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Did the White Working Class Abandon the Democratic Party Because It’s Not Left-Wing Enough on Economics?

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It’s a simple, oft-told story. The problem is, the historical evidence for the proposition that good liberal policy is inevitable good politics has always been scant. Osita Nwanevu’s essay is brilliant and should be read in its entirety, but is especially good on this point. The most obvious problem with the “Appalachian whites without college degrees are demanding MOAR SOCIALISM” narrative is that the WWC exodus happened…immediately after one of the two most progressive administrations of the last century:

It’s a story both simple and substantially untrue. In fact, the decline in white working class support for the Democratic Party at the presidential level began well before the party’s retreat from progressivism and pro-worker politics. Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, and Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who presciently identified the disenfranchised white working class as a force to be reckoned with nearly 20 years ago in America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, laid out the timeline of their departure from the Democratic Party’s coalition in a 2008 Brookings working paper called “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class”. According to Teixeira and Abramowitz, the Democratic vote among whites without college degrees fell from an average of 55 percent in the 1960 and 1964 elections to 35 in the 1968 and 1972 elections—a decline of 20 points in just over a decade. What happened during the 1960s? Had the Party moved substantially to the center? Had the Party become less committed to progressive social programs that would help struggling whites? To the contrary—the 1960s and two Democratic administrations brought the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the expansion of Social Security benefits, the revival of food stamps, minimum wage increases, the launch of the Head Start early childhood education program for lower-income children, increased federal funding for public education, the creation of the Job Corps youth employment program and other vocational education programs, and a dizzying array of other government initiatives that constituted the most expansive array of progressive successes since the New Deal. None of it mattered.

An additional problem is that the Democratic candidates since 1968 who have done best with the WWC are the two most conservative ones:

Those voters never really looked back. The theory that they would have had the Party offered up truly economically progressive candidates has to contend with the failed candidacies of George McGovern in 1972, whom Nixon trounced with 70 percent of the white working class vote and the staunchly pro-labor and union-backed Walter Mondale, whom neoliberal archdaemon Ronald Reagan trounced with 65 percent of their vote in 1984. Since 1968, two Democratic presidential candidates have done well with the white working class: Jimmy Carter, who dramatically outperformed George McGovern in the demographic by running as a conservative Democrat against Ford in 1976, and the DLC-anointed bubba neoliberal Bill Clinton. Ross Perot’s insurgent populism and his warning that NAFTA would produce a “giant sucking sound” as blue-collar jobs were lost to Mexico failed, ultimately, to prevent the man who backed and signed NAFTA from winning narrow pluralities of the white working class vote in 1992 and 1996.

Again, none of this means that the Democratic Party’s leftward shift is wrong. Clinton showed that it’s possible to win on a progressive agenda, and trying to reassemble Bill Clinton’s coalition wouldn’t work even if the policy consequences wouldn’t be so undesirable. But the simple narrative that the WWC would fully embrace the post-Civil Rights Act Democratic Party if only it was less neoliberal is supported by pretty much nothing.

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