The white working class has only itself to blame for its troubles
I’m a son of the white working class, though the working class I came from is long dead and buried. It looked and acted nothing like the working class of today.
My father was a strong union man who voted for every Democratic nominee from Al Smith in 1928 to Jimmy Carter in 1976. So did millions of other working people of his era.
I know if he were alive today he’d be true to his roots. He’d be leading a charge for Hillary and would be appalled not just at Donald Trump, but also at the naivete of those working class whites who support him so fervently.
The white working class — defined as whites without a college degree —had begun to change in the last decade of my father’s life (he died in 1978). The first stirring of a shift started in 1968, when Alabama Governor George Wallace won 13% of the popular vote along with the electoral votes of several deep south states. It was then that a small but growing number of once reliably Democratic union members began to break ranks.
They were taken aback at the student protests of the era and were suspicious of the gains made by the black working class in the early years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of them thought the Democratic party had lost its bearings. After Wallace, working class voters gradually warmed to Nixon, with millions of them rejecting George McGovern in 1972 .
By 1980 the stampede of working class whites away from the Democrats hit full speed. The “Reagan Democrats” were a real force. Reagan’s racist dog-whistle campaigns in both 1980 and 1984 succeeded in breaking the old New Deal coalition that had survived since the 1930s.
From 1968 to 2004 Republicans won 7 of 10 presidential elections, and by the last one of those wins the Republican party could rightly say that it had taken away working class white voters from the Democrats as a major voting bloc.
This trend continued in 2008 and 2012 as these voters gave John McCain and Mitt Romney majorities worthy of Franklin Roosevelt.
This Tuesday, these voters may well give Donald Trump an even bigger margin. In fact, the white working class has become something of a media darling, because it’s painted as a group “left behind” by the Washington elites of BOTH parties. Trump has played to this notion and millions of these voters have flocked to his rallies and have bought into his message of hate and his denunciation of American trade policy.
It’s true in many respects that they have been left behind — but they’ve been left behind because of how they voted. Consider this checklist:
Free Trade: It’s been a bedrock policy of the Republican Party for years. White working class Republicans knew this fully — or should have — as they voted in one GOP administration after another. Did free trade hurt these folks? Yes. Did they keep supporting Republicans? Yes. Did they fear gay marriage and minority ascendance more than free trade? Yes.
Unions: The sharp decline of the US labor movement began in 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired thousands of striking air-traffic controllers. Since then, weakening the labor laws around the nation — and national labor policy in general— have been high priorities of Republican candidates. A private industry workforce that was once 25% unionized is now about 6%. The impact has been dramatic — American wages have stagnated as unions have lost power. Did these anti-union policies hurt the white working class? Yes. Have they been complicit in their decline? Yes. Did they buy the narrative that they should worry more about high taxes and government regulation and high taxes more than losing their unions? Yes.
Tax Policy: From Reagan through Bush 43, Republicans continuously pushed for massive tax cuts that dramatically favored wealthy households, not working households. Increases in the payroll tax, on the other hand, were steep and unforgiving. Did the white working class step forward and support these policies? Yes. Did they buy into the narrative that we needed to cut taxes on the wealthy? Yes. Did these tax policies hurt them? Yes.
So now the white working class has found Donald Trump, the man who will supposedly give them their voice back, the man who will reopen the steel mills and the coal mines of the rust belt, the man who will deport millions of illegal Mexicans who have driven down their wages (as if their broken unions had nothing to do with that).
Trump, of course, would do nothing for them if he’s elected. Tearing up trade deals and declaring that he will bring back jobs that are from another era is shear fantasy. And he’ll keep busting what is left of their unions.
It’s tragic and regrettable what has happened to the white working class. But there have been plenty of voices — even within their own number — who pleaded for these voters to never heed the siren call of the dog-whistle Republican racists and union busters. But they didn’t listen. Instead, they voted for the policies that have hurt them.
They brought this on themselves. And what is very interesting is that Hillary Clinton will be there — if elected — to throw them a lifeline.
Will they take it?