How Democrats lost the white working class
Social science research does not often make news. One exception was the study by two Princeton University researchers, Anna Case and Angus Deaton, that showed that middle-aged white Americans were dying younger. Suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses are an increasing problem for middle-aged white people, aged 45 to 54.
The trend is uniquely American and countrywide, and it flies against our history of continuous improvement in public health. No similar phenomenon is occurring in other advanced countries.
Case and Deaton do not attribute the trend to any single factor. They write, “The deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree. The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child-rearing and religion.”
The researchers concluded that the overall life prospects for white, middle-aged people without a bachelor’s degree have declined over time. They state that stagnation in wages and in income have bred a sense of hopelessness.
The story shows a parallel rise in self-reported midlife morbidity. The increase in poor health was matched by increased reports of pain, serious psychological distress, difficulties with activities of daily living and alcohol use.
The trend Case and Deaton describe needs to be situated inside our economy of economic inequality, where the top 10 percent, and especially the 1 percent, reap all the economic gain. Overall, white working-class people have not fared well. The prospects for landing secure, good-paying jobs with benefits have lessened over time. Low-paying, no-benefit jobs are more the norm.
The suicides, the increased alcoholism, the opiate overdoses, like what we have seen in New Hampshire, are all about the hopelessness and grim future prospects.
It is valid to separate how the white working class has fared. It does nothing to diminish the fight against racism to acknowledge new trends. So often the dilemma of white working people gets counterposed against black people or immigrants. By white working class, I mean those who work for wages whether they are blue collar or white collar. I am not talking about the professional managerial class.
I do not see either political party as speaking to the needs of the white working class. There is a lack of empathy and a cultural distance. It pains me to acknowledge that the Republicans have done a better job appealing to the white working class than Democrats have. Republicans have talked about jobs, and they have pursued the white working-class vote aggressively. Trump talked about forgotten Americans, and it is hard to argue with that. They have been forgotten.
The irony is that Trump’s track record with the working class is a history of stiffing contractors and blue-collar tradespeople. He has a history of being a businessman who repeatedly failed to pay his workers and then doggedly fought paying in court.
We are at a watershed moment for Democrats. Democrats need to step back and re-evaluate their program and their message. It is like when your football team keeps losing. At some point, you need to fire the coach.
In the last election, Hillary Clinton could not articulate a persuasive rationale for why her election would improve the lives of working people. More than the Russians or Comey, that was her downfall.
I fault the party — not just the Clinton campaign. The problem is hardly new. The infamous “basket of deplorables” comment by Clinton did not come out of nowhere. It followed Obama’s 2008 comment about bitter people who cling to their guns or religion. The elitism and condescension have a history in the party.
It may seem obvious, but Democrats need to seek and earn the white working-class vote. A good start would be tackling economic inequality. They need to be far bolder in projecting a vision of pro-worker change. Milquetoast ideas of reform are not what is needed now.
A remedy for much of the despair is a meaningful plan to rebuild America with a 21st century green economy. Democrats need to credibly argue for massive public investment, a full-employment economy, single-payer national health insurance and much more affordable housing. Only that kind of powerful plan will break through the cynicism and get the millions who never vote to the polls.
The Democratic Party needs a rebirth. The challenge to the party is whether it can reinvent itself in a way that resonates with all kinds of working people.
Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.