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« The Trailer Reactions to the Upcoming Wonder Woman Movie | Main | Civility and Political Discourse »


Liberals and the White Working Class

By Angelo Lopez
October 9, 2016

Much has been made in the media about the white working class who make up the majority of Donald Trump's electoral support. Trump has appealed to the fears of this group of Americans by stoking xenophobia, islamophobia and the worst forms of misogyny. This greatly worries me, as I see the divisions growing in the U.S. over race and class. Yet I have some hope as well. Watching the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns during the primaries, both are tapping into a tradition of liberal Democrats who reached out to both working class whites and minority communities to build bridges between the two communities and bring Americans together.

The eight hour work day, the forty hour work week, the minimum wage, Social Security, work safety standards, child labor laws, collective bargaining rights, and a whole host of laws protecting worker rights were championed in mainstream politics in the early twentieth century by progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette, and later in the twentieth century by liberal Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, the Kennedys, Jesse Jackson and Paul Wellstone.

These progressives saw that the government has an important role to play in helping its most vulnerable citizens weather the worst effects of a free market economy. I'm hoping that Hillary can look to these early examples to bring Americans together.

The Nation magazine has several articles about ways in which progressives can reach out to the white working class who are now supporting Donald Trump.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an article for The Nation titled What Happened to the White Working Class that describes the effects of economic anxiety on working class whites. She wrote:

The white working class, which usually inspires liberal concern only for its paradoxical, Republican-leaning voting habits, has recently become newsworthy for something else: according to economist Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the winner of the latest Nobel Prize in economics, its members in the 45- to 54-year-old age group are dying at an immoderate rate. While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking. As a result, in just the last four years, the gap between poor white men and wealthier ones has widened by up to four years. The New York Times summed up the Deaton and Case study with this headline: “Income Gap, Meet the Longevity Gap.”

...Only whites, however, are now dying off in unexpectedly large numbers in middle age, their excess deaths accounted for by suicide, alcoholism, and drug (usually opiate) addiction.

There are some practical reasons why whites are likely to be more efficient than blacks at killing themselves. For one thing, they are more likely to be gun-owners, and white men favor gunshots as a means of suicide. For another, doctors, undoubtedly acting in part on stereotypes of non-whites as drug addicts, are more likely to prescribe powerful opiate painkillers to whites than to people of color. (I’ve been offered enough oxycodone prescriptions over the years to stock a small illegal business.)

Manual labor—from waitressing to construction work—tends to wear the body down quickly, from knees to back and rotator cuffs, and when Tylenol fails, the doctor may opt for an opiate just to get you through the day.


Joan Walsh wrote a good article for The Nation titled Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters? Maybe- but first we need to understand why they left the party. Walsh noted in her article:

There are, of course, political and moral reasons to care about the pessimism and dislocation of the white working class. It’s been the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a formerly thriving group once buoyed by government investment and labor rights whose standard of living has fallen since Republicans (with the aid of some Democrats) turned their backs on the post–World War II consensus. Some of the economic trends that have hurt this group, like sluggish wage growth, are holding back African Americans and Latinos as well...

...In the end, though, the struggling white working class has a moral claim on progressives, as well as a political one. Whole pockets of the industrial Midwest and South have been left out of the 21st century, and pessimism and resentment can’t help but fester. Rising white mortality rates, largely due to addiction and mental illness, deserve attention. The resurgent populist, pro-opportunity, and anti-oligarchy left wing of the Democratic Party has pushed politicians, including Clinton, to embrace many policies—on trade, union rights, Social Security, and education—that many hope will win back this cohort.

Steve Phillips wrote a more optimistic article for The Nation titled Actually Not All White Working Class Voters Are Conservative which reminds readers that a significant portion of the white working class voters support progressive causes. Phillips wrote:

 In reality, however, there are millions of white working-class voters who proudly cast their ballots for a black man running for president in 2008 and 2012, and millions have also expressed their preference for a white woman seeking the same office. In a country that held black people in chattel slavery for hundreds of years and refused to recognize any women’s rights separate from a relationship to a man until the 21st century, those votes by working-class whites are a big deal...

... Underappreciated, yet vitally important, is the historical role that the progressive white working class has played in supporting struggles for justice and equality throughout US history. Many, although certainly not all, white labor leaders and unions sided with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and the struggles in Selma for democracy and equality. The success of those efforts led to the passage in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act and Immigration and Nationality Act. Those two revolutionary laws, which removed the racial restrictions from voting and immigration, have resulted in the demographic transformation of the American population and electorate, resulting in the percentage of people of color in the country tripling from 12 percent in 1965 to 38.2 percent today. With so many people of color now able to cast ballots, the strategic significance of the white workers who vote progressive is enhanced...

... Schultz’s story shows that the way for progressives to win over the majority of the white working class is by gaining political power and passing progressive public policies, not wasting time and money during an election season trying to persuade people predisposed not to agree. In order to get into a position where progressives can govern, we have to make smart and strategic decisions that secure 50 percent plus one of the people casting ballots. Then we can pass public policies that help everybody.

Here is a youtube video of Robert F. Kennedy visiting a white working class town in East Kentucky

Here is a 2011 video of a speech by the Reverand Jesse Jackson to a union rally in Madison, Wisconsin in support of the collective bargaining rights of public workers

Here is a youtube video of Senator Paul Wellstone retracing the steps of his hero, Robert Kennedy, through Appalachia, focusing in particular on eastern Kentucky. During the 1997 tour, Paul Wellstone spent several days visiting a Head Start classroom, touring a housing rehabilitation site, and hearing the concerns of working and disabled coal miners, their wives and widows. On August 30, 1997 Senator Wellstone held a Town Meeting at Appalshop where he listened for several hours as folks from all over central Appalachia expressed their concerns about the economy, community development, health care, education, poverty, workers' rights, and social and environmental justice.

A 2011 video of Senator Barbara Boxer speaking in front of thousands of nurses protesting in front of the steps of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling on a fair tax system where Wall Street and Corporate America pay their fair share, and to use those funds to pay for programs like Medicare and Medicaid

A video of Senator Bernie Sanders speaking at the SEIU Local 87 Union Rally in San Francisco on May 18, 2016.

A 2006 video of Senator Ted Kennedy speaking to the National Education Association and other Union Activists in support of the Employee Free Choice Act.

A 2015 video of SEIU Local 2015 member leader and home care provider, Regina Sutton, and her In-Home Supportive Services consumer, Karen Johnson, joining presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, at a round table discussion on the care giving crisis the US will face if it does not invest in its long term care workforce


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