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Apple '21: The Dems are still the party of the working class. They should champion its diversity.

In recent years, we have witnessed a political realignment, with ancestral Democrats in rural areas voting Republican, while traditionally Republican suburbanites vote Democrat. This realignment has led many in the media, and in both political parties, to claim that Democrats are now the party of the elite, while Republicans have become the party of the working class. Voting data, however, tells a different story: Democrats clearly remain the party of the working class, and this false narrative about elitism rests on the distortion of the term "working class" to mean "white working class," thus excluding people of color and perpetuating stereotypes around race and work. 

Since at least the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrats have been the party of the working class. Although Roosevelt battled with a hostile Supreme Court for the first half of his presidency, he orchestrated the New Deal, in which the National Industry Recovery Act, Social Security, fair labor standards and other pro-labor laws were enacted. As such, union workers, especially those in rural areas, were staunch supporters of the Democratic party for their pro-union stances.

However, the battle over civil rights began to threaten the Democratic hold on rural voters, particularly in the South. In 1948, conservative white Democrats formed the Dixiecrat party in opposition to civil rights, nominating Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Even after the Dixiecrats ceased to exist, many southern Democrats continued to harbor more segregationist views, and a large bloc of Democratic voters grew more and more opposed to the increasingly progressive social and cultural views of the Democratic party, although they continued to vote for it. 

Republicans attempted to capitalize upon this discontent by employing the Southern Strategy, a plan to bring white southerners, disaffected by Democrats’ pro-civil rights stance, into the Republican coalition. Lee Atwater, the primary orchestrator of the Southern Strategy during the Reagan and Bush I years, is on the record strategizing exactly how Republicans can appeal to racists without being called racist themselves. The Republican party has time and time again worked to bring white working class voters into their coalition by pitting them against non-white people. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat, summarized the GOP playbook best, saying: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best (non-white) man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

In the last 12 years, the Southern Strategy’s goals have finally been realized, with white working class voters across the country abandoning the Democratic party because of racial grievances. During President Barack Obama’s time in office, Democrats lost most of their senate seats in the south, as ancestral Democrats finally began to vote Republican. After Trump’s election in 2016, in which he flipped states in the Rust Belt for the first time in 30 years, some argued that Trump had won because white working class voters were feeling economic anxiety. However, study after study has confirmed that Trump won on racial resentment. 

Elliott County in rural eastern Kentucky exemplifies this shift: It had voted for a Democrat every year from 1872 until 2016, when Trump won it by 44 points. Nearly 100 percent white, this county, which had once revered Democrats because of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, finally shifted hard to the right, even though registered Democrats still outnumbered Republicans 10 to one. 

Combined, the rural shift right and the suburban shift left have led many people to claim Democrats have a “working class problem.” Politicians like Bernie Sanders have bemoaned the demise of the Democratic party's working class strength, while both left-leaning and centrist media sources have begun calling Republicans the party of the working class. 

This argument is largely predicated on the myth that Trump supporters are by and large poorly educated, working class people, which is simply false. 2020 exit polls show that Biden won voters with incomes less than $50,000 and incomes between $50,000 and $99,999 (essentially working-class and middle-class people) by more than 10 points each, while Trump won voters with incomes of $100,000 or more; Republicans gained among those same voters from 2016 to 2020, while Democrats gained among poorer voters. Biden also won union voters by about 20 points, and was even with Trump among non-college educated voters. 

Even as the suburbs shifted left, the 2020 election did not see Democrats’ support amongst the working class wane, but rather the opposite. On the other hand, 64 percent of white non-college educated voters supported Trump. Democrats don’t have a “working class problem,” they have a white working class problem, and the conflation of the two is extremely dangerous.

The working class is the most diverse socioeconomic class in the country, and studies estimate that people of color will make up more than half the working class by 2032. Yet, the relentless media focus on a fictitious, blanket definition of “working class” has rendered millions of people of color invisible while giving rise to a false narrative about the populism of the GOP and the elitism of the Democratic party. 

Let's be clear: Trump's base is not the working class, but rather upper-income voters. Conflating  the “working class” with “white working class” also perpetuates harmful stereotypes about poor, non-white people, particularly that they are lazy and only have themselves to blame for their economic condition, while white people in the same income bracket are just “down on their luck.” Instead of surrendering to this false narrative that they are losing the working class, Democrats must reject this tacit but insidious redefining of what “working class” means and develop policy and language that speaks to the diverse working class that is the foundation of the party.

Perhaps the gravest danger from this misrepresentation of the working class voter is that Democrats will begin to change their campaign strategies to win back the white working class and begin to compete with Republicans in pandering to this block of voters on issues like racial justice, immigration, gun control and abortion. 

Right after the election, former Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat, argued that the party’s disproportionate concern with these social issues was a blindspot in their strategy that Republicans were able to exploit by scooping up neglected voters. I respect Senator McCaskill, but she’s flat out wrong here. Democrats don’t have to choose between economic policies that appeal to the majority of Americans and social issues ― they can have both. 

Senator Jon Tester of Montana takes a more nuanced and reasonable approach, arguing that Democrats should amend their current messaging toward rural voters by talking more about infrastructure, public schools and rural broadband. He noticeably does not argue for the Democratic party to compromise core values that most of the country agrees with. 

The Democratic party remains the party of the working class. Indeed, the class divide between Democrats and Republicans only grew in 2020, and working class voters are clearly the backbone of the Democratic party. Instead of obsessing over the overblown — and flawed — story of the loss of the “working class,” Democrats must change the narrative, championing the diversity of the working class and trumpeting policy proposals that will help all members of that group.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at caleb_apple@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Correction: A previous version of this column stated that Claire McCaskill was U.S. Senator of North Dakota. In fact, she was a U.S. Senator of Missouri.



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