The Left and Working-Class Whites

A great tragedy for the political left has been that, although we represent most of the population’s economic interests, we have only occasionally garnered majority support in the electoral arena. The US Democratic primaries have recently become focussed on the main segment of the American population that has often voted Republican even though its economic interests would be better served by Democrats: the white working class. The notion currently sustaining Clinton’s campaign is that Obama cannot win this (imperfectly defined) group.

Much of the analysis has emphasized that working-class whites are demographically predominant in many swing states. Part of the Obama campaign’s response has been that the Democrats can win nationally without winning among working-class whites. Some analysts are now asking how many white working-class votes are sufficient to win the general election. To some extent, I think that this question avoids the larger question of why the political right has won so many recent elections even though its policies run contrary to most people’s economic interests.

In some times and places, the political left has achieved significant electoral success by defining politics in economic terms. Examples from the English-speaking world include the New Deal coalition in the US, the CCF in 1940s Canada, and Labour Parties in several other British Commonwealth countries. More recently, the political right has been extremely successful by instead defining politics in cultural terms. Examples include Nixon, Reagan and Bush in the US, Harper in Canada, and Howard in Australia.

The economic conception of politics pits the rich against the rest of us. It helps the left appeal to those who work for wages (or are unemployed) and helps the right appeal to the economic elite. The cultural conception of politics misleadingly pits the “average guy” against various elite “special interests”: minority-rights activists, feminists, environmentalists, liberal judges, etc. It helps the left appeal to racialized groups (and some white women), but helps the right appeal to the white majority (and especially white men). While the economic conception positions the white working class on the left, the cultural conception shifts it to the right.

The rise of identity politics on the left undoubtedly helped the cultural conception prevail. Third Way politicians (like Bill Clinton in US and Blair in Britain) supported the cultural conception by accepting the right’s economic policies, thereby leaving cultural issues as the only dividing lines between left and right. The Liberal Party dominated Canada, to the exclusion of social democrats and conservatives, by defining politics in terms of non-economic “Canadian values”: national unity, bilingualism, multiculturalism, peacekeeping, etc.

Efforts to revive the political left have appropriately sought to redefine politics in economic terms. In recent years, US Democrats and Canadian New Democrats have focussed on revoking tax cuts for the rich, raising minimum wages, strengthening labour rights, reforming unfair trade deals, etc. Working-class whites are politically important not only because they account for a large share (if not a majority) of all voters and even larger shares in certain key electoral districts, but because their votes are a barometer of the left’s push to recast politics along economic lines.

It may be mathematically possible to win particular elections without winning a majority of white working-class votes. For example, Bill Clinton was elected largely because Ross Perot split the culturally conservative vote. However, the left will not win consistently unless it succeeds at redefining politics in economic terms.

5 comments

  • janfromthebruce

    I agree. It is about economic democracy. It’s truth lies in the widening gap between rich and poor. It is where middle class incomes have stagnated, poor have become alot poorer, and the rich who are few in number, the wealth has greatly increased. It is in this trough where New Democrats have to craft their policies.

  • “The US Democratic primaries have recently become focussed on the main segment of the American population that has often voted Republican even though its economic interests would be better served by Democrats: the white working class.”

    Thomas Frank has it backwards. What the Republican Party got right was not in convincing working class Americans to vote against their economic self interest. Rather it was in convincing the Democratic Party that it needed to “triangulate” itself into ideological no man’s land in order to win. As Princeton’s Larry Bartels has demonstrated, the white working class has not abandoned the Democratic Party. Indeed, they voted for Kerry in stronger numbers than they did JFK or Hubert Humphrey. Nor do the working class voters place more attention to social issues than economic issues; the opposite it overwhelming true. Working class voters place far more of emphasis on economic issues than do any other segment of voters. Indeed, the higher up the economic ladder one goes the more emphasis voters place on social issues and the less on economic ones. In 2004 well to do placed 10 times as much importance on social issues than did the working class.

    Little wonder then why white rural worker class voters overwhelmingly favor Clinton over Obama. She gives them a lot more meat and potatoes then he does. Conversely the much more socially liberal Obama plays much better with urban well off then she does. If the Democrats are going to win the next election, they need to combine the strength of both. They need to become more socially liberal and more fiscally liberal.

  • The Left isn’t likely to get anywhere so long as white working-class men – and some white male Left intellectuals – continue to treat the struggles of women, people of colour, the disabled, and other oppressed groups as “cultural” struggles rather than “economic” struggles. Our unions are increasingly getting the point – an injury to one is an injury an all, even if the “one” in question isn’t white, male, straight, able-bodied, native-born. But there’s still a lot of work to do to make clear amongst white male workers generally that racism is an economic issue, sexism is an economic issue, ….

  • The right won a *minority* in Canada because urban voters in Canada have less than 2/3 (68% of ridings despite 80% of population) the weighting of rural voters. Maybe this is cultural or maybe it is just that rural voters aren’t as exposed to amneties like universities, research parks, research hospitals, public transit systems…if I was an immigrant I’d be making very loud noises about being treated as a second class citizen in this respect. That and the RCMP realized they could gain more funding from a Conservative government than Liberals, so unleashed Gomery while later covering up their own financial mismanagement.

    In the US, the population is undereducated. They can be distracted by coordinated mass media efforts (the freedom to be brainwashed). An American CBC strong enough to bid for MLB/NFL/NBA/NCAA broadcast rights, would be a start…
    I’m guessing better math skills would encourage more people to make the connection that flat taxes and a rising debt equals stagflation. Geography too. Logic. History lessons about the Crusades and that the Cold War ended…
    Education takes 17 years once funding, staffing and curriculum are established….

  • I know this is out there for a middle-class Canadian to say, but I don’t think the problem is that Americans, or working class whites or others are exceptionally stupid. The reality is so long as the Dems keep taking their votes for granted (and I honestly don’t see that changing with Hilary or Obama at all), working class whites will continue to abstain in greater numbers. Voting abstention is seriously class skewed.

    As for the Dems’ triangulation, it is just another consequence of the “politics of the possible”, that for the Left in an age of neoliberalism means the same bitter gruel being fed to the people by both social democrats (NDP included – think Rae in Ontario) and the more openly bourgeois parties. It’s not until we start to challenge ourselves to expand the boundaries of what is politically possible that the Left will again begin to mean something.

    Also, I would add that the issue is not defining “cultural” oppressions in “economic” terms to legitimize them, but building a movement that stands against all forms of injustice as a matter of principle, while recognizing that class oppression is one of the most pervasive and all-embracing forms of oppression and injustice that exists in our society today.

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