Bridging the Divide Between Working Class Whites and Minority Communities

Every day since Donald Trump became President, I have been worried about the latest actions coming from the Trump White House. From his executive orders banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, to the gag rule imposed on the EPA and the Department of Agriculture from making public their scientific findings, to the attempts to de-legitimize the press, I’ve gotten more and more worried about the tone that the Trump administration is setting. I called a few friends and asked their advice. A good friend gave me advice that really helped me. He said to view politics as a marathon and not a sprint. If you get worked up at everything that comes out daily from the Trump White House, you’ll get burnt out. He suggested to focus on only a few issues and to take breaks every so often from politics just to stay sane.

I’ve tried to do that. It hasn’t always been successful, but I try. Over the next four years I have two personal goals when it comes to politics. I want to oppose Donald Trump’s policies without demonizing Trump’s supporters. And I want to support efforts to bridge the divide between working class white communities and minority communities that have been the source of so much national strife.

At one time liberal Democrats like the Kennedys, Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman drew strong support from both working class white communities and minority communities. These liberal Democrats held together this coalition by enacting policies that benefited both communities. Among the liberal policies that helped benefited these communities were Social Security, the G.I. Bill, the Minimum Wage, the Wagner Act, Medicare, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Meals on Wheels program. One of the challenges of today’s progressives is to heal the breach between minorities and those working class whites who threw their support to Donald Trump.

David Atkins wrote an article for the Washington Monthly titled Democrats Can Win White Working Class Voters Without Sacrificing Social Justice. In the article, Atkins wrote:

But that’s why it’s so crucial to point out that many of Trump’s voters were not, in fact, driven entirely by prejudice. The Party does not, in fact, need to throw women and minorities under the bus to win back the voters who defected from Obama to Trump. It simply needs to drive a much clearer progressive narrative, admit that the nation’s economy as it has been run for the last 30 years has serious problems that need fixing, and paint corporate and Wall Street elites as the real villains in the story of the white working class’ downward mobility.

That won’t, of course, win over all of Trump’s voters or even a significant minority of them. It’s not that Matt Yglesias and his like-minded friends are wrong about the prejudiced motivations of most of Trump’s electorate. They’re right.

But it’s important to distinguish between the core Trump voters and the marginal, persuadable ones. Most Trump voters are either regular Republicans who have always voted Republican and always will whether it’s Romney or Trump, or the new aggressive breed of hyper-racist trolls and alt-right Breitbart types. But those voters have always been on the other side of the fence. What has changed is that a not insignificant number of exurban and rural white voters who used to vote for Democrats even as recently as the Obama era increasingly feel that no one speaks for them. They might not particularly like Trump’s racism or uncouth behavior, but they don’t believe that Democrats understand their plight. They feel that Democrats take care of both the very rich and the very poor as well as minorities, but that no one at all is looking out for the person who makes $40K-50K a year in small town America–people who make too much for even expanded Medicaid but not enough to afford health insurance, whose children can’t win need-based scholarships but don’t have the grades to earn merit-based ones, and whose towns seem to be dying inexorably whether Democrats or Republicans hold office. These people aren’t impressed by offers to provide family leave or increase funding for schools. They want their old jobs back, and they want the people who took their future from them to be punished, whoever they may be.

Harold Meyerson wrote a good article for the American Prospect that describes the evolution of both the Democratic and Republican Parties and the shift of working class whites from the Democratic Party to the Republic Party. Titled Can Democrats Channel America’s Discontent, Meyerson wrote in the article:

The challenge before Working America is to move voters from a right-populist racist politics to a left-populist economic politics. To put it mildly, that’s a daunting task. Even at the height of its power and popularity, the United Auto Workers in the 1940s and 1950s could routinely persuade its members to vote Democratic for national and state offices, where economic issues dominated, but seldom for its endorsed liberal candidates for local offices, where issues of housing and police practices—that is, issues where race was the dominant factor—were its white members’ key concerns.

There are issues, however, on which left and right populists—indeed, on which left, right, and center—converge. Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 77 percent of Americans (including 67 percent of Republicans) believe corporations are not paying a fair share of their proceeds to their employees, and that 79 percent of Americans (including 63 percent of Republicans) believe our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. Proposals that involve establishing or enlarging government programs, of course, are anathema to Republicans and rouse the ire of many working-class whites who believe such programs are generally a payoff to minorities. (The one exception to this rule might be lowering the eligibility age for Medicare—a government program with substantial mass, if not elite, conservative support—to 50 or 55.)

Universal programs that don’t involve taxation or expanded government programs, however, have commanded substantial right-leaning support, as in 2014 when the electorates of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota approved ballot measures hiking their state’s minimum wage. Proposals to change the pre-tax division of proceeds within corporations—say, by scaling corporate tax rates to the ratio of CEO-to-median-worker pay, or cutting the taxes of corporations that divide their corporate board seats between shareholder and worker representatives—might have some traction on both the left and the right.

Robert Kuttner wrote a book review for the American Prospect magazine about several recently published books about the plight of working class whites. Titled Hidden Injuries of Class, Race and Culture Kuttner wrote:

John Judis, in The Populist Explosion, has written a terrific short book that sheds further light on these vexing questions. His is a brisk tour of the horizon, of the right and left versions of populism, their history and current state, with a useful comparison of the populist upsurge in the United States and in Europe. His general insight: Populism gains adherence whenever mainstream parties let ills fester. Populist parties “often function as warning signs of a political crisis.” That surely describes the state of the political establishment in both the U.S. and Europe…

…In sum, American progressivism today is foundering on what we might call the clash of deeply felt injuries. The insecurity and downward mobility of the white working and middle classes collides with a well-justified upsurge in black consciousness of continuing racial outrages and a demand for their remediation. Feminists and oppressed cultural minorities pile on. Today’s story is one of dueling cultural and economic wounds, each with substantial basis in reality…

…Today, the clash of deeply felt racial and class grievances, compounded by cultural wounds on both sides of the identity divide, is crowding out the progressive brand of populism that America once had and so sorely needs. It will take uncommon leadership and rare social empathy to redirect the crosscurrents of rage and hurt into a broad popular coalition of uplift against the one group that floats above it all—today’s economic super-elite.

Just after last year’s elections, Kirk Noden wrote the article Why Do White Working Class People Vote Against Their Interests? They Don’t for The Nation Magazine. Noden insightfully noted:


The first step was the collapse of the industrial heartland. This hit white working-class people incredibly hard—and it remains a phenomenon that is not understood on the East and West Coasts. It is painted as a natural evolution of our economy and as if the onus is on people to adapt to it. This fails to capture how many families and communities were dependent on the industrial economy. Many Ohioans are now staring at a future where they themselves and their kids have less opportunity than their parents. In a place like Youngstown, that means not only an inability to get a well-paying job at the steel mill; it also means owning a house that has failed to appreciate in value for 20 to 30 years, in a city that continues to lose double-digit percentages of its population every 10 years. It is not just a stripping out of economic opportunity but a stripping away of identity for these communities. It is the sense of abandonment and perpetual decline that people feel mired in. Resources, jobs, decent housing, quality neighborhoods and schools are all in decline. It creates a “scarcity mentality” for white working-class people and others who live in the heartland…

… The impact of this betrayal on white working-class people was a universal distrust and dislike for institutions—none of which were able to defend their livelihoods or their futures. The unions didn’t stay around to organize a new strategy for revitalizing Youngstown. They moved to another line of defense elsewhere, as they grew increasingly insular and focused on protecting their shrinking base. One of the only people not to abandon white working-class people in Youngstown was the county sheriff, who became a hero because he refused to evict from their homes people who had lost their jobs in the collapse. His name was Jim Traficant and he later became a congressman. Even when he ran for office while in prison (for corruption and bribery convictions) decades later, he still won 25 percent of the vote. He was in personality and rhetoric a precursor to Donald Trump. Deindustrialization was a traumatic experience for white working-class people. Yet we act surprised when this constituency exhibits post-traumatic-stress disorder. And it is we who perpetrate the myth that they are voting “against their interests,” despite all the facts on the ground indicating that for them it makes no difference which party is in power. They have lived through 40 years of decline.

It’s important for liberals to persuade these working class white supporters of Trump that government is their friend and not their enemy. Tracy Jan wrote the Boston Globe article The Biggest Beneficiaries of the Government Safety Net: Working Class Whites makes that point. Jan wrote:

Working-class white people are the biggest beneficiaries of federal poverty-reduction programs, even though black and Hispanic people have substantially higher rates of poverty, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

Government assistance and tax credits lifted 6.2 million working-class whites out of poverty in 2014, more than any other racial or ethnic demographic. Half of all working-age adults without college degrees lifted out of poverty by safety-net programs are white; nearly a quarter are black and a fifth are Hispanic…

‘There is a perception out there that the safety net is only for minorities. While it’s very important to minorities because they have higher poverty rates and face barriers that lead to lower earnings, it’s also quite important to whites, particularly the white working class,’’ said Isaac Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one of the report’s authors.

One of the big challenges among progressives is to reach out to the working class whites without a college degree and who live in the Red States. Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic wrote an article titled One Press Conference Two Audiences. He wrote in that article:

…I have written a series of articles arguing that if members of the coalition that opposes Donald Trump want to persuade the public, they’ll have to resist the temptation to vilify all his supporters, and to formulate a strategy that includes earnest efforts at loving outreach and persuasion.

Perhaps the divergent coverage of Thursday’s press conference helps to illustrate that a great many of those people aren’t seeing the same information as those who oppose Trump—they are being fed lies and untruths by coastal-dwelling millionaires like Hannity and Limbaugh; and they exist at a time when even more responsible right-leaning outlets that make up their information bubble are unlikely to target the lies they encounter, and in a culture where a columnist like Goodwin sees what’s going on and celebrates it as Trump playing the game well.

The American right complains about the media as much as any ideological movement ever has, even as it wallows in a right-of-center media ecosystem far more dishonest and less rigorous than The New York Times on its worst day. Some of its most popular figures pander and mislead and constantly vilify the other side. Insofar as that other side writes off their entire audiences, the populist right-wing will keep winning. Its Achilles’ heel is that it relies on blatant misinformation to win. Can conservatives or libertarians or liberals pierce the bubble?

In spite of decades of advancements in health care, diet and safety, white Americans are now living shorter lives, a trend that has surprised experts. PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reported out of Maysville, Kentucky, an area struggling with an increase in addiction, overdoses and suicide.

President Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, in part, by capturing the white working class vote in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania that previously voted for Democratic candidates. Now, some Democrats are trying to rebuild their base in blue-collar neighborhoods that swung for Trump, like those in northeast Philadelphia. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports.

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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