here at home. That it can curb the Wall Street casino and insure that increased profits and productivity are widely shared. We have to take reinventing government seriously, not as a slogan or a gimmick, but as a fundamental project of reform.

Two political conclusions arise from this analysis. First, progressives have a monumental stake in rebuilding the strength of the union movement. White working-class voters vote two to one Republican if they are not in unions. They vote two to one Democratic if they are union members.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that is why Karl Rove and the Bush Administration have joined the business drive to crush the right to organize, and have done what they could to weaken unions and to convince Americans that unions are part of the past.

We have a great stake in turning that around, not simply by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which is the centerpiece of reviving the right to organize, but by turning government at all levels into an ally of unions. “FDR wants you to join a union,” they used to argue in the 1930s. We have to make that slogan true for governors, mayors, legislators and the next president.

We should be focusing more and more resources and energy on our secret asset among white workers—women, particularly single women. As Page Gardner of Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes has shown, single women vote overwhelmingly on economic issues and overwhelmingly for Democrats and progressives. Bu they tend not to vote. They are low-information voters, too hard pressed to pay much attention. This year they are turning out in large numbers, and we should make certain—as we should with Latinos and young people—that we develop the vehicles to communicate with them, the ability to educate and mobilize them and the agenda that attracts them. If they turn out in large numbers, if we empower unions once more, if we consolidate our majorities among the new millennium generation and the new Latino voters, we can go a long way towards a new era of progressive reform.

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