It’s not just about the culture war – Democrats helped the working class | Robert reich
AAfter Tuesday’s Democratic defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial election and the near loss in New Jersey, I hear a story about Democrats’ failure with white working-class voters that is fundamentally wrong.
In Thursday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt underline that non-college voters who drop out of the Democratic Party “tend to be more religious, more apparently patriotic, and more culturally conservative than college graduates.” He then quotes another Times columnist, pollster Nate Cohn, who says that “college graduates have instilled increasingly liberal cultural norms while gaining the power to push the Democratic Party to the left. Partly because of this, much of the party’s traditional working-class base has defected from the Republicans ”.
Leonhardt adds that these defections have increased over the past decade and suggests that Democratic candidates are starting to listen to the concerns of working class voters about “crime and political correctness,” their “mixed feelings about the laws on the immigration and abortion ”, and their beliefs“ in God and in a strong America ”.
This story worries me in two ways. First, if “cultural” messages take precedence over economic messages, what is stopping Democrats from playing the same cultural card Republicans have used for years to inflame the white working class: racism? Make no mistake: Glenn Youngkin focused his campaign in Virginia on critical breed theory, which isn’t even taught in Virginia schools, but which stems from the same shameful Republican dog-whistling tradition.
The other problem with this “culture over economy” narrative is that it overlooks the fact that after Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Party turned its back on the working class.
During the first terms of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. They have won major victories, such as the Affordable Care Act and an expanded earned income tax credit.
But both Clinton and Obama let the power of the working class erode. Both have pushed hard for free trade agreements without providing the millions of blue collar workers who have lost their jobs with any means to get new ones who are at least as well paid.
They stood idly by as companies hammered the unions, the backbone of the working class. Both refused to reform labor laws to impose meaningful sanctions on companies that violate them or allow workers to form unions with simple votes for or against. Union membership fell by 22% of all workers when Clinton was elected less than 11% today, depriving the working class of the bargaining leverage they need to get a better deal.
The Obama administration shielded Wall Street from the consequences of its gambling addiction with a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but left millions of underwater owners to drown.
Both Clinton and Obama have allowed antitrust to ossify – allowing large industries to become more concentrated and therefore more powerful economically and politically.
Finally they turned their backs campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential candidate since Richard Nixon to reject public funding in his primary and general election campaigns. He never followed through on his re-election campaign pledge to pursue a constitutional amendment toppling Citizens United v FEC, the opinion of the Supreme Court of 2010 which opened the floodgates to the big bucks in politics.
What happens when you combine freer trade, shrinking unions, Wall Street bailouts, growing corporate power, and abandoning campaign finance reform? You are transferring political and economic power to the rich and you are hitting the working class.
Adjusted for inflation, American workers earn almost as little today as they did 30 years ago, when the US economy was one-third of its current size.
Biden’s agenda for workers – including lower prescription drug prices, paid family time off, stronger unions, and a free community college – has followed the same sad trajectory, due to the power of money. Big Pharma has blocked prescription drug reform. A handful of money-backed Democratic senators have refused to support paid family leave. Lots of money killed labor law reform.
Democrats could win back the white working class by bringing together a grand coalition of the working class and the poor, whites, blacks and Latinos, all of those who have been cheated by the huge upward transfer of wealth and power. . This would give Democrats the political clout needed to reallocate power in the economy – rather than simply adopting palliatives that mask the growing concentration of power at the top.
But to do that, Democrats would have to end their financial dependence on big business, Wall Street, and the rich. And they should reject the convenient story that American workers care more about cultural issues than getting a better deal in an economy that has offered them a deal that has been deteriorating for decades.