It’s not all about the culture war – Democrats helped shaft the working class
Results in Virginia and New Jersey do not make Republican dog-whistle politics the future. The left must do more to help
Last modified on Sun 7 Nov 2021 01.03 EDT
After Tuesday’s Democratic loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election and near-loss in New Jersey, I’m hearing a narrative about Democrats’ failure with white working-class voters that is fundamentally wrong.
In Thursday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that the non-college voters who are abandoning the Democratic party “tend to be more religious, more outwardly patriotic and more culturally conservative than college graduates”. He then quotes a fellow Times columnist, the pollster Nate Cohn, who says “college graduates have instilled increasingly liberal cultural norms while gaining the power to nudge the Democratic party to the left. Partly as a result, large portions of the party’s traditional working-class base have defected to the Republicans”.
Leonhardt adds that these defections have increased over the past decade and suggests Democratic candidates start listening to working-class voters’ concerns about “crime and political correctness”, their “mixed feelings about immigration and abortion laws”, and their beliefs “in God and in a strong America”.
This narrative worries me in two ways. First, if “cultural” messages top economic ones, what’s to stop Democrats from playing the same cultural card Republicans have used for years to inflame the white working class: racism? Make no mistake: Glenn Youngkin focused his campaign in Virginia on critical race theory, which isn’t even taught in Virginia’s schools but comes out of the same disgraceful Republican dog-whistle tradition.
The other problem with this “culture over economics” narrative is it overlooks the fact that after Ronald Reagan, the Democratic party turned its back on the working class.
During the first terms of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. They scored some important victories, such as the Affordable Care Act and an expanded earned income tax credit.
But both Clinton and Obama allowed the power of the working class to erode. Both ardently pushed for free trade agreements without providing the millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.
They stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the working class. Both refused to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated them or enable workers to form unions with simple up-or-down votes. Union membership sank from 22% of all workers when Clinton was elected to fewer than 11% today, denying the working class the bargaining leverage it needs to get a better deal.
The Obama administration protected Wall Street from the consequences of its gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout but let millions of underwater homeowners drown.
Both Clinton and Obama allowed antitrust to ossify – allowing major industries to become more concentrated and hence more economically and politically powerful.
Finally, they turned their backs on campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to reject public financing in his primary and general-election campaigns. He never followed up on his re-election campaign promise to pursue a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United v FEC, the 2010 supreme court opinion that opened the floodgates to big money in politics.
What happens when you combine freer trade, shrinking unions, Wall Street bailouts, growing corporate power and the abandonment of campaign finance reform? You shift political and economic power to the wealthy and you shaft the working class.
Adjusted for inflation, American workers today are earning almost as little as they did 30 years ago, when the American economy was a third its present size.
Biden’s agenda for working people – including lower prescription drug prices, paid family leave, stronger unions and free community college – has followed the same sad trajectory, due to the power of big money. Big Pharma has blocked prescription drug reform. A handful of Democratic senators backed by big money have refused to support paid family leave. Big money has killed labor law reform.
Democrats could win back the white working class by putting together a large coalition of the working class and poor, of whites, Blacks and Latinos, of everyone who has been shafted by the huge shift in wealth and power to the top. This would give Democrats the political clout to reallocate power in the economy – rather than merely enact palliatives that paper over the increasing concentration of power at the top.
But to do this Democrats would have to end their financial dependence on big corporations, Wall Street and the wealthy. And they would have to reject the convenient story that American workers care more about cultural issues than about getting a better deal in an economy that’s been delivering them a worsening deal for decades.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist. His newsletter is at robertreich.substack.com
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