30 September 2016

The war for the white working class

The popularity of Donald Trump among white working-class voters has left Democrats and progressives again asking what's wrong with these people. These groups begin from the premise, to them self-evident, that Republican economic policies are the root cause of whatever economic misery working-class whites feel. Given that, they ask, like Thomas Frank has for a generation, why these people vote against their obvious economic interests. Interestingly, many Democrats or sympathizers diverge from Frank's own analysis. Joan Walsh, writing in a recent issue of The Nation, takes issue with Frank's recent contention that Trump's stand against free trade has endeared him to working-class whites who, as Frank has argued in the past, feel abandoned by the Democrats' apparent greater concern for "cultural" issues. Walsh dismisses the trade issue by citing a poll according to which only 8% of Trump supporters cited trade as a factor in their support. Throughout her article, Walsh is torn between acknowledging the pain felt by working-class whites and insisting that many in the same group exaggerate their suffering. "Whole pockets of the industrial Midwest and South have been left out of the 21st century," she writes, "and pessimism and resentment can't help but fester. Rising white mortality rates, largely due to addiction and mental illness, deserve attention." Yet to the dismay of Walsh and many other liberals, too many working-class whites refuse to acknowledge that they're better off now than they were in 2008. I've heard for myself the Trumpist argument -- I attribute it to Trump's supporters, not the candidate himself -- that the country's economic (not to mention moral) decline began with the inauguration of President Obama. For Walsh, this belief proves that working-class whites suffer from an attitude problem. She cites research by a University of California professor, Michael Tesler, that appears to show that "voters who score high on surveys designed to measure racial resentment are more likely to say that economic conditions are bad under Obama [than] those who are more 'racially sympathetic.'"

In Walsh's view, it seems, the Democrats have done no wrong and don't deserve the rebukes they receive from working-class whites. Working-class support for Trump is all the more inexplicable in 2016, given that "Virtually every position ... recommended to appeal to white working-class voters has been incorporated into the Democratic platform."This narrative contrasts sharply with Frank's. While he agrees with the left that working-class support for any Republican makes no sense at a practical level, he doesn't exempt Democrats from blame for the situation. He indicts Democrats, and the Clintons especially, for alienating working-class voters with "neoliberal" economic policies. For Walsh and other critics of Frank, the real problem is that many whites  went off the rez long before the Clintons came along, drawn to the Republicans by "dog-whistle" racism dating back to the 1960s, while Bill Clinton himself did relatively well among these voters, perhaps due to cultural affinity, compared to Democrats before and after him. Taking this longer view, Walsh can acknowledge that "many Democrats cravenly courted Wall Street and big business during the 1980s and beyond," while arguing that working-class whites "had defected from the party much earlier and for different reasons."

Walsh's implicit conclusion -- it wouldn't be smart to say it outright -- is that winning over more working-class whites requires further struggle against their "racial resentment" (and other resentments) even as the left acknowledges their "economic dislocation." I wonder whether an opposite conclusion can be drawn, and that one possible key to winning back working-class whites is to lay off the struggle a little. That doesn't mean validating whatever prejudices they have, but it might require some pragmatic ignoring of them, on the understanding that such people have little power to act on their prejudices in any systematic way anymore. Winning more white votes should not require a re-education campaign; that, in fact, would be the opposite of a successful strategy. If liberals agree with Ruy Teixeira that even if "you don't need the white working class in order to win the presidency... you need them to accomplish anything else you want to do," is it really a good idea to always treat them -- the men in particular, of course -- as the bad guys? You don't have to share whatever lofty estimate some of them have of themselves and their kind, but you needn't go out of your way to smash it, either, when it can be left alone as effectively harmless. Nor need you ignore the legitimate claims of minorities, even on hot-button (or "dog-whistle") topics like officer-involved shootings, when these can be analyzed in terms of a problematic police culture that potentially menaces everyone. Such an approach may require some swallowing of pride by liberals, for any number of reasons, but as Trump asked of blacks, what have they got to lose?

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