The Left and Working-Class Whites
A great tragedy for the political left has been that, although we represent most of the populationâ€™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 Clintonâ€™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 campaignâ€™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 winÂ 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 peopleâ€™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 rightâ€™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 leftâ€™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.Â For example, Bill Clinton was elected largely because Ross Perot split the culturally conservative vote. However, the left will not win consistently unless it succeedsÂ at redefining politics in economic terms.