It seems as though every four years political pundits become fascinated with a certain segment of the electorate. Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, Millennials, Latinos. The possibilities are limited only by one’s ability to slice and dice the American people. Lately, one subgroup receiving particular emphasis has been the “white working class” — usually understood as gainfully employed white voters who do not have a college degree. President Donald Trump won this group in 2016, and Democrats have been scratching their heads. Weren’t these voters historically loyal to us? What can we do to win them back? Do we even want them back?
As with so much else, we tend to ask imprecise questions about these voters because we proceed from faulty premises. It is somewhat ahistorical to think of the Democratic party’s winning back white working-class voters, as if it were their natural home. Over the last century, both parties have made appeals to this voter group, whose support has alternated between the two. This should make sense because, until the post-war period, what we today call the white working class was basically the entirety of the American electorate.
The two parties’ different appeals trace back to Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. The Republican argument, which descends from Clay, is premised on the idea that the American economy is integrated and interconnected, meaning that the workers and the owners of capital share a fate; Republicans therefore promise to make it easier for businesses to grow, which, it is claimed, would increase prosperity for all Americans. William McKinley promised in the 1900 presidential campaign that this approach would provide a “full dinner pail.” He won the election with 52 percent of the vote.
The Democratic argument, which descends from Jackson, is premised on the existence of a class divide between workers and owners of capital, and especially on the alleged tendency of the latter to enrich themselves at the expense of the former. Following Jackson, the Democrats have pitched themselves as the party of Robin Hood. They will redistribute the allegedly unfair gains of capital owners back to the workers.
Both of these assumptions have some truth to them — workers depend on the success of capital owners, but capital owners are often too stingy in distributing the profits — which probably explains why the two parties have won comparable numbers of presidential elections since 1896, with the Republicans winning 17 and the Democrats 14. It stands to reason that the rhetorical power of the “full dinner pail” was always going to have some appeal to the white working class. But in addition, developments over the last few decades have undermined the Democratic position, its merits notwithstanding.
The most important development has been the decline of organized labor, especially in the industrial and trade fields. The unions — which became a major political force after passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 — gave the Democrats an enormous boost with the working class. They kept the party grounded in the interests and concerns of workers, urged on their members the importance of voting for Democrats, and financed Democratic politics (sometimes, as in the case of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968, virtually alone). Labor now has but a whisper of its once-formidable voice, and the political power of unions has shifted toward the gray- and white-collar workers of the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association. The Teamsters, the United Steelworkers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the United Rubber Workers — these working-class unions once could turn an election. No more.
The Democrats have also merged their typically Jacksonian economic rhetoric with a bourgeois appeal that has little to offer the white working class. Gay rights, environmentalism, and intersectionality do not represent the values or interests of such voters — and movements that emphasize these issues often cast (usually by implication but sometimes explicitly) the white working class as part of the problem with the United States.
Racial issues have also been a strain on the relationship between Democrats and the white working class. African Americans began voting in large numbers after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and have been joined in recent decades by immigrants from Latin America. These voters support economic policies that often run contrary to the interests of the white working class. The recent kerfuffle over busing and public schools is a good reminder of the potential tension. In essence, busing students across district lines is a redistribution of wealth toward poorer communities from middle-income communities (wealthy communities being largely immune to the ill effects by virtue of the ability to pay for private schools). Busing redistributes wealth in that it increases the burden on the better-off school districts into which students are bused.
The strains between the Democratic party and the white working class have had effects on both parties, reinforcing the new patterns. On the Democratic side, the migration of working-class, white Catholics out of the party has made it easier, morally, to fully embrace abortion, which enhances Democratic prospects in upscale suburbs. Meanwhile, it has become harder for pro-choice Republicans to survive electorally, as they must be on guard for primary challenges. We have seen these trends play out in Pennsylvania, with its proportionally large white working-class vote — 35 years ago, Democratic governor Bob Casey Sr. was unabashedly pro-life while Republican senator Arlen Specter was staunchly pro-choice. Today, Senator Bob Casey Jr. is pro-life in name only, and Specter was replaced by the pro-life Pat Toomey.
Another illustration involves trade. In the post-war era, Republicans were the chief defenders of free trade, because American businesses looked to conquer international markets, and trade was seen as a way to rebuff Communism around the world. Democrats were more split on the issue, divided into historically free-trade voters in the South and protectionist working-class voters in the Midwest. Democrats remain split today — there are still anti-free-trade factions within their party, but the free-traders have had the upper hand since Clinton. Republican skepticism of free trade, however, has increased.
This has not prevented the Democrats from winning white working-class voters, but it has certainly lowered both their ceiling and their floor. Barack Obama won 53 percent of the vote in 2008 thanks in part to support from working-class whites in the Upper Midwest. Yet, relative to Bill Clinton in 1996, he ran poorly in places such as eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, which have concentrations of such voters. And Hillary Clinton did atrociously with the white working class in 2016, which is why she lost so many crucial states in the Midwest despite winning a sizable plurality of the popular vote.
Whether this trend will hold is unclear. All indications currently suggest that working-class whites will remain a Republican-leaning constituency. If the two sides fight to a draw on economic issues, the bourgeois intersectionality of the Democrats gives the Republicans an edge with the white working class.
But we must keep our minds open to the prospect of a surprise. Exogenous shocks to our political system are unpredictable in any moment but inevitable over time. The Great Depression ended three decades (interrupted only by the Wilson presidency) of Republican dominance among the white working class. Who’s to say that something like that might not happen again?
We also must not discount political entrepreneurship. How surprised must Adlai Stevenson have been to lose so much of the white working class in 1952! The New Deal had supposedly grafted these voters to the Democratic party for a generation, yet Dwight Eisenhower managed a spectacular vivisection. His running mate, Richard Nixon, would pull off a similar operation 20 years later. One of the reasons that politics is so interesting is that demographics is not destiny — creative politicians can discover new issues to exploit or interesting ways to reframe old issues, shattering our preconceived notions. Indeed, I would say that most presidents in the post-war era, from Truman to Trump, have been surprising in one way or another.
The white working class has become a Republican political constituency in the short term, but we do not know how long that relationship will last. Virtually nothing in American politics is permanent.
This article appears as “How’s That Dinner Pail? ” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.