Democracy & Government

It’s Not How Many They Are But Where They Are Many

Geography matters. And unlike some other groups in the Democrats' coalition, white working-class voters go to the polls regularly.

It's Not How Many They Are But Where They Are Many

Jake Krupa colors in an electoral map as states projected for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at an election watching party in Coconut Grove, Florida, on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo credit should read Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at Hullabaloo.

The American Prospect posted a large cache of articles Thursday on how Democrats can win back the white working class. Those are fighting words for friends still bitter about Hillary Clinton’s loss and Donald Trump’s win last Nov. 8. There is fear that in pursuing Moby Fred, the great White Male, Democrats will abandon their diverse, urban progressive base. As if voters in predominantly rural, predominantly white, red states are a) racists, b) christo-fascists and c) conservatives diametrically opposed to everything progressives hold dear. (Not to paint with a broad brush or anything.) As if that’s true, and as if forfeiting rural districts is a real choice.

Stanley Greenberg suggests the issue actually is broader: “Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class problem.’ They have a ‘working-class problem’” that includes minorities, unmarried women and millennials. But my interest is in reaching rural voters.

Rural voters are not monolithic. Even Democrats among them are not even consistent about how they vote.

Truth is, rural voters are not monolithic. Even Democrats among them are not even consistent about how they vote, making projecting Democratic turnout in my R+14, 91 percent white, 56 percent rural congressional district rather complicated. There are old-school, Yellow Dog Democrats who wouldn’t vote Republican if you put a gun to their heads. We have voters registered as Democrats, raised as Democrats, who have always been Democrats, yet vote Republican; they just never changed registration. Others are conservative-leaning Democrats who faithfully vote Democrat in state and local elections, but vote Republican in presidential races. (Montana and North Carolina both voted for Trump in November and elected Democrats for governor.) Two couples I love dearly are former Republicans who “saw the right” and crossed over. Another former Republican and Democratic organizer retains his Republican registration as camouflage.

Plus, there are growing numbers of independents put off by established politicians of both parties. Donald Trump won my mountain district last November. In the primary, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by over 10 points.

If you don’t live in one of the 32 states where Republicans have a lock on the state legislature, you may have the luxury of writing off the rural working class. The rest of us don’t.* Those are voters (not all white and not all male) I need if Democrats here ever expect to get back control of the North Carolina legislature. Inconveniently, they don’t live in state House and Senate districts with coffee houses and brew pubs on every corner. Hillary Clinton may have won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but — besides winning her the presidency — they would have done more good if they were concentrated in some state House and Senate districts Democrats need to win back before the next redistricting. With the white working class, it’s not how many they are but where they are many. Geography matters. And unlike some other groups in the Democrats’ coalition, they vote regularly.

In perhaps the most significant of The American Prospect posts, “Winning (Some) Middle-of-the-Road Working-Class Whites,” Andrew Levison examines the opinions of a battery of focus groups Hart Research carefully selected to uncover how persuadable voters in rural districts make their choices:

In discussions about the white working class, in particular, the objective frequently becomes defined as “winning back the white working class” in general rather than “winning back the persuadable sector of the working class.” The first is an impractical objective that leads to impractical strategic ideas; the second is the basis for any successful political strategy.

So the Hart Research/Fair Deal project sought voters with less than a college education who were either independent or weak Democrats or Republicans. In heterogeneous groups, the loudest, most doctrinaire tend to hold the floor and the middle-of-the-roaders go unheard. So the Hart Research grouped “young men, older men, young women and older women” together. People among like-minded peers tend to speak more freely.

What they found was that many are “cultural traditionalists,” but that is not the same as being conservative. They value hard work, small business and being independent, but are not “free enterprise” or “free market” zealots. They want work that provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. They support the military. But Levison found something interesting:

It is rarely understood that for working-class people, a career in the military is widely seen as profoundly admirable, because military service upholds and honors very deeply held and distinctly working-class values: ruggedness and bravery, teamwork and group solidarity, loyalty and self-sacrifice. In the rest of American culture, these virtues are given a much lower value than more middle-class values like intellectual ability, acquisitiveness, ambition, competitiveness and the achievement of material success. For high school–educated young men and women who are often not “successful” in these latter terms, the armed forces provide them with the opportunity to be seen as role models and heroes to their parents, families, friends and communities. In the eyes of working-class Americans, “our men and women in uniform” are in essence the most important “working-class heroes.”

And these voters value tolerance. Levison writes:

In the focus groups, tolerant attitudes appeared again and again. Workers expressed “live and let live” attitudes about a wide range of issues connected to privacy, choice and freedom. Various participants insisted that they “don’t want to try to run other people’s lives.” They were willing to accept a wide range of behavior that they personally might object to as long as it did not impinge on their own choices and way of life.

Lizz Winstead tells a joke about encountering such voters while canvassing for marriage equality in Minnesota. She puts on her best Minnesota accent to voice a woman who told her, “Well, I don’t know if I want two guys getting married … but I don’t want to be a jerk about it.” These are those voters. Unlike doctrinaire conservatives, they take an “on the one hand, on the other hand” view of issues. Use of the word “but” is not just a fluke, but common.

The flip side of such workers’ support for tolerance, however, is a demand for respect for their own choices, lifestyle and views. The men in the focus groups felt that the traditional values they were taught as children are good values and deserve respect. They deeply value core elements of traditional working-class culture like religious faith, patriotism and individual responsibility, and they do not accept the view that such values should be treated as inherently ignorant or reactionary. In fact, it is this dismissal of their values and culture that produces the greatest antagonism toward Democrats and progressives.

Tolerance cuts both ways, and these voters are keenly aware of it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to winning such voters is their intense distrust of both parties. Levison writes:

“Common sense,” “middle of the road” white workers don’t see politicians as divided into left or right. They see them as all part of a single corrupt and parasitic new ruling class. Their hostility constitutes a modern form of class consciousness.

But they don’t view the world through the same lens as ideological conservatives. They don’t recite a list of conservative policies. They want candidates who see themselves as public servants of sound character, and ethical, not self-seekers who view politics as a vehicle for personal enrichment.

Yet just as there are Democrats who won’t vote for Republicans under any circumstances, there are some working-class voters who feel the same about Democrats. Quantifying the persuadables among them is the trickiest bit. Candidates will walk a fine line to attract such voters without watering down the messages that activate Democratic base voters to go to the polls:

At the level of congressional districts and other more local elections, the GOP now routinely wins elections for a vast range of offices in significant measure by winning the support of very substantial majorities of white working-class voters. The GOP dominance among these voters then gives them control of state governments and the House of Representatives, resulting in conservative “veto power” over all social reform. To contest this dominance, Democrats must run campaigns in many districts where white working people are the largest single group in the electorate.

But we are where we are, in part, because Democrats chasing the “emerging Democratic majority” saw changing demographics as favoring them in presidential and statewide races. They abandoned the countryside, focusing instead on the concentrations of blue voters in the cities. That left the plains and mountain states and rural counties (and their elected seats) to the tender mercies of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Ask the South Vietnamese how holding the cities and leaving the countryside to their opponents worked out.

* Blue America is backing a Bernie Sanders organizer, Matt Coffay, in NC-11, one of those “red zones” that Sanders carried in the 2016 presidential primary.

Tom Sullivan

Tom Sullivan is a columnist and field organizer. He's also a regular contributor at Hullabaloo. Follow him on Twitter: @BloggersRUs.