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What Would the Working Class Say? (WWWCS)
The Test Democrats Should Always Be Making
All across the Western world the working class is deserting the Left. Thomas Piketty and his colleagues among others have copiously documented this trend. The United States is no exception to this trend.
In the 2020 Presidential election, despite a slight improvement over 2016, Democrats still lost white working class (noncollege) voters in 2020 by 26 points (Catalist two party vote). Since 2012, nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics. This latter development is particularly important since Democrats have hitherto comforted themselves that losses among the working class were just among whites, who they presume to be motivated by retrograde racial and cultural attitudes. That is no longer a tenable view.
Since the 2020 election, the situation has only worsened. Signs of continued slippage among working class voters were unmistakable in the 2021 elections, most notably among Hispanic and Asian working class voters. In the latest Monmouth poll, Biden’s approval rating among the multiracial working class was an abysmal 32 percent vs. 59 percent disapproval, compared to 52 percent approval among the college-educated.
This performance among working class voters should be unacceptable for a party of the left. After all, what is the point of a left party that cannot command the loyalty of the working class and therefore plausibly claim to represent its interests? And in raw electoral terms, worsening performance among working class voters makes the Democrats’ quest for political dominance essentially impossible, since the share of working class voters in the country is 70 percent larger than the share of college-educated voters.
To help remedy this situation, I suggest a simple test Democrats should be continually making on both their policies and rhetoric: What Would the Working Class Say? (WWWCS). This test is not so hard to do but it does entail getting outside of the liberal college-educated bubble so many Democrats live within, particularly as experienced on social media, in activist circles and within advocacy, nonprofit, media and academic institutions. Look at actual public opinion data—not as summarized by someone you know or something you read. Look at focus group reports. Talk to actual working class people—there are lots of them! Listen to your intuitions about how working class people would likely react to policies and rhetoric currently associated with the Democrats —not how you think they should react. Think of family members or people you grew up with who are working class. Try to get inside their heads. They are less ideological, more focused on material concerns, more likely to be struggling economically, less interested in cutting edge social issues, more patriotic and generally more culturally conservative. All this makes a difference.
That WWWCS test can tell you a lot about whether Democrats are on track with their approach. If the test indicates that Democrats are advocating or saying something that is likely unpopular, offputting and/or just lacks salience with working class people, that policy or rhetoric is probably on the wrong track. Conversely, if the test indicates that working class people are likely to view what Democrats are advocating/saying as desirable, in tune with their values and actually important to their everyday lives, that is a very good sign.
Here are some examples.
Return to Normality. Covid and the economy remain the top issues in the country. Biden and the Democrats are viewed as doing a good job on neither, despite having been elected primarily to fix these twin crises. Biden’s approval ratings on both these issues are underwater across surveys; the latest Pew survey shows a precipitous decline since last March in confidence that Biden can handle the coronavirus outbreak and make the right decisions about the economy.
In a recent CBS News poll, 58 percent said the Biden administration’s focus is not enough on the economy and 65 percent said the same thing about inflation. Only a third said Biden and the Democrats were focusing on issues they “care a lot about”. Among Biden disapprovers—the majority of the country—63 percent said getting inflation down would improve their opinion of Biden while just 24 percent said the same thing about passing the “Build Back Better” bill.
Despite the mountain of polling evidence suggesting that the Democrats should primarily be focusing on covid, the economy and getting the country back to normal—and communicating that to voters—the party is having difficulty tearing their attention away from a Build Back Better bill. To many Democrats it seems that their dreams of “transformation” are fading into the distance. But that was not what they were elected to do, particularly as far as working class voters are concerned. In the new Monmouth poll just 20 percent of working class respondents indicated they thought a Build Back Better bill should be the top priority of Congress in the coming year.
Evidently, to the typical working class voter, a return to normality in the coming year looms far larger than an endlessly debated “transformative” bill whose contents are almost impossible to keep track of. This makes sense when one keeps in mind the pragmatic, close to the ground perspective of working class voters whose lives have endured far more disruption than the liberal, college-educated Democrats who are the most fervent supporters of pushing the largest possible Build Back Better bill through Congress.
Here indeed in an area where the Democrats should be taking the WWWCS test.
Voting Rights/Crisis of Democracy. The Democrats’ kamikaze pitch for a comprehensive voting rights bill that was sure to fail was a puzzler. The fact of the matter is that voting rights barely register as a public concern. In a recent AP-NORC poll, where respondents could mention up to five problems for the government to work on in the coming year; just 6 percent of the public placed voting rights anywhere in their top five. This issue may be a top priority for the progressive wing of the Democratic party but it’s just not for ordinary voters—and I think we can safely say, for ordinary working class voters.
Even among the black population, a Morning Consult poll found that only 41 percent think the bigger problem with American democracy is that it’s too hard to vote, rather than voting regulations are not strict enough (among Hispanics the analogous figure was even lower at 34 percent). In a Monmouth poll, 84 percent of nonwhites said they supported requiring a photo ID for voting.
All this for voting rights bills that would do little to counter the threat of election subversion from vote decertification for partisan purposes, which was the original Democratic concern. A far more promising approach is reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to seal off a number of channels for election subversion. This approach has some bipartisan support and therefore some chance of actually happening. A pragmatic working class, desirous of both fair elections and moving on to action on their everyday concerns, would likely welcome this. Again: WWWCS.
Crime and Policing. One of the clearest areas where Democrats have lost touch with working class sentiments is on the issue of crime. Working class voters tend to live in areas that have more crime and are therefore unlikely to look kindly on any approach that threatens public safety. And yet Democrats, particularly in the wake of activism around George Floyd’s murder, have persistently eschewed a “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” that would effectively marry their concerns with social justice to the demand for public safety.
Instead, voters heard about “defund the police” and a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seemed quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as a spike in violent crime swept the nation. If Democrats had paid closer attention to the polls, they would have seen that even nonwhites were strongly opposed to reducing police presence and, if anything, favored increasing it. In Minneapolis, where Floyd’s murder took place, the closest thing to defunding the police actually got on the ballot…and was soundly defeated, especially by black working class voters. Consistent with this, a recent Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats—who are far more working class--are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
As London Breed, Mayor of San Franciso, said about her disagreements with the criminal justice ideology of progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin:
[T]hese ideologies have been what has failed our city, what has failed Black people in our city, and what continues to be about what beliefs are rather than how those beliefs are going to translate to an actual real difference in someone’s life and the ability to keep people safe….
I think a lot of people, like some members of the board, like Boudin, did not grow up in poverty in San Francisco. They did not grow up in these kinds of conditions. They have a theory as to what they believe based on their ideology.
So, perhaps especially on this issue: WWWCS.
Race/Gender/Language. It’s not exactly a state secret that Democrats have adopted positions on matters or race and gender that are far away from those of the median voter, especially the median working class voter. Voters in general, especially working class voters, tend to think the following:
· Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.
· Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society.
· No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.
· There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.
· There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.
· Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.
· Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.
Compare these with the current outlook and obsessions of the college-educated left within the Democratic party, which tends to have a kind of cultural hegemony within institutions associated with the party. It doesn’t match up too well. The language problem is a notably glaring: how can you speak for working class people if you can’t speak with them without annoying the hell out of them? Jeff Maurer puts it well in one of his substack posts:
The language thing is absolute poison. Words and phrases like “latinx”, “whiteness”, “lgbtqia2s+”, or even — God help us — “uterus-haver” make the speaker sound ridiculous and make the listener feel dumb. The speaker is also obliquely calling the listener a bigot and signaling their membership in a group that nobody wants to join. It’s pretentious and high-handed, and — again — everyone notices. There are ways of being welcoming and inclusive without sounding like an Orwellian robot that fell into a puddle.
Once again, with feeling: WWWCS.
I’ll grant you that the WWWCS test may be hard for some Democrats to pull off. But they should try if their vision of a just society includes a central role for the Democratic party. In fact, if they’re really serious about that, WWWCS should become an everyday reflex. Otherwise, the working class will still have its say and Democrats might not like what that say is.