The Lopsided Political Dialogue With the Working Class
Democrats need to get comfortable with using the term "working class," or risk losing those voters to Trump, who at least gives voice to their anxiety.
Thursday night, Trump spent considerable air time speaking (more like yelling) about how America’s steel and coal workers have been ignored and sold-out for decades by both political parties. He promised to bring back those long-disappearing jobs and to put their needs front and center in his administration. As the daughter of a steel worker, I admit it was nice to finally hear someone talk about how the old industrial working class was robbed of their dignity and livelihood, with little regard for the devastation left behind.
But that working class — the blue-collar, hard-hat, mostly male archetype of the great post-war prosperity — is long gone. In its place is a new working class whose jobs are in the now massive sectors of our serving and caring economy. And so far, neither Trump nor Clinton have talked about this new working class, which is much more female and racially diverse than the one of my dad’s generation. With Trump’s racially charged and nativistic rhetoric, he’s offering red meat to a group of Americans who have every right to be angry — but not at the villains Trump has served up.
The decades-long destruction of American manufacturing profoundly changed the working class — neighborhoods, jobs and families. What had once been nearly universal, guaranteed well-paying jobs for young men fresh from high school graduation were yanked overseas with little regard for the devastation left behind.
To add insult to injury, the loss of manufacturing jobs was often heralded as a sign of progress. As the economic contribution of these former working-class heroes to our nation dwindled and the technology revolution sizzled, in many people’s minds, millions of men became zeroes. They seemed to be a dusty anachronism in a sparkling new economy.
Black men, who had fought for decades for their right to these well-paying jobs, watched them evaporate just as they were finally admitted to competitive apprenticeships and added to seniority lists. When capital fled for Mexico or China, the shuttered factories in America’s biggest cities left a giant vacuum in their wake, decimating a primary source of jobs for black men that would never be replaced.
The economic vacuum would be filled with a burgeoning underground economy in the drug trade, which was met with a militarized war on drugs rather than an economic development plan. That war continues today — the scaffolding upon which our prison industrial complex is built and the firmament upholding the police brutality and oppression in black communities that result in far too many unarmed black men being shot and killed by police.
As for the once privileged, white working-class man, the dignity and sense of self-worth that came with a union contract and the trappings of middle-class life are sorely missed and their absence bitterly resented. In the absence of real commitments from either political party to promote high-quality job creation for workers without college degrees, conservative talk-radio’s echo chamber and the rhetoric of far-right conservative politicians have concocted a story about who is winning (and taking from government) in this post-industrial economy: African-Americans and immigrants.
These are the contours shaping our nation’s political debate.
Donald Trump has hitched his presidential wagon to the pain of the white working class, though far more rhetorically than substantively. With his anti-immigrant pledge to “build a wall” and his unicorn promises to rip up trade agreements and bring manufacturing jobs back to our shores, Trump promises to make the white working class “winners” again.
But the sad reality is that his campaign represents nothing more than yet another cynical political ploy to tap the racial anxiety and economic despair felt by white working-class men. It is a salve to soothe with no real medicine for healing the underlying wound.
Trump, and the Republican Party more broadly, offer no solutions or even promises to address the grave economic insecurity of the broader working class today, whose jobs are more likely to be in fast food, retail, home health care and janitorial services than on an assembly line. Unlike their predecessors, today’s working class toils in a labor market where disrespect — in the form of low wages, erratic schedules, zero or few sick days and arbitrary discipline — is ubiquitous. Gone are the unions and workplace protections that created a blue-collar middle class — the best descriptor for my own family background. Today’s working class punch the clock in a country with the largest percentage of low-paid workers among advanced nations, with the paychecks of African-Americans and immigrants plunging even further, particularly among women.
Thanks to the brave action and demands of movements like Fight for $15, United We Dream and Black Lives Matter, the Democratic Party is finally offering a robust official platform to improve the lives of today’s working class, not the one of my father’s generation. After decades in which working-class plight went largely overlooked by the Democrats in favor of a more centrist, pro-business stance, the party’s progressive economic shift should claim broad support among the new working class. As noted in my book, Sleeping Giant, unlike a generation ago, today’s working class is multiracial and much more female — more than one-third of today’s working class are people of color. Nearly half (47 percent) of today’s young working class, those aged 25-34, are not white people. And two-thirds of non-college educated women are in the paid labor force, up from about half in 1980.
The Democratic Party, both through its platform and its candidate, supports higher wages, paid sick days, affordable child care, college without debt and reifying the right to a union. With a platform more progressive than any in recent history, especially on economic and racial justice issues, there should be no doubt that the Democratic Party is the champion of the working class, at least on the merits. But most people don’t read party platforms or study policy positions. Instead, they listen and watch, waiting for cues that a candidate “gets” them and is actually talking to them.
For despite the platform language and Hillary Clinton’s stated positions, the Democratic Party hasn’t been talking to the working class. The words “working class” seem all but erased from the Democratic lexicon — in its speeches, ads and on its social media. The party’s language still clings to vague notions of “working people” or “hard-working Americans” or the false notion of a ubiquitous “middle class.” It may well be that the party has bought the political spin that “working class” is code for “white and male” — but actually, it’s people of color who are much more likely to consider themselves working class. And as the party of racial and social justice, Democrats are missing a big opportunity to sell its economic platform to this new working class.
The General Social Survey, a long-running public opinion survey, found in 2014 that 46 percent of respondents identified themselves as working class compared to 42 percent who identify as middle class. Black and Latino individuals were much more likely than whites to identify as working class. Six out of 10 Latinos and 56 percent of blacks consider themselves working class, compared to just 42 percent of whites. In fact, in every year since the early 1970s, the percentage of Americans who identify as working class has ranged between 44 and 50 percent. Interestingly, younger people are also more likely to consider themselves working class, with 55 percent of 18-29 year olds identifying as working class compared to 36 percent who identify as middle class.
Yet Trump has won the rhetorical war for the working class — despite his pitch being narrowly tailored to disaffected white men. There is no doubt in my mind that the Democratic Party is the party of the working class — white, black and brown — at least substantively. But by failing to explicitly use the term “working class,” the party risks not being heard by the very voters who have the most at stake in this election.