It’s become an article of faith among some on the right, and even among some neutral commentators, that Obama and Dems risk losing the support of blue collar whites in swing states if they dare to whisper a word of praise for Occupy Wall Street.
But what if the opposite is true — what if working class white voters actually like and agree with Occupy Wall Street’s message, if not always with the cultural and personal instincts of its messengers?
The movement is still very young, and it’s very hard to gauge support for it. But one labor official shares with me a very interesting data point: Working America, the affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes workers from non-union workplaces, has signed up approximately 25,000 new recruits in the last week alone, thanks largely to the high visibility of the protests.
Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America, tells me that this actually dwarfs their most successful recruiting during the Wisconsin protests. “In so many ways, Wisconsin was a preview of what we’re now seeing,” Nussbaum says. “We thought it was big when we got 20,000 members in a month during the Wisconsin protests. This shows how much bigger this is.”
The cultural fault line and tensions between blue collar whites and liberal activists is a well established storyline in American history. But Working America — which organizes in industrial battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania and other swing states — is having a new burst of success among precisely the sort of working class voters who are supposed to be culturally alienated by the excesses of the Occupy Wall Street protestors.
Nussbaum says that her organizers report that new recruits often mention the protests in a positive light, even though they have very little in common in cultural terms.
“These are not the folks who normally wear dreadlocks and participate in drum circles,” Nussbaum says. “They’re working class moderates who work as child care employees or in cafeterias or in construction. They’re people who work in lower middle class suburbs around the country.” Pressed on whether the movement’s excesses and lack of a clear agenda risk alienating such voters, Nussbaum said: “We’re proving every day that that’s not the case.”
I don’t want to overstate the case that can be made off of this kind of anecdotal evidence. And I’m sympathetic to the case made by some conservatives that it’s way too early to place stock in polls showing the movement is well received by the public. But as new polling emerges, it will be very interesting to track how it’s received by working class Americans who conservatives insist will be repulsed by it.
At a minimum, the question of whether Occupy Wall Street can forge any kind of meaningful bond with blue collar whites and moderates will be seen by both sides as a crucial one going forward. Nussbaum acknowledges that conservatives might have some success discrediting the movement “if they can change the subject to what the occupiers are wearing.”
“But if we keep the subject on jobs and democracy, we’ll keep those working class moderates in this fight,” she concludes. “It’s crucial that we not let this moment evaporate, and we can do that if we tie the movement to a working class constituency.”