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The Democrats’ White People Problem

Donald Trump likes to pit elite and non-elite white people against each other. Why do white liberals play into his trap?

By Joan C. Williams | The Atlantic | December 2018


“I want them to talk about racism every day,” Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former strategist, told The American Prospect last year. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Bannon was tapping into an old American tradition. As early as the 1680s, powerful white people were serving up racism to assuage the injuries of class, elevating the status of white indentured servants over that of enslaved black people. Some two centuries later, W. E. B. Du Bois observed that poor white people were compensated partly by a “public and psychological wage”—the “wages of whiteness,” as the historian David Roediger memorably put it. These wages pit people of different races against one another, averting a coalition based on shared economic interests.

And so it is with Trump’s carefully timed injections of racism: the Muslim ban; his shocking comments after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; his unsolicited advice to the NFL on how to handle player protests; family separations and the weaponization of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These gestures may seem like pandering to racists. But in truth they are aimed equally at the left, in an effort to keep liberals’ attention focused on race rather than class. If Democrats were to focus more attention on economic issues, they just might be able to win back the non-elite white voters they’ve been bleeding for half a century. People like Bannon seem to realize this. If Democrats want to regain the presidency in 2020, they need to realize it too.

On Election Night 2016, my social crowd of San Francisco progressives was mystified as to why white people in a few Rust Belt states, many of them union members who’d previously voted for Obama, had just delivered Trump the election. That same night, I wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review in which I explained what I (a white, liberal law professor) thought so many of my white, liberal, highly educated peers were failing to see: that middle-income white people had voted for Trump not so much because they liked him (though many did) or because they were racist (though plenty were) but foremost as an expression of class anger. After the essay went viral, I expanded it into a book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.

All told, I’ve spent a good deal of the past two years talking with progressives about the broken relationship between elite white people and the white working class. (I use the term working class to refer to Americans with household incomes between the 30th and 80th percentiles. This group, which has median earnings of about $75,000, is also commonly referred to as the “middle class.”) Democrats presently have a unique opportunity to appeal to the working class, because their base is newly open to a populist message: Income inequality has gotten so bad that people across the political spectrum, college-educated and non-college-educated alike, are feeling a serious pinch. Bernie Sanders got 72 percent of the votes from Democrats under 30 in the 2016 primaries in part by decrying the rigged economy. In the past three decades, education costs have nearly tripled at public universities and doubled at private ones; at the same time, too many people with a college degree are settling for jobs that don’t require one. Unemployment may be low, but the median real wage has remained flat since Trump’s election. Housing costs, meanwhile, continue to rise. In 2014, the General Social Survey found that only 35 percent of Millennials described themselves as middle-class, down from 46 percent of similarly aged people in 2002.

All of this should add up to explosive potential for Democrats. But many appear to be taking the wrong lessons from recent political turmoil. As of this writing, the results of the midterm elections are unknown, but one thing is clear: Democrats have banked a lot on the prospect that their voters’ anger can outmatch the anger of the voters who propelled Trump to office. Whether or not this strategy wins a given election, writing off an ocean of rural and Rust Belt red is a terrible strategy in the long term. If the Democrats want to win and keep winning, with a mandate to put their policies into effect, they need to face four hard truths.

1| Demography Is Not Destiny

“Why not just wait for the white working class to die off?” asked an audience member at last year’s Berkeley Festival of Ideas. I get this question a lot, and I always reply: “Do you understand now why they voted for Trump? Your attitude is offensive, and Trump is their middle finger.”

As the United States moves toward becoming a majority-minority nation, some on the left have come to believe that Democrats will be rescued by demography—that the party can ignore the white working class and focus instead on communities of color and on young people and single women of all races. This is wishful thinking. First, the U.S. won’t be majority-minority until about 2045. If you think Democrats—or the country—can survive this degree of political chaos for a quarter century, I don’t know what to tell you.

Second, geography matters. Minority voters aren’t equally distributed throughout the country, and the votes of rural and Rust Belt whites are overrepresented because of the design of the Electoral College and the Senate. Moreover, even in 2040, 37 states will remain majority-white. State legislatures control redistricting, which influences the composition of the House of Representatives, as well as important areas of social policy, like education. Are Democrats really willing to give up on most states?

2| Economic Anxiety Is Central to Populism

Many decent, sensible people voted for Trump because they believed that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans had stopped the downward spiral of the middle class—and they were right.

Those who deny that economics is central to the current wave of populism like to point out that many Trump voters had high incomes. That’s true but irrelevant: The swing voters who helped decide the 2016 election weren’t blue bloods; they were blue-collar. Some political scientists have downplayed these voters’ economic pain, or presented financial hardship and racial resentment as an either/or. For example, one study discounts the influence of economics by focusing on 2012 to 2016. The demise of the American dream began decades earlier.

Broader measures of income inequality show why many Americans feel so insecure. The economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard have documented a sharp decrease in social mobility in recent decades: Virtually all Americans born in the 1940s outearned their parents; only about half of those born in the 1980s will. Simultaneously, the share of national income earned by Americans in the middle of the income distribution is declining.

Does conceding that populism involves economics mean ignoring bigotry? No. Trump is offering a populism interlaced with racism (more on that later). But it’s also true that the right is goading elite white people into dismissing non-elite white people as racists—and thus ignoring their economic concerns. As Bannon said last year, “Our thing is to throw gasoline on the resistance.”

3| Opposing Open Borders Is Not Mere Racism

Part of this strategy involves driving elite liberals toward advocacy of open borders while at the same time convincing working-class whites that immigrants are to blame for the loss of good jobs.

As recently as the 1990s, when the sociologist Michèle Lamont interviewed blue-collar white New Yorkers for her book The Dignity of Working Men, she found that many of her interview subjects expressed relatively positive attitudes about immigrants, describing them as “family oriented” and “hard workers, just like us.” What changed? In large part, the far right’s story line: Why did the good jobs leave? Trade treaties. Why do the ones that replaced them pay so poorly? Immigrants.

Without question, the anti-immigrant attitudes encouraged by this story line feed off racial resentment. Many white people freak out when they’re told that they will soon be a minority: Experiments show that when white people are told they will lose their majority status and related social advantages, they respond with anger toward and fear of ethnic minorities. But this response isn’t unique to working-class people—college students react in much the same way as other white people.

To counter the far right’s story line, Democrats must acknowledge the persistence of racism while shifting attention to the American dream of social mobility. The first step is to acknowledge that immigration sometimes hurts American workers, primarily those without high-school degrees. Immigration may have a positive effect on the economy overall, but people don’t live averages: They live where they live, and see what they see, which is that some employers use immigrant workers to drive down wages and undermine unions. Why not admit this and insist that everyone, immigrants included, deserves the dignity of a paycheck that lasts the week (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.)?

If Democrats want to build a winning coalition that includes not just the blue coasts but also the swath of red in between, they must master this economic message. The party’s new “Heartland” strategy, articulated by Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, is promising. Bustos won reelection in 2016 by 20 points—a feat, considering that Trump narrowly carried her largely agricultural and industrial blue-collar district. She has flourished by de-emphasizing socially divisive issues (these lead to “no-win conversations,” she has said) and highlighting economic ones. Democrats should also talk more about ways to empower workers; a good example is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require that 40 percent of a company’s board members be elected by its workers.

One final note: If Democrats spend less time taking the bait on immigration and more time prioritizing good jobs for people without college degrees, they won’t help only the white working class—they will help people of every race. After all, black and Hispanic students are less likely than white ones to end up with a college degree.

4| Racism Is a White Problem, Not a Working-Class Problem

A final dynamic will be particularly hard to fix: the broken relationship between elite and non-elite white people, for which people of all races are paying the price. This is a white-people problem, and white people need to fix it. (I wouldn’t presume to advise people of color on how to respond to racism, or to suggest that they should refrain from seeing the 2016 election through the always-powerful lens of race. But as an elite white person, I do see it as my place to tell elite whites to stop displacing blame for their own racism onto non-elite whites.)

It’s true that overt racists flocked to Trump; chillingly, 35 percent of Trump voters report having used the N‑word. But does this mean every Trump voter is a deplorable whom Democrats could never win over, and would never want to?

No. An important, largely overlooked 2017 study by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group identified five distinct types of Trump voters. Two of them—Staunch Conservatives and Free Marketeers, who together account for more than half of Trump voters—are unlikely to ever go for Democrats in substantial numbers. (Free Marketeers may not like Trump’s trade wars, but many cheer his gutting of regulations.) The other two big blocs, American Preservationists and Anti-elites, each include about a fifth of Trump voters, and believe that the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthiest Americans. (The final bloc, the Disengaged, accounted for 5 percent of Trump voters.)

American Preservationists and Anti-elites are often conflated, but they differ in important ways. Preservationists were actively enthusiastic about Trump: Nearly half supported him in the primaries and 87 percent said they voted for him more than they voted against Hillary Clinton. They were also heavily invested in nativism: 86 percent said being born in the U.S. was an important part of being an American, and 77 percent said the same about being Christian. Two-thirds considered race important to their identity; only about half reported warm feelings toward racial minorities. This is not a group Democrats can attract in substantial numbers.

Anti-elites—the Trump voters most likely to have bipartisan voting habits—are another story. Only a quarter of them voted for Trump in the primaries, and nearly half said they voted more against Clinton than for Trump. Compared with Preservationists, smaller percentages said that being born in the U.S. is important to being American (58 percent) and that being Christian is (49 percent). About two-thirds of Anti-elites expressed warm feelings toward racial minorities (though far fewer of them expressed warm feelings toward Muslims). Crucially, only 13 percent of them believed their children would achieve a standard of living better than their own. This is the group Democrats should target. But there’s one sure way to guarantee failure: smug condescension that lumps all Trump voters together as uninformed racists.

In fact, when we shift our focus from overt racial bias (like that demonstrated by use of the N-word) to implicit bias (which shapes whether we see someone as, say, competent or dangerous), elite people come off no better than working-class ones. College grads score just as high in implicit racial bias as people without a college degree. Ditto physicians, M.B.A.s, and most other holders of postgraduate degrees. Different social classes simply have different styles of racism. Blue-collar white people, who tend to pride themselves on morality, may be more likely than elite white people to stereotype black people as lacking in morality. This is not pretty, but elites shouldn’t start feeling superior just yet. Elites, who are more likely than others to pride themselves on academic or intellectual merit, often assume people of color lack it. This may help explain why, in one famous experiment, a résumé labeled “Jamal” required eight extra years of experience to generate the same interest as one labeled “Greg.”

Where you find white people, you will find racism. All white Americans need to fight it. They also need to stop misusing anti-racism as an excuse for snobbery.

With each Trump -fueled outrage, people on Twitter ask whether I’m finally ready to admit that the white working class is simply racist. What my Twitter friends don’t seem to recognize is their own privilege. If elites cling to the idea that working-class whites are perpetrators of inequality, rather than both perpetrators and victims, perhaps it’s because they want to believe that they are where they are because they’ve worked hard and they’re the smartest people around. Once you start a conversation about class, elite white people have to admit they have not only racial privilege but class privilege, too.

Acknowledging this also requires elites to cede yet another advantage: the extent to which they have controlled Democrats’ priorities. Political scientists have documented the party’s shift over the past 50 years from a coalition focused on blue-collar issues to one dominated by environmentalism and other issues elites cherish.

I’m one of those activists; environmentalism and concerns related to gender, race, and sexuality define my scholarship and my identity. But the working class has been asked to endure a lot of economic pain while Democrats focus on other problems. It’s time to listen up. The only effective antidote to a populism interlaced with racism is a populism that isn’t.

Research for this piece was provided by Sky Mihaylo, a policy fellow at UC Hastings.     

JOAN C. WILLIAMS is a professor and the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. She is the author of White Working Class and the co-author, with Rachel Dempsey, of What Works for Women at Work.


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