Don’t Forget About the White Working Class!

At a Progressivism on Tap event Thursday night, Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon and author of What’s the Matter with White People?, talked about the inability of both conservatives and progressives to understand and support the white working class, people like Walsh’s Irish Catholic family from Brooklyn and Long Island.

Conservatives, master manipulators of race and class cleavages, have long pitted the interests of working-class whites against those of African Americans (and more recently Latinos) in a zero sum battle over government resources and societal power. From Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1970’s to exploit white fears over racial integration to Ronald Reagan’s racialized talk of “welfare queens” in the 1980’s to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s “47 percent” and “takers vs. makers” campaign in 2012, conservative Republicans have deftly raised the specter of undeserving poor minorities living off government support to stoke political backlash among whites.

In response to these developments, and the aggressive efforts to suppress minority voters, many liberals and progressives from the late 60’s on have tended to view segments of the white working class as hopelessly racist and reactionary. As Walsh discussed on Thursday, this is not without good reason. Racism remains a serious issue as the harsh response to Barack Obama’s presidency and the ongoing economic difficulties in black communities has sadly shown. It’s impossible to look at American history in an honest manner without acknowledging the corrosive effects of racisms past and present on the life chances of African Americans.

At the same time, liberals need white working class voters to build a sustainable progressive majority. The Obama coalition may be growing but it is not durable enough or sufficiently dispersed in geographic terms to drive progressive policy change for a generation. Progressives must build a cross-racial, ethnic, and class coalition if they hope to fully shift politics away from the conservative dominance of the past three decades.

As Walsh describes in her book, there is a real opening for progressives to appeal to white working-class voters given conservatives’ open disdain for all forms of government support and employment, much of which directly supports well-being and security for the working class. Where conservative Republicans used to only decry the supposed social pathologies of minority communities, today they are denigrating their own base: “Suddenly, when today’s Republicans attacked moochers, slackers, and welfare queens, they included some working-class whites –- cops and nurses, firefighters and teachers, the public employees who formed the backbone of what grew into the American middle class.” Coupled with conservative commitment to policies that further cement the powers and privileges of the one percent, this sort of rhetoric should turn off lower-income white Americans.

Furthermore, as Walsh noted, whites are not a monolithic group: “If whites in Ohio and Wisconsin and other Mid-west states voted like those in Virginia, Obama would have lost the election.” Progressives, of course, are not unaware of these trends. But there is little evidence that much is being done to expand institutional outreach, community building, and political education in white working-class communities outside of the rust belt areas and big cities where labor unions and other working class organizations continue to do great work. The key for progressives is to develop a mechanism for reaching more members of the white working class in the same way that they have organized communities of color, young people, women, and professionals.

Conservatives have failed the white working class. It’s time for progressives to open the doors to these voters and ask them to join and help lead a genuinely multiracial, cross-class coalition fighting for economic justice and fairness for all people.