While the white working class is shrinking in the US, it remains the largest voting block in the country. That may be why leaders of both parties are concerned that white working-class voters, especially in the Midwest and South, are supporting populist candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They don’t understand that many of these voters blame Wall Street, corporate leaders, and politicians – the East Coast establishment –for destroying their jobs and communities over the past few decades.
Recent polls suggest that almost 60% of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, “don’t identify with what America has become.” According to Cliff Young and Chris Jackson, these “nativist” Americans are older, whiter, and less educated than the rest of the population – more working-class, in other words. For some middle-class professionals, this “nativism,” exemplified in support for Donald Trump’s racial comments, simply reinforces the assumption that the white working class is inherently racist and foolish. They conveniently ignore the way racism is resurfacing among the middle class as they, too, feel resentment over their economic displacement. As Barbara Ehrenreich warns, “Whole professions have fallen on hard times, from college teaching to journalism and the law. One of the worst mistakes this relative elite could make is to try to pump up its own pride by hating on those — of any color or ethnicity — who are falling even faster.”
The focus on racism and xenophobia ignores an essential reality: precarity is bringing working-class and middle-class voters together politically. As Guy Standing has argued, the emerging precariat is a political class in the making. We see this in the “Fight for $15.” The struggle to increase the minimum wage seeks economic improvement for both the non-college and college educated.
This growing political block not only shares economic resentment but also the underlying racism that has been baked into American culture. No doubt, many college-educated whites looking for work have blamed multiculturalism and affirmative action for their current economic position, and they are just as likely as working-class people to respond to Trump’s racist rhetoric.
As Dan Bolz has suggested, “Trump’s appeal . . . underscores the resistance to the changes the country’s transition have brought forward.” Paul Krugman has suggested that “moderate Republicans and Third Way Democrats” who had tried to explain inequality in terms of skill-biased technological change are now lamenting the rise of Democratic populism. At the same time, progressive Democrats have complained that Sanders has ignored racial inequality while pandering to those facing economic inequality.
Leading Republican pundits like David Brooks and George Will have tried to dismiss Trump, a sure sign of conservative establishment fear. This has led to a squabble with Will calling Trump a “bloviating ignoramus” and Trump responding that Will is the “dumbest and most overrated political columnist of all time.” Some would say that Trump’s attack on political correctness and emphasis on “hot button” issues offer just type of mud fight the white working-class base wants. But more thoughtful moderate Republican pundits understand that such battles will not secure that base. For example, writers like Ross Douthat and Michael Gerson have been ignored and marginalized by the Republican establishment. A decade ago, Douthat and Rahein Salem tried to solidify working-class support by developing sound policy proposals that would appeal to what they called “Sam’s Club” Republicans. The Republican establishment trashed their ideas, and these writers have been reduced to rehashing the social values debate of an earlier era. E.J. Dionne has said Republicans are having trouble taking on Trump not only because “they have delivered next to nothing to their loyal white, working-class supporters.”
The Democratic Party establishment has its own set of fears — about Bernie Sanders. With significant contributions from Elizabeth Warren, Sanders has tried to move the party to embrace policies that are consistent with its New Deal roots. In a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders stressed the disappearance of the middle class, noting that productivity gains and income have been going to 1% of Americans. According to Sanders, a handful of oligarchs now control economic and political life in the U.S. He reminded the audience of the fight over New Deal reforms and types of security it brought to working Americans. Sanders’s takeaway was that “True freedom does not occur without economic security.”
Hillary Clinton has much less appeal for many working-class and minority Democratic voters. While she has sidestepped her past support for her husband’s policies on crime, drugs, welfare, and trade, these voters have not forgotten his legacy. In commenting on these issues, Clinton tends to pander to voters, as when she says that she opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP “at this time.” No wonder polls consistently show that the American public doesn’t trust her (though polls suggest they do trust Hillary more than the current crop of Republican candidates on some issues).
The Democratic establishment doesn’t worry about Clinton’s occasional forays in populism, which they see as political maneuvering. As Politico has reported, “None of them think she really means her populism.” But Sanders’s populist talk makes them cringe, because he connects with working-class resentment. His speeches appeal to the deep sense of injustice, unfairness, and inequality that many in the new precariat, especially millennials and African Americans, feel toward the East Coast establishment that took away their jobs, houses, and community and now even threatens their Social Security.
Clinton’s wealthy donor base recognizes Sanders’s appeal as a threat to their interests. Democratic Party leaders and their Wall Street backers hope that the Sanders fever will pass quickly and their adherents will then fall in line and embrace Clinton as the only viable option.
If Clinton and her advisors can’t connect with the new populism, voters may well heed the implication from Republicans that nothing will change no matter who is elected. They’re wrong, of course. With a fragile and deeply unequal economy and an aging Supreme Court, the stakes are too high. But if Democrats are to win this year, they must understand that the populism that drives support for Trump is also central to Sanders’s appeal. Winning the 2016 election will require the kind of grassroots support that helped elect President Obama twice, but to build that support Democrats will have to address the disaffection and resentment of the new precariat.
This piece first appeared at Working Class Perspectives.
John Russo is a visiting fellow at Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. He is the co-author with Sherry Linkon of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown (8th printing).