If the Democrats lose control of the Senate in the fall elections, the Republican party will control both Houses of Congress and a majority of state legislators. Even though President Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republicans picked up a governorship in North Carolina and added to their majority of state legislative seats—3975 to 3319 for the Democrats.
While demography may favor the Democratic coalition in presidential elections, the Republicans have been able to mobilize enough white working class support to overcome the deficit of GOP voters among blacks and the most rapidly-growing U.S. minority group, Latinos. The Democrats have lost white working class voters not only in the racially-polarized South, but in the Northern states as well.
This means that unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who took office at another great economic crisis in American history, Barack Obama is unlikely to bequeath a new Democratic majority in Congress as well as the White House to his successors.
Why does the Democratic party do so poorly with the white working class and middle class? One standard narrative holds that white working class voters who support Republicans vote against their own economic interests. This economic irrationality is then explained in terms of racism, or cultural conservatism, or some other factor.
But are the Democrats really offering white working class voters economic policies worth voting for?
As Thomas Edsall notes, the white working class is positively left-wing on many economic issues:
There are a few — but very few — issues on which the white working class is more liberal than the general public, all of which capture the group’s bread-and-butter concerns: expansion of family, maternity and sick leave; a belief that “Wall Street hurts the American economy more than it helps”; and support for the protection of Medicare benefits.
Most members of the white working class also support a higher minimum wage, Social Security and oppose “free trade” deals with mercantilist nations like South Korea and China that lead to the destruction or offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
The progressive wing of the Democratic party supports many of these white working-class goals. But Democratic progressives are marginalized by establishment congressional Democrats and centrist presidents like Bill Clinton and Obama.
Let’s go down the list of the economic policies that working-class whites favor, and what the mainstream Democrats have offered them:
A higher minimum wage. Recently Obama and mainstream Democrats have endorsed this popular proposal—after decades in which “centrist” Democrats often argued for expanding the earned income tax credit, an indirect subsidy to low-wage employers, instead.
Expansion of family, maternity and sick leave. A few members of Congress have offered legislation for universal family leave paid for out of a payroll tax, of the kind that already exists in California and New Jersey. But this hasn’t been a priority either for Obama or congressional Democrats.
A belief that Wall Street hurts America more than it helps. While a few progressives like Elizabeth Warren have been strong critics of the financial sector, the mainstream Democrats continue to depend on the financial industry for donations and the revolving door continues to spin between Wall Street and the Obama White House and Democratic committees in Congress.
Support for the protection of Medicare benefits. The Democratic advantage on this issue has been weakened by the endorsement by President Obama and other leading Democrats of the conservative conviction that the deficit—driven chiefly by health care—is a grave crisis facing America.
Social Security. Working class voters, white and nonwhite, depend almost entirely on Social Security in their retirement. And yet President Obama proposed to cut Social Security benefits, by altering the measure of inflation adjustments (“chained CPI”), in return for concessions on slightly higher tax rates from the Republicans. The Obama White House has backed away from this proposal, but according to reports it is still on the table.
Trade. A majority of Congressional Democrats now share populist skepticism about trade deals that increase American deficits and erode American manufacturing. But the Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, continues to promote a trade agenda that chiefly serves the interests of U.S. multinationals (many of which avoid paying US taxes) and the investor class.
And then there’s the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. The social programs that enjoy the greatest level of support from white working class voters are universal, non-means-tested programs like Social Security and Medicare which reward work by being funded with payroll taxes.
What, then, did Obama and the Democrats offer these voters, in 2009? A version of the right-wing Heritage Foundation and Massachusetts Romneycare plans, based on means-testing (not universalism), individual mandates (not universal payroll or other taxes) and subsidies to private insurance companies.
FDR and LBJ offered white working class voters universal social insurance programs—Social Security and Medicare—and were rewarded with huge Democratic majorities in Congress and presidential elections, even though the white working class was far more racist and culturally conservative than it is today. Obama and the Democrats in 2009 offered a deeply-flawed version of a pro-business, right-wing health care scheme and may lost Congress this year and the White House in 2016.
Would working-class white voters walk away from great deals like those offered by Roosevelt and Johnson today, because of racism or moral traditionalism? We don’t know, because no Democratic president since LBJ has offered anything resembling the popular New Deal/Great Society entitlements. Carter, Clinton and Obama all ran as populists, but then they governed as moderate economic conservatives with slightly liberal social views. Most of their policy innovations have been means-tested programs like Obamacare focused on helping the poor, not universal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare that help working-class families who may make too much money to qualify for welfare-program means tests.
What prevents Democratic candidates for the White House and Congress in 2016 from running in the primaries and the general election on a campaign to raise the minimum wage, expand Social Security, legislate universal paid family leave, and crack down on foreign nations that cheat at trade? We all know the answer: Democratic donors. Most, though not all, of the rich people who fund the Democrats tend to be economically conservative, even if they are socially liberal. A party funded by fiscally-conservative Wall Street financiers and the intellectual property rentiers of Silicon Valley is not going to pursue the interests of the working class of all races in expanding universal entitlements and substantially raising taxes on the rich, even if its successful candidates strike populist poses in campaigns. A genuinely progressive presidential candidate would never survive the fund-raising “money primary” that comes before the actual voter primaries.
But isn’t the white working class irrational to vote for Republicans who claim they want to destroy middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare? Not necessarily. Paul Ryan can publish all the libertarian budget manifestos he likes, but when it comes to actually voting to cut Social Security or Medicare for the working class, Republican members of Congress inevitably flinch. Working-class white Republican voters have learned that, however much Republicans may slash spending on the poor, they will usually protect benefits for their constituents.
Between Democrats who talk like Roosevelt or LBJ, but offer little or nothing to working-class whites not poor enough to qualify for means-tested welfare, and Republicans who sound like Ayn Rand but end up supporting Social Security and Medicare, the white working class has little to choose from. So non-racist, non-Southern members members tend to identify with the one of the two economically-conservative, plutocrat-funded parties that is dominant in their states and neighborhoods.
The white working class has not rejected the party of pro-working-class economic progressivism, because in today’s America no such party exists. They can’t turn down a new New Deal that nobody offers them.