Economic Populism appeals both to core Democratic voters and the workers with whom the party has failed to connect.
The challenge Democrats face today—uniting a broad coalition of working class Americans that spans racial, regional, gender, and generational lines—is far from new, but it has not always been this daunting.
The staggering results of last November’s election should be a reminder to Democrats that the racially diverse, young, educated, unmarried (women), and urban voters who comprised a significant portion of the Obama coalition do not constitute an inexorable path to Electoral College victory for Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama consolidated the Rising American Electorate (RAE), but also captured critical majorities in places like Sawyer County, Wisconsin; Luzerne County, Pennsylvania; and Macomb County, Michigan—all home to significant numbers of white working class voters. These were just three of the 219 counties that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
White working class voters in these parts of the country, once hubs of manufacturing and production, feel economically abandoned by both parties in the nation’s capital. Many are still reeling from the effects of an increasingly globalized economy that has traded American jobs for corporate profits made on the backs of cheap overseas labor, and they are disillusioned with a political establishment in Washington that they see as more interested in rewarding wealthy campaign benefactors, and the industries and interests they represent, than they are in helping ordinary Americans.
Where working people of all races once helped deliver Democratic victories under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, winning a majority of white working class voters has proven elusive to Democrats in the modern era of political campaigns.
Since 1980, Democrats have failed to carry this key constituency in presidential contests—with two exceptions. In the 1992 presidential race and again in 1996, Bill Clinton bested his Republican rivals among white non-college educated voters, in each instance with a plurality and by one point. Since Clinton’s re-election, however, non-college educated white voters have consistently evaded the Democrats’ grasp.
While Donald Trump’s sweeping victory this past November revealed a widening gulf between the voting patterns of college educated and non-college educated whites (Trump won the former group by 4 points, and the latter by 39), the Democratic Party’s problems with the white working class, therefore, are decidedly not new. Neither are efforts—like this commendable undertaking—to analyze the challenge and devise a solution.
The Obama administration’s embrace of the financial industry early in his first term led to a new low point in the Democratic Party’s credibility as a check on Wall Street. Here, President Obama talks with Chief of Staff Jack Lew and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they walk on the Colonnade of the White House in 2013. / White House Photo
Individual proposals for reform may test well with voters, but these ideas alone are not enough. To meaningfully re-engage the white working class with the Democratic Party’s agenda, a compelling narrative about how our platform provides genuine solutions to the growth of an American plutocracy is of critical importance.
Indeed, a CNN/ORC poll conducted in February of 2016 showed that the vast majority of Americans believe that the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy (71 percent) instead of being fair to most people (27 percent). The idea that income and wealth should be more evenly distributed among Americans has won the support of 60 percent or greater since 2012, but Americans are skeptical that government officials will act to protect their best interests. According to a 2015 Gallup report, 75 percent of Americans perceive corruption as widespread in the country’s government.
Not only have Democrats presided in Washington for significant stretches while these trends have developed; they have, in visible ways, exacerbated those trends, through, for instance, global trade deals enacted in the 1990s and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. This is certainly not to blame the Democratic Party for all the ills that have been inflicted on the country over the past 40 years, far from it. But too many times, our party has been guilty not just of sins of omission—failing to stand up to the Republicans on critical issues, or even providing the GOP cover in some cases (as when some congressional Democrats supported the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq)—but of commission, too. The Obama administration’s embrace of the financial industry early in his first term, combined with its decision not to prosecute any of the individuals and institutions responsible for the economic collapse of 2008, led to a new low point in the Democratic Party’s credibility as a check on Wall Street. In the 2010 midterm elections, voters who blamed Wall Street for the country’s economic problems preferred Republican candidates by a margin of 16 points, despite the Democratic Party’s efforts to deliver a message against Wall Street special interests.
Given this reality, it is not particularly surprising that the party has yet to articulate a clearer, more credible, and more commanding vision for the economic revitalization of the country, the middle class, and, more specifically, the hollowed-out communities in which many white working class voters struggle. The white working class’s sense of its economic isolation is compounded by a gap in cultural sensibilities: White working class voters, particularly baby boomers and older, tend to be less liberal on social issues than their more educated (and more urban) counterparts, whose support has been nurtured by the Democratic Party for the past several election cycles.
In a political environment where Republicans have shifted the terms of debate to stoke racist biases (nearly half of Trump’s supporters describe African Americans as more “violent” than whites) and sexist inclinations (67 percent of Trump supporters deny the role of sexism in America), the need for a forceful, serious, policy, and values-driven Democratic platform has never been greater. To be sure, Democrats have increased their support among college-educated whites: Hillary Clinton trailed Trump by only 4 points among these voters in 2016, whereas Obama lost this group by 14 points to Mitt Romney in 2012. But that gain was overwhelmed by Clinton’s abysmal performance within the white working class.
Playing to Populist Strengths
Far from being a call for Democrats to moderate their stance on such issues as a woman’s right to choose, gun safety reforms, and equal protection of civil rights for all Americans, our point is that when Democrats fail to offer a compelling economic vision and agenda, the opposition not only benefits from that failure, but is allowed the opportunity to shift the debate to areas where it enjoys greater advantages over Democrats.
Recent face-to-face conversations with working class voters in Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania conducted by Working America in the weeks following the election underscore the intense economic anxiety that pervades their communities and their lives. Working-class Trump and Clinton voters alike reported that they wanted the president-elect to address jobs and the economy first, with Trump voters expressing more urgency (37 percent said that the economy and jobs are the most important issue, compared to 21 percent of Clinton voters).
For some white working class Trump voters, their perception of the candidate’s focus on bringing jobs back to their communities took priority over their serious misgivings about him. As one white working class Trump voter from the Pittsburgh area told Working America: “Trump’s an asshole. But sometimes you need an asshole to make things better and shake things up.” Both Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 tapped into an intense desire for change and spoke to pervasive economic anxieties; this thematic commonality helps to explain the crossover appeal of two otherwise completely different politicians for some white working class voters.
For the last several election cycles, we have urged Democrats to develop a vision for the American economy that addresses the deep-rooted concerns of the working class and provides solutions to the scope of the challenges we face. Trump’s ascent to power on the strength of a white working class supermajority, though he was the most disliked presidential candidate in history, reminds us that this economic message and policy agenda is more important now than ever.
Given the Democratic Party’s historic deficits with this demographic group, it is unlikely—and unrealistic—that Democrats will be able to make up all the ground that has been lost with white working class voters by 2018 or even 2020. As such, the Democratic Party’s efforts should be structured specifically to engage the white working class voters that Obama won in 2008 and 2012 that Clinton then lost in 2016—the voters living in swing counties like Sawyer, Luzerne, and Macomb. Such efforts must not come at the expense of (re)engaging the sometime voters among minorities and the young—significant swaths of the country who do not regularly turn out to vote, whose patterns of voting are irregular, or who no longer feel a sense of loyalty to the Democrats; we look forward to that discussion as well.
For some white working class Trump voters, their perception of the candidate’s focus on bringing jobs back to their communities took priority over their serious misgivings about him. Here, Trump supporters hold signs at a campaign rally in Las Vegas. / Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons
According to estimates by The New York Times and The New Republic, the election was lost for Clinton by between 77,000 and 110,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Making up this difference will be key if the Democrats are to build back from what is a historic nadir of political power at all levels of government.
The Democratic Party will require a robust economic vision that appeals to the appetite for populist reform; a forceful push-back against Trump policies that hurt working Americans; and a commitment to campaign-finance reform and removing the influence of big money in elections, which voters believe is the first step to implementing economic—and other types of needed—change.
Economic proposals will not be enough. The Democratic Party’s historic strength, dating back to the New Deal, has been to offer a vision of government that actively works to protect working people and makes their lives better. A central appeal of the current economic populist agenda focuses on the importance of limiting the power of big money in politics.
Especially in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling, Americans of both parties wish to restrict the political influence of the hyper wealthy. A February 2016 poll conducted by Rasmussen Research found that 76 percent of Americans believe that the wealthiest individuals and companies have too much power and influence over elections—a majority that holds across gender, age, race, and party lines.
Our own research in 2011 found that, above all other regulations, voters are interested in government oversight of the relationship between special interests and politicians (77 percent). A populist economic message is especially powerful when it hinges on a greater push for reform; by utilizing this frame, the Democratic Party should be able to draw contrasts that blunt the appeal of populism on the right.
Now that Trump is president, with policies favoring the plutocrats, the Democrats should be able to turn his populist message against him. Part of that pushback should be grounded in clear, broadly disseminated articulations of how his administration’s actions are hurting all working-class Americans. It will be especially important for the party to gain an edge from his administration’s inability to deliver on promises for a better economy with good-paying jobs.
Additionally, the Democrats face the real challenge of embodying the values of working Americans through their candidates, their professed values, the scope of their policy agenda, and their commitment to action. A crucial step in this process must be purposefully cultivating and supporting candidates who resonate with working class Americans, even if they lack the financial heft that has characterized the prototypical Democratic candidate in recent years.
A Party Building Economic Vision
In our post-election work, we’ve found that even Clinton voters have struggled to identify the Democratic Party’s vision for the country’s future. Formulating such a vision shouldn’t be all that difficult. A national survey conducted in 2015 for the Progressive Change Institute explored the public’s appetite for a number of far-reaching economic reforms and bold policy ideas, and found strong enthusiasm from the majority of voters. A proposal to institute fair trade that protects workers, the environment, and jobs enjoyed the support of 75 percent of voters. Similarly, more than seven-in-ten voters (71 percent) supported a Medicare buy-in for all Americans; a Full Employment Act (70 percent support); a Green New Deal and major infrastructure jobs programs (70 percent support each); taxing the rich at the same higher rate that President Reagan did (59 percent support); and breaking up the big banks (59 percent support). Our own research has shown that support for strengthening—and expanding—Social Security and Medicare will also be particularly important, especially giving the relatively advanced age of the 2018 midterm electorate.
The support for such economic reforms (the aforementioned are but a handful of examples) is buttressed by similarly widespread public backing for policies aimed at giving ordinary Americans a voice in their government again: a proposal to end gerrymandering receives support from 73 percent of voters; public matching for small dollar donations receives support from 57 percent of voters, and full disclosure of corporate spending on politics and lobbying receives support from 71 percent of voters. A laundry list of popular policy prescriptions do not a winning economic message make, yet these results suggest that the time has come to structure the Democratic Party’s agenda around robust reforms—on dimensions of significant economic and political change.
In many ways, the path forward for rebuilding the Democratic Party’s relationship with the white working class was articulated best by Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Here, Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in New Orleans. / Photo by Nick Solari, Creative Commons
BUILDING POLITICAL SUPPORT is partly the work of effective messaging. Our polling has shown that when we describe economic conditions through the lens of lived experience—“can’t make ends meet” or “can’t pull ahead no matter how hard they try”—instead of through abstractions, voters listen and often move to our side. Being explicit about causes of economic harm by referring to CEOs and other leaders provides clarity and generates support for our message, as well.
In many ways, the path forward for rebuilding the Democratic Party’s relationship with the white working class was articulated best by Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Sanders’s message centered on unabashed economic populism and a commitment to remove the influence of corporate money from our politics—and hence, our government. This message has also been championed by Elizabeth Warren, Elijah Cummings, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus as well. Indeed, the latest GWU Battleground Poll suggests that Senator Sanders remains well positioned to serve as a source of strength and leadership. A solid majority (56 percent) of voters hold a positive opinion of him—a higher favorability rating than those of the other national leaders tested in the poll. Sanders and Hillary Clinton are virtually tied in terms of favorability among Democratic women, and African American and Latino voters are warmer to Sanders than they are to Clinton. While non-college educated white voters are split in their view of Sanders (40 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable), he far outperforms the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee as well as the image of the party as a whole among those voters. Again, we must remind ourselves that the (near-term) objective is not to win over majorities of these voters; it is to improve—and measurably so—on their declining support for Democrats in recent elections.
Sanders’s primary election successes in the states and counties that flipped from Obama victories in 2012 to Trump victories in 2016 further underscore the appeal of his progressive message, especially as we look toward targeting these swing votes in upcoming elections. In Wisconsin, for example, 21 counties that Barack Obama won in 2012 voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Every single one of those 21 counties were won by Bernie Sanders in the April 2016 Wisconsin Democratic Primary, which Sanders won handily.
In the Michigan Primary, which Sanders won narrowly, nine of the 12 counties that flipped from Obama to Trump were won by Sanders as well. Obviously, there are numerous problems in comparing white working class Democratic primary voters to white working class general election voters. Yet, this is far from the only evidence pointing to Sanders’ appeal among white working class independents, many of whom he successfully encouraged to join the ranks of the Democratic Party by participating in the 2016 primaries. In a head-to-head matchup between Sanders and Trump in our own April 2016 Battleground survey, Sanders bested Trump 51 percent to 40 percent. Among white non-college graduates, Trump beat Sanders 49 percent to 41 percent, but that margin is far smaller than the 39-point margin that Trump racked up over Clinton in November.
While Sanders’s personal popularity and influence is an important takeaway from these data, the more salient point is that the Democratic Party stands to gain politically when it returns its focus to issues of class, including the substantial and ongoing challenges of income inequality and the negative influence of corporate special interests on the lives of working-class Americans of all kinds.
Effectively engaging the white working class is an essential task for the Democratic Party, but we must also acknowledge that this work will go to waste if we ignore our base. The approaches outlined here can serve to energize the base as well as engage the white working class. By moving forward with an agenda that explicitly continues our commitment to racial and gender justice and opportunities for all, including immigrants, we will work to ensure that our base ratifies our message in future elections.
The path forward will not be easy, but neither is it as mystifying as some may imagine. A sweeping platform of economic and political change resonates powerfully with white working class voters and the young, diverse, educated, and urban voters whom Democrats must nurture and energize if it hopes to be successful in the 2018 midterms. Embracing this change will require not just political smarts, however, but political will. Democratic activists will need either to convince the party’s establishment of the necessity of this approach—or failing that, actively work to replace it. For the Democratic Party, the stakes have never been higher and the challenges have never been clearer.