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ISO: Working-Class Democrats

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A19

How do the Democrats win back the allegiance of the white working class? The problem may be deeper than even the most pessimistic Democrats fear it is.

The redoubtable and unpronounceable Ruy Teixeira, Democratic poll analyst par excellence, has been rooting around in the raw data newly released from the 2004 exit poll and has come up with one morsel that should cause Democrats everywhere to gag. It's not just that John Kerry got clobbered by working-class whites, whom he lost to George W. Bush by a hefty 23 points. It's not just that 66 percent of these voters trusted Bush to handle terrorism, compared with just 39 percent who trusted Kerry. It's that 55 percent of white working-class voters trusted Bush to handle the economy, while only 39 percent trusted Kerry.

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Few Americans of any class give stellar marks to Bush on the economy. The Bush recovery is anemic by historical standards, and for working-class Americans it's altogether sickly. We are now into the 11th quarter since the recovery began in late 2001 and during that time, the Economic Policy Institute tells us, private-sector wages and salaries have risen by a scant 3.9 percent. If you average all the recoveries from 1949 through 1982, private-sector wages and salaries had risen by 18.2 percent by the time those recoveries were 11 quarters old.

So how did the white working class come to prefer Bush to Kerry on matters economic? At one level, we shouldn't read too much into the polling: The lack of trust that white workers felt toward Kerry on security questions surely spilled over to their assessment of him on other topics, too. Moreover, the Republicans did a better job of defining Kerry as a cultural plutocrat (no great achievement, that) than Kerry did of defining Bush as the economic plutocrats' favorite president. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has observed that Kerry did not turn to populist themes in the campaign's final weeks, and that this hurt him particularly among white working-class women.

All this is true, and yet I think the Democrats kid themselves if they think this problem is Kerry-specific. To begin, de-unionization has taken a huge chunk out of Democratic vote totals.

Unionized working-class whites tend to vote Democratic at least 20 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, but with private-sector unionization now fallen to less than 8 percent of the workforce, there aren't enough unionized whites to put a state such as Ohio into the Democratic column.

Bill Clinton's repositioning of the party, of course, was supposed to have made it safe for working-class whites to vote Democratic again. Under Clinton, the Democrats became the party of fiscal responsibility. By ending welfare, Clinton sought to eradicate what many working-class whites saw, however incorrectly, as the Democrats' tilt towards blacks. No longer were the Democrats the party of racial preferences that they had been in the 1970s and '80s. And nothing that John Kerry said in 2004 reversed that repositioning.

But if the Democrats are no longer quite the party of racial preferences, they are not quite the party of class preferences either.

To be sure, they oppose the privatization of Social Security and support the provision of universal health care, and every poll shows that the American people back their positions. But on a broad range of economic matters, Democrats have alarmingly little to say to working-class Americans. For the past 35 years, as short-range share value has come to dominate our form of capitalism and the burden of risk has been shifted to the individual employee, far more manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad from the United States than from any other advanced industrialized nation. As the middle fell out of the economy, the Democrats advocated job retraining and, eventually, some form of managed trade, but these policies were too little and too late.

Today's working class isn't found largely in factories; it's in nursing homes, on construction sites, in Wal-Marts. Republicans talk to its members about guns, gays and God. Democrats often just stammer. And given the imbalance of power in today's de-unionized workplace, Democrats couldn't do much better than Bush when it comes to boosting wages in this raise-less recovery.

Democrats win when they deliver prosperity and security for working Americans, and in today's capitalism, those have become increasingly unattainable goals. Which is why, as they only now gear up their think tanks, Democrats need to promote alternatives to the kind of shareholder-driven capitalism into which our system has descended, to the detriment of millions of underpaid, insecure workers. They need to side with Main Street over Wall Street. Like the conservatives 40 years ago, the Democrats need to offend their own elites to build an America that reflects their best values, and in which working people can and do count on them for support.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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