Mapping the White Working Class ...
To escape from this box, progressives must recognize that the white working class is not a monolith, but contains a wide diversity of political views. About half of non-college-educated whites identify as conservatives, and nearly all of them have become reliable Republican voters. On the other end of the spectrum is a small group of liberals, who regularly vote for Democrats. Consequently, most working-class whites are either completely unavailable to progressive candidates or (less commonly) already in the progressive camp.
In between is a critically important subset of potentially persuadable voters, the white working-class moderates, or “WWCMs.” About 35 percent of working-class whites have moderate or “middle of the road” political views, which means WWCMs represent about 15 percent of the overall electorate, or approximately 23 million registered voters. While Trump won the working class conservatives by an overwhelming 85 points (Clinton got a mere 6 percent), he had a much smaller 26-point margin among the WWCMs. That margin is double Mitt Romney’s 13-point edge in 2012, and this swing had a decisive impact. If Clinton had performed as well as Obama with those moderates, it would have doubled her national popular vote margin from 2 percent to 4 percent. Even if she had just lost ground among these voters at the same rate she did among white working-class conservatives, she would almost certainly have won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Several months before the election, I conducted a deep study of these moderate working-class white voters on behalf of Americans for a Fair Deal. We convened eight focus groups with these voters in Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Appleton, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rather than focusing on the presidential candidates, we held broader discussions about the nation and its political system, and explored both the barriers and opportunities that progressives face in working-class communities. Sadly, I cannot report that these sessions “solved” the puzzle of the white working class. But the research findings confirm the real possibility that progressives could make inroads with these voters in the future, and take an important first step forward in identifying strategies for reaching them. ,,,
There are many progressive policy priorities that might lend themselves to such organizing, including tax fairness, job creation though community investment, and affordable higher education. Let me suggest just one issue that usually receives little attention but illustrates the kind of concrete impact on working-class lives we need. The WWCMs we spoke with strongly embraced the idea of expanding programs that help non-college-bound youth get the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. This issue could really have surprising power as an organizing issue. Many working-class voters (and others) worry that public schools focus exclusively on preparing students for college, while neglecting the equally important task of preparing non-college-bound students for successful transitions into the workforce. They enthusiastically endorse proposals to provide quality vocational education, apprenticeships, and other programs that would expand opportunities for young Americans—including many of their own children and grandchildren—who are unlikely to pursue a four-year degree after high school. ...
Engaging this critical bloc of voters is an enormously challenging project for the progressive movement, and will be the work of years if not decades. Our research did not unearth a magic bullet that will transform white working-class voters into progressives. But we did find clear openings that give progressives a chance for productive dialogue and engagement with the white working class. It is absolutely possible to erode some of the barriers standing between progressives and white working people. If progressives are willing to engage them in a smart and targeted way, they will make significant gains within white working-class communities in the years ahead.