Democrats in the United States have obsessed about winning back working-class whites since these voters left the party to elect Donald Trump last year.
Even Ruy Teixeira, the author of the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis which holds that ethnic minorities, women and postindustrial workers will ultimately shift the balance of power away from the white working class, tells New York magazine that Democrats cannot ignore the group.
They may be a shrinking demographic, but he points out they still hold power. If Democrats can’t retain a reasonably solid, if minority, level of support among low-income whites, their electoral arithmetic falls apart, Teixeira warns.
Lending credence to his argument is the fact that the “emerging majority” is distributed inefficiently.
“The Republicans have far more 55–45 seats and the Democrats have too many 80–20 seats,” according to Teixeira.
Ethnic minorities and college graduates are concentrated in the major cities while the voting system gives an advantage to rural areas. It is how Trump could become president despite winning three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.
Teixeira expects that Trump will fail to deliver on his promises — health care that “takes care of everybody”, halting the decline of the coal industry, bringing back manufacturing — and this will give Democrats an opening to pry back working-class voters from the right.
Maybe. But so far, these voters haven’t been swayed by economic arguments.
Democrats can argue all they want that their policies are better for the working poor than Republicans’; research suggests that the populist backlash — in both America and Europe — is motivated far more by cultural than economic anxieties.
The dilemma Democrats face is not unique. Social democrats in Canada and Europe are also torn between deemphasizing progressive social policies in order to win back working-class support and siding with the socially progressive middle class.
Social democrats in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have leaned toward the former and lost anyway.
Canada’s Liberals and Italy’s Democrats have opted for the latter strategy and won.
The parable isn’t perfect. The big divisive cultural issue in Europe is immigration. In the United States, race relations and social norms are no less controversial.
But that makes a strategy of accommodation with the reactionary instincts of the Trumpenproletariat even less attractive to Democrats. It would mean disassociating the party from causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, because they offend common folks’ desire for social order.
If Trump governs the way he campaigned, Democrats are more likely to be pushed into defending diversity, internationalism and redistribution.
Those causes could galvanize minorities and liberal college graduates, who together form a national majority.
Clinton lost because she underperformed with working-class whites in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. But she outperformed previous Democrats, including Barack Obama, in Sun Belt states like Arizona and Georgia.
She also did better than Obama with middle-income voters.
Americans with a college, but not a postgraduate, degree opted for Mitt Romney over Obama by 14 points in 2012. They split their support between Clinton and Trump four years later.
These middle-class voters are mostly white but increasingly diverse; temperamentally conservative but increasingly relaxed about liberal social norms. Trump’s crude nationalism and incompetence is turning them away from the Republican Party, but they might think twice about defecting if the Democrats start emphasizing working-class interests as well.