The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which the party establishment has been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including: minorities, unmarried women and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.
Fortunately, Democrats have the opportunity to engage and perform much better with working America. To do this Democrats need to embrace dramatically bolder economic policies and attack a political economy that works for the rich, big corporations and the cultural elites, but not for average Americans.
Senator Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution” and attack on big money was closer to hitting the mark than Hillary Clinton’s message. Senator Sanders won millennials and white working-class voters in the primary. So it is not surprising to see that white working-class voters went for Trump in the general election, but the Democrats’ working-class problem extends beyond what Senator Sanders preached.
The main problem is President Obama’s handling of the economy
The former president and the Democrats heroically rescued America from the greatest economic collapse since The Great Depression. But incomes for most Americans fell during this period and the top 1 percent took all of the income gains of the recovery—a subject establishment Democrats barely mentioned and did not fight to address. President Obama was the main messenger for the Democrats, and his consistent economic message to the country—from one year after the crash through last year’s presidential election—was this:
“The recession has been transformed into a dependable recovery, our economy is creating jobs, and we are on the right track, but the Republicans drove our economy “into the ditch” and are doing everything possible to obstruct our progress.”
He closed the last year’s election with this appeal:
“We created 15 million new jobs, incomes are rising, poverty is falling, and you must get out and vote to “build on our progress.”
Closely bound up with the “progress” narrative was the bailout of the Wall Street banks with taxpayer money. Wall Street excess took the country’s economy off a cliff and Democrats rightly came to the nation’s rescue by passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But the bailout of the banks was, and remains, a torrid affair in American consciousness—and one inextricably linked to Democratic control. It was under President Obama that the government signed off on the executive bonuses for TARP recipients and under Obama that no executives were punished for criminal malfeasance. It was evident in the double-digit drop in Obama’s approval ratings in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania in 2010. Obama’s approval rating the year before the 2016 election hovered between 40 percent and 42 percent in Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Ohio.
These are the states that figured in the well-told retreat of white working-class voters from the Democrats. While the president was calling on these base voters to come to the polls to defend the progress he had presumably made, these voters were angry about the claims of jobs and about Wall Street’s undimmed influence. They knew these jobs paid dramatically less. They saw the government rescue the big banks but do next to nothing about the home foreclosures and lost wealth in their Hispanic and black communities.
Trade has separated Democrats from many working-class voters
That separation grew wider with Obama’s battle for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and with Trump making his opposition to it central to his vow to represent “the forgotten Americans.” In 2015, more than 70% of Democrats in the Senate (33 of 46) and 85% of Democrats in the House (160 of 188) had voted against giving Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the TPP. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were against TPP as well. But working-class Americans tend to associate Democrats with support for multinational trade agreements—even though they are passed with mostly Republican votes in Congress—because Democratic presidents have been their main champions over the last 25 years. As Bill Clinton was supportive of enacting NAFTA in 1994, Obama made passage of TPP a top priority at the end of his presidency.
The Obama presidency produced a partisan changeover on trade. Before 2008, Republicans were more supportive of NAFTA than Democrats, but at the end of Obama’s presidency, GOP support for NAFTA collapsed, pushed off the cliff by Trump. Democrats, on the other hand, became more favorably disposed to NAFTA. With President Trump focusing his campaign on bringing back American jobs by withdrawing from trade agreements, the Republican base voters emerged as those most opposed to multinational trade agreements. Despite Obama’s best efforts, Democratic voters also shifted against trade in principle and the TPP specifically over the course of the campaign—including big shifts among millennials, white unmarried women, all unmarried women and minority voters. Yet Hillary Clinton went restrained on TPP in the closing weeks of the campaign. That magnified the Democrats’ working America problem, and perhaps decisively so in the Rust Belt.
The failure to see that the problems of working America run right through the new American majority cost the campaign a chance to produce a very different result in this election.