What now? Progressives must speak to the working class, even the deplorables.

Trump has won: the barbarians are inside the gate.  They will undoubtedly destroy much of what we have built.  And I did not sleep last night.  What does this mean for us all?  I’m horrified as any right-thinking person should be.  But I try to be a positive person and look at what we can learn from this.  In particular, I am ruminating on what this might mean for the Progressive movement, or what it should mean for that movement.  At least if it ever hopes to be a successful core of the Democratic Party (in other words, win elections).

First of all let’s get something out of the way. It is certainly on our minds.  Many progressives (almost all I would think) find the fact that someone would vote for Trump to be repulsive and idiotic.  That of course we cannot deny; Trump supporters did a disgusting thing and did not live up to our standards of basic human decency.  They are all deplorable.  But that matters little, because standards of decency change very slowly (often only through what might be politely called “attrition” i.e. death).  We will certainly not convince them that they are indecent.  More importantly, many of them are the very working-class subjects of Progressive policy.  They are who Progressives wish to help.  And for that reason Progressives must understand (and take seriously) their needs, fears, their thoughts.  Otherwise Progressives will not be the ones who will get the opportunity to “help” them, conservatives will.

Below I lay out a few ideas of where Progressives might focus.  Some of this runs deeply contrary to the standard “Progressive” line.  I only ask that you forgive me if I offend your progressive proclivities, for I am light on sleep.

Labor and economic issues must form the center of our policy agenda, and they must be the sorts of policies that aid the lower-middle and middle classes.  Poverty cannot be our only focus.  This undoubtedly means that Progressives must take seriously the sorts of concerns I raised two posts ago about the lack of low skill jobs in the new economy.  Democrats as much as Republicans are seen as allies of those who are bringing about the demise of working-class jobs, and that must change (just look at how David Plouffe is now at Uber, destroyer of working-class driving jobs).  It is unreasonable to think that people with IQs below the mean will be able to train into jobs found in the new knowledge economy, and it is also unreasonable to expect them to live decent lives on the dole.  Stable work that pays a living wage is a basic requirement of a decent life.  It must be at the core of Progressive policy.  Financial support without work is not enough.

Fighting for new social policy in states rather than at the federal level seems crucial for winning white working class voters. Let’s be frank: the white working class (and especially white men) are disproportionately misogynist bigots.  Trump himself is a misogynist bigot, and this is one reason why he appeals so much to working class voters.  One of the great elements of progress during the Obama administration was the extension of gay marriage rights.  But this incredible victory was won through slow social change and not national politics, and the only politics that aided it were at the state level.  I think this must be a model for the future.  

Progressives should push policies in states in which they have the most influence, showing the country how life can be better if policies are made in the Progressive model.  In many ways this has already occurred. Lives are far better for people in places like Massachusetts and Minnesota than they are in Alabama and Arizona; this is in large part due to the sorts of policies people in those states have chosen for themselves.  This will certainly mean that some in backward states will be left behind.  But many of those same people consistently vote for Republicans; you cannot help people who will not help themselves.  It is too bad that many are stuck in conservative states, but at this point progressives can do little to help them.  Help for them must come later, once attitudes change.  We need to accept that.

Frame issues of civil rights and economic justice in terms of class, rather than race.  I think that there is a crucial point lost on many Progressives, that white working class Americans find the concept of “white privilege” to be insulting to their lived experience.  Even if they have benefited in various ways from racial bias, working class whites certainly do not perceive how they have benefited.  And, in fact, I find it plausible that the benefits of this privilege to rust belt working-class whites is minimal.  Therefore, direct racial preference from affirmative action programs create significant amounts of racial animosity.  Very similar effects can be achieved by focusing on class (parents’ income, educational level, etc.) rather than directly on race.  These are highly correlated with the groups who need help anyway.  Progressives may think that there is still tremendous amounts of direct racial bias in American society — and indeed there is — but they must also think strategically.  

I will certainly have more thoughts later.  But I think Progressives must take seriously the difficulty they will have in appealing to working class voters as long as they stay a movement that assumes a college-educated mindset.  We must be more Biden and less Clinton.  

We must also fight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *