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A Way Forward on the Working Class


What Democrats should do about the working class is something that has been a difficult question since November for many reasons. First is that pundits and journalists and politicians equate “the working class” with “the white working class” which is not only a huge error but is also racist. Second, lots of wealthier Democrats have wanted to flush appeals to the white working class down the toilet because of a stereotypical assumption that they are all racist and misogynist. I do think Jon Ossoff is the right candidate for GA-6, or at least as good as Democrats are going to get in a tough rich southern suburban district like that, but there was also clearly hope from a lot of people that highly educated white people like Ossoff are the future of the party and that’s just not going to fly.

Democrats (and the self-descried left more broadly, which let’s face it, is made up mostly of middle class white people too) absolutely do need a working class strategy, one that makes appeals to all races without prioritizing one group of working people over another. I more or less liked this Ronald Klain op-ed in the Post as a starting point.

Democrats should respond to this — not by writing off white working-class voters, or by mimicking Trump’s divisive rhetoric and hollow promises — but with a combination of honest talk and a new social and economic contract for the working class.

The honest talk starts with unapologetically reminding Trump’s working-class voters that immigrants — like their own ancestors — have always made America greater, bringing new energy, ideas and job-creating businesses to our country. It means telling them (as President Barack Obama did), that the “time has passed” when “you didn’t have to have an education . . . [and] you could . . . get a [good] job.” It means rejecting economic nostalgia, and embracing technology and innovation; when these forces are shaped by the right policies and a fair tax system, they can create a stronger middle class in our country, as they have during earlier periods of economic transformation.

A new social and economic contract for the working class would include replacing the confusing mishmash of higher education plans with a clear program to make four years of education after high school free and universal. It should include defending and then building on the Affordable Care Act so that every American has health coverage without fear or doubt. It should ensure that benefits such as unemployment compensation and workers comp are available to all, whether they are employees or contract workers. It should make affordable child care a right (not a scavenger hunt) and life-long skills training an American area of excellence.

But like any true contract, this set of benefits must be paired with obligations. This includes an uncompromising insistence that the economy it creates will be inclusive — and that, with a program in place to restore economic opportunity for those who have been left behind, there can be no excuses for resentment of America’s growing diversity. It also includes acceptance that young people will have to get education after high school, working adults will have to continually improve their skills, and some long-beloved occupations will be replaced with new jobs. The nostalgia for an America where brawn alone was enough to create a middle-class life and where a comfortable stagnation was revered as “tradition” must be abandoned.

I’m not saying this is going to work per se, or that it will draw back in all those Erie and Scranton white people who voted for Trump. But it’s the right kind of message. Democrats will stand up for you and create a better America. It will fight for a higher minimum wage, better health care, free college education, and a lot more. And it will apply to all of us–regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and legal status. I don’t like everything Klain has to say, including the easy bromides about post-high school education that liberals love but that serve as a cover for the fact that they don’t actually have an economic plan for working people, some of whom simply are not ever going to be college material but deserve a dignified life anyway. And it’s way too friendly to DISRUPTORS who demonstrate TRUE DISRUPTION by building gigantic suburban office parks, something no one has ever, ever, ever thought of before. The whole message needs work. But as a mainstream Democratic set of talking points and strategy, we could do worse.

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