Fresh Eyes: What does the white working class want?

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by Daniel Bayer

Many years ago, when I was a reporter for the Eden Daily News, I gate-crashed a fashion symposium on the UNCG campus. I wasn’t sneaking in to find out what the hottest outfits would be on the runways of Milan that fall, but to pull a Michael Moore-style ambush on a textile industry bigwig who was going to be part of the panel discussion. After the panel discussion — which included several PowerPoint slides of the company’s gleaming new plant in Mexico — I stood up and asked the executive what this new plant meant for the displaced textile workers of Eden. Much to my surprise, he didn’t try to evade the question or offer platitudes.

“There’s nothing that can be done about it,” he said. “Eventually nothing will be made in the United States. Not automobiles, not anything.”

I thought about that encounter as President Trump was promising to put “America First” and tear up or revise existing trade deals to benefit American workers. I’ll admit that the blue-collar worker in me takes a certain satisfaction in watching him destroy decades of US trade policy. I voted for Ross Perot in 1996 after President Clinton signed NAFTA, and for Ralph Nader in 2000 after Clinton renewed China’s most-favored-nation status. In the factories that I worked in, “free trade” was about as popular as STDs or beer shortages, and in retrospect Trump is a wrecking ball that anyone could see coming a mile away. The anger over lost jobs and a declining standard of living was always there, it was just that no one had tapped into it the way he did.

The post-Clinton Democrats’ solution to the economic decline of the white working class (or “American middle class,” as many of them would refer to themselves, given the vagaries of class identity in the United States) has been the offer of a European-style welfare state, complete with subsidized healthcare, affordable higher education and the like, in return for their acceptance of the political and economic realities of globalization. While this may be a pragmatic solution, that’s not what they want, and that leaves many progressives blaming the white working class for voting “against their own interests,” usually for reasons related to race and religion.

When progressives ask:“Why did working people vote for a man who would dismantle the very programs that would help them?” they need to realize that the white working class doesn’t see these things in a vacuum. They see them as part of a unified worldview in which the act of working is a central part of their identity and purpose, and the only morally acceptable route to a better standard of living.

With new trade treaties and the return of high-paying, blue-collar jobs to the US, they believe no one will need the government-subsidized health insurance that progressives support, or food stamps, or public assistance in general. No one will need student aid to go to college if one can simply get a factory job that provides a middle-class standard of living. They’re voting their aspirations about the society they want to live in, not for pragmatic solutions to actual problems, which is why Hillary Clinton’s technocratic approach to government fell flat in the Rust Belt states that Trump carried. Is that society possible in today’s world of interlinked economies? Probably not, but within the worldview itself, all the pieces make sense.

The Democratic Party faces a stark reality; winning back the white working class is only possible if they support polices that guarantee a rising standard of living and recognize that one’s ability to work and be self-supporting is central to their sense of identity.

The insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders, which tapped into much of the same economic anger and resentment that Trump’s did, was a start, but was ultimately too little and too late for a party that spent the last few decades unapologetically supporting the policies of globalization.

Daniel Bayer is a musician and writer who lives in Greensboro.

  • MumbleMumble

    Yet this is the same group of voters that deifies Ronald Reagan – the man perhaps most responsible for the unfettered capitalism that destroyed the middle class. Their goals, as you point out, are unlikely to ever materialize. And certainly not from the current administration. So what are the Democrats supposed to do with a group of people who are clinging to an irrational, misinformed worldview? Lie to them and tell them their jobs are coming right back, like Trump did? People keep saying that the Democrats need to communicate with these working-class white voters. But when do these voters start to shoulder some of the responsibility? When do they get blamed for continually electing people who lie to them and erode their quality of life?