John Buell

Democrats and the White Working Class

Democrats have increasingly become a party of minorities. Liberals’ concerns for minority rights is commendable, but it becomes problematic when the party advocating those rights deserts working class whites offer a whole generation. That desertion has taken the form not only of policy choices but also of rhetoric. Hillary Clinton’s inapt choice of deplorables was hardly the first or last open expression of contempt for working class males. Obama’s snide reference to voting based on guns and Bibles helped establish the pattern, and it has been matched in some of the post-election commentary. William Connolly summarizes this plight: “The white working class was and is caught in a squeeze between neoliberal inequality and pluralization policies that left them out in the cold as the one ‘identity’ not deserving help.”

No one better exemplifies that condescension than Paul Krugman. Recently he pontificated: “Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem “

Krugman need look no farther than the bipartisan consensus on banks and trade and its long term consequences to understand why an anti-establishment candidate could gain so much traction. Krugman himself up until very recently has been a supporter of corporate trade deals and has ridiculed those who have emphasized their inegalitarian implications and anti-democratic implementation and substance. Their consequences have been dire.

EXTRA editor Jim Naureckas points out: “Over the past 40 years or so, median income in the US has stagnated while income going to the very wealthy has soared; inequality of wealth has climbed to the point where the top 0.1% own as much as the bottom 90%. This has proceeded under Republican and Democratic presidencies alike.”

Just as basically, it is hardly clear that immediate economic self-interest is or should be the variable that always shapes voting behavior. That a candidate listens to and expresses the concerns of the voter may be at least of equal significance. And just what constitutes self-interest may be shaped by ideology. Krugman himself, a highly compensated elite academic, would retain more of his income were Trump’s tax plan to be implemented, yet he did not vote for Trump.

HRC might have mitigated some of these disadvantages had she articulated an alternative political economic agenda. She chose instead to run by spreading fears about her rival, who was doing enough on his own. UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck reports: “Only 9% of Mrs. Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34% of Mr. Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade.” She compounded these faults and undermined any class solidarity by assuring the electorate that it was okay to vote for down-ballot Republicans.

Despite his anti-establishment rhetoric, Trump’s domestic policy is likely to be, in part, just more Republican orthodoxy. He is proposing a supply side economics on steroids. Josh Bevins reports “The top 1% will get 47% of the total benefits in the Trump tax plan, while the bottom 60% will get just 10%. Worse, large numbers of working-class taxpayers will see tax increases under Trump … “

In addition to criticizing the manifest inequity of these proposals, liberal and left critics should highlight their inefficiency. The top 1% will put most of these funds into financial instruments, thereby creating more bubbles and few jobs. Moreover, soaring deficits producing few benefits will become an occasion for mainstream attack Medicare and Social Security funding. Equivalent sums invested in renewable energy, public transit and conservation initiatives would yield far more jobs with much less strain on the budget.

Ethan Pollack of the EPI argues “Not only are many of these stimulus options more effective, but they also have the added benefit of assisting those hardest hit by the downturn and tackling long-standing infrastructure needs that would lower transportation costs, decrease traffic, and increase business productivity.”

Trump will likely endorse some version of neonationalism. Bevins speculates: “He might slap large, arbitrary tariffs on imports from countries he doesn’t … like, but such tariffs {may} encourage foreign producers to set up facilities in the United States to avoid tariffs, create economic weakness in our trading partners, and/or encourage retaliatory tariffs, [and may] increase America’s trade deficit.”

Liberal office holders can be expected to and will likely oppose this agenda. A large part of that opposition must be efforts to make explicit to all working class citizens the ways Trump’s agenda undermines the promise he has made to them.

But equally important is doing what the Clinton campaign failed at, presenting not just a positive alternative but a compelling vision of a multicultural movement to address both inequality and the climate crisis. Professor Leon Fink and Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute suggest: “An important place to start is by writing legally binding wage standards into trade agreements, which would apply to all participating countries, backed up by effective enforcement mechanisms. This would be a step towards creating a global minimum wage system that would increase wages across all borders and thereby relieve the pressure of cross-border competition.”

Dramatic gestures to buy off multinational job exporters will work only at great cost to the Treasury and are likely to generate bipartisan opposition. If Democrats hope to survive as a party they need to have clear job-creating proposals of their own.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2017

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