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The Democrats’ working-class problem

By Joan C. Williams,

President Obama, ever the gifted orator, has hit some excellent notes as he shapes the Democrats’ message on the deficit. He also has hit some wrong ones — and has failed to correct mistakes Democrats have been making for 40 years. Because when Democrats talk about the poor, they can wind up losing more votes than they win. A key constituency in any national election is white voters who are neither rich nor poor — the working-class families whose median income is $64,000. This group, overwhelmingly Democratic before 1970, has abandoned the Democrats in large numbers, creating a conservative center in American politics. Obama needs these voters in 2012. And his team needs to learn some basic messages about how this group sees the world, in particular about their attitudes toward the rich and the poor, and about certain phrases that may not resonate with them. The donkey’s tin ear should end here.

“There but for the grace
of God go I”

Early in his address on the deficit this month, the president noted, “ ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves,” and therefore we support social programs for the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Nice touch? It depends on who you are talking to.

This phrase accurately summarizes African Americans’ attitude toward the poor, according to a study by Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont published in 2000. Working-class blacks tend to be less antigovernment, more receptive to social programs and less judgmental of the poor. In fact, working-class African Americans’ attitudes towards social solidarity are, surprisingly, more like those of the French than their white American counterparts.

So the president’s framing helps him connect with black Americans, but he already has their votes. White working-class voters see the world very differently; they are more likely to be true believers in equal opportunity than to link poverty with social injustice. These families are less inclined to think, “There but for the grace of God go I” and more inclined to attribute poverty to a life of impulse, chaos and a lack of discipline stemming from individual choices.

So when the Democrats focus on the poor, these Americans hear disrespect — disrespect for their lives of rigid self-discipline in jobs of deadening repetitiveness, disrespect for their struggles in which one false step can mean a fall into poverty. Every time Democrats focus their message on the poor, they enhance Republican power.

The GOP lured white workers away from the New Deal coalition with the argument that the only thing Democrats cared about was “big government,” which was equated with liberals handing over their hard-earned money to hard-living ne’er-do-wells (who, racialized discourse intimated, were not white). Alas, Obama reinforced this story line when he kept stressing, during the health-care debate, the need to cover the 30 million uninsured. This may have seemed logical to him — there but for the grace of God go I — but, politically, it played into Republican hands and helped galvanize the tea party movement.

Medicaid. . .or Medicare?

In his various public pronouncements on the budget, the president links his message of solidarity with Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

The focus on Social Security and Medicare is pitch-perfect; those programs set the basic infrastructure for economic security for the middle class. But once he throws in Medicaid, a program for the poor, Obama again stokes the conservative narrative that big government taxes the have-a-littles to help the have-nots. Ethnographies of the white working class consistently document white workers’ view that, while earlier social programs were designed to help “the working man,” since the 1970s, liberals only care about the poor.

The Democrats need to stick to a central theme: that Republicans are proposing to eliminate the programs that allow Americans who have worked hard all their lives, doing everything responsible people are supposed to do, to pay for medical care and keep their homes as they age. Medicare and Social Security are the rewards for the settled life. Republicans propose to replace those programs with inadequate substitutes that will return seniors to where they were before government provided safety nets: the poorest group in the country.

The president does send this message, but he mixes it with a protect-the-vulnerable message that only strengthens Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. And, most important, by undermining the potential coalition between Democrats and working-class whites, the protect-the-poor message ultimately hurts the vulnerable Americans it is designed to help.

Bashing the bigwigs

In his deficit speech, Obama emphasized a theme he has drawn on before: that the very rich do not deserve tax relief. “In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined,” he said. “The top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. . . . They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs?”

Nice move on the president’s part, to ask whether he needs that level of tax relief while seniors face higher health-care costs. But this theme needs to be further developed and reframed.

Both black and white workers admire the rich, according to the work of sociologist Lamont. This is why Obama’s old-fashioned “bash the big-wigs” populism fell so flat during the banking crisis. I “can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a working man told Lamont. Said a receiving clerk: “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have.”

Workers want to have their same lives, just with more money. And they believe equal opportunity exists, so they admire the rich, even if they distrust educated professionals, whom they regard as superficial and too committed to work over family.

Democrats also need to debunk the myth that the rich work “darned hard for every cent.” Class mobility in the United States is lower than in other industrialized countries, and only 18 percent of the income in America’s richest families comes from work — hard or otherwise. In America, most wealth does not come from hard work. It comes from wealth.

Democrats also need, over and over again, to contrast the decline of the middle class with the explosion of wealth at the top. Between the “Ozzie and Harriett” 1950s and the “All in the Family” 1970s, ordinary Americans’ standard of living doubled. Since then, it has fallen: Forty-two percent of new wealth created from 1983 to 2004 has gone to the richest 1 percent of Americans. The richer have become much richer at the expense of the middle class: The wages of high-school educated men have fallen 25 percent since 1973, during a period when the richest Americans’ share of income doubled. The top 20 percent now controls 85 percent of American wealth — something most Americans do not know.

All this boils down to just a few warnings for Democrats as they prepare for the deficit battle and the 2012 election. Framing their message as a defense of the rights of the most vulnerable will end up hurting both the party and the most vulnerable. Bashing the rich without explaining that their wealth has come at the expense of the middle class will not help Democrats win a type of voter they sorely need.

If Democrats don’t start genuinely reaching out to the white working class, someone will. Her name is Sarah Palin. People may not be taking Palin seriously as a candidate at the moment — her poll numbers are down, and she has not announced her intention to seek the GOP nomination — but there’s a woman who knows how to talk to the white working class. In a field where no one else does, that’s a serious advantage.

Joan C. Williams, a professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, is the author of “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.”

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