A polling place in Centreville, Va., in March 2016. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Since the election of Donald Trump as president, the question of what white working-class voters want has been a near obsession of the Democratic Party and the punditocracy. Little wonder. The support of the cohort played a big role in propelling Trump to his surprise victory.

But the quest to answer this question, in turn, leaves other members of the Democratic coalition feeling taken for granted. Surely you don’t need me to point out there are not an equal number of op-eds asking, say, what African American working-class voters really want.

But a new report released today by the Center for American Progress makes a convincing argument, using extensive polling data, that this divide does not need to exist. As it turns out, in many cases, voters — both college educated and working class, and of all races — are in favor of an economic agenda that would offer them broader protections whether it comes to work, sickness or retirement.

“The polling shows that workers across race support similar views on economic policy issues,” said David Madland, the co-author of the report, entitled “The Working-Class Push for Progressive Economic Policies.” “They support a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and more spending on healthcare and retirement. There is broad support among workers for progressive economic policy.”

CAP’s study breaks down data from surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017 by the General Social Survey, the American National Elections Study, the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey and the American Values Survey. It defines working class as people in the work force who did not earn a four-year college degree. In addition, it breaks down those being studied into one of four groups: college graduates, and either white, African American or Hispanic working-class people. (They did not study Asian Americans). Their findings:

  • Paid family leave is supported by 73 percent of college-educated workers, 69 percent of the white working class, 72 percent of the black working class and 63 percent of the Hispanic working class.
  • When it comes to requiring equal pay, 91 percent of college-educated workers, 86 percent of the white working class, 82 percent of the black working class and 85 percent of the Hispanic working class indicate support.
  • Spending more government money on retirement draws wide support, with 52 percent of college-educated workers, 64 percent of the white working class, 78 percent of the black working class and 72 percent of the Hispanic working class saying they would like to see this.
  • When it comes to health care, 63 percent of college-educated workers, 64 percent of the white working class, 84 percent of the black working class and 77 percent of Hispanic workers agree say the government should increase, and not decrease, spending.
  • As for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, 72 percent of college-educated workers, 74 percent of the white working class, 69 percent of the black working class and 73 percent of Hispanic workers say they believe taxes on those earning more than $250,000 annually should be raised.

So why don’t we talk about this more?

This shows that it’s possible to make economic issues front and center in a campaign platform in a way that doesn’t just talk to working class whites and dismisses the concerns of female and minority voters. It also shows that the oft-discussed dilemma among Democrats — whether to prioritize college educated voters or working class ones — may be a false choice.

Indeed, a progressive economic agenda can talk to all of these groups and bridge the gap between them.

When many hear discussion of outreach to “working class” voters, they silently add the words “white” and “male” and all too often imagine them working on a factory floor or in construction. They shouldn’t. According to another analysis by CAP from late last year, just under 6 in 10 members of the working class are white, and the group  is almost half female (46 percent). Three out of four work in the service sector and only one in five work in construction, mining or manufacturing.

At the same time, women and minorities earn less as a group than white men, have less saved for retirement, and are more likely to live in poverty or near poverty in old age. As Alex Rowell, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of the new study, told me: “When you focus on these progressive issues, they are also about racial and gender equity. Women and workers of color are worse off, and when you focus on these broad economic issues, you are bringing them up.”

The potency of an economically progressive agenda should be obvious to us. In the recent special Pennsylvania congressional election won by Democrat Conor Lamb, in a district that President Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016, polling found that a majority of voters claimed health care was their No. 1 concern. Lamb also said he would protect Social Security and Medicare from Republican cuts. It was far from the first post-presidential election campaign to base an appeal on economics — Democrat Ralph Northam did the same during his successful campaign for governor in Virginia.

Meanwhile, the centerpiece of the GOP agenda — the Republican tax law, which showered permanent tax cuts on the wealthy and corporate interests, while giving the bulk of the population minor cuts that are scheduled to sunset at the end of 2025 — remains highly unpopular. Polls routinely find more people oppose it than support it despite the fact that Republicans repeatedly said they believed they needed to the tax bill to pass so they can campaign on it.

And the other major GOP talking point — destroying the Affordable Care Act — has also proven deeply unpopular.  When Republicans in Congress, in the wake of Trump’s election, tried to repeal the ACA, it all but set off a political forest fire, and Americans took to Twitter, jammed congressional phone lines, and spoke up at packed town halls to register their opposition.

The particular dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign often obscured these issues. Hillary Clinton, who did support such economically progressive goals as paid family leave, all too often wavered between identity appeals and attacks on Trump’s character. The media, in turn, obsessively focused on Trump, and exaggerated Clinton scandals.

When the focus is not on an economically progressive agenda — which, again, is supported by majority of voters – it leaves a vacuum that can be filled by the more divisive campaign, such as the sort Trump conducted. When voters don’t think anyone is going to take on their economic concerns, a certain percentage will turn to a demagogue who scapegoats ethnic minorities, immigrants and other groups.

As for Democrats, there is no reason to choose between different groups of working-class voters. A progressive economic agenda can be emphasized with more reminders that it reaches many groups — that ensuring equal pay for equal work improves the prospects for everyone in a household, that retirement security is an issue for everyone from the lower to the upper middle class, and that no one deserves to watch their financial lives destroyed when struck down by an illness. As Madland said, “It’s a clear winner.”