Which Party Has Been Better for the White Working Class?

While we wait for Pennsylvania election results…

Over at Vox, Sean Illing interviews Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist who has talked to hundreds of people in small towns across the country and recently published The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. Why, Illing asks, do small-town folks think that Washington is threatening their way of life? According to Wuthnow, it’s not because of economic stagnation:

WUTHNOW: A lot of it is just scapegoating. And that’s why you see more xenophobia and racism in these communities. There’s a sense that things are going badly, and the impulse is to blame “others.”…They recognize that the federal government controls vast resources, and they feel threatened if they perceive Washington’s interest being directed more toward urban areas than rural areas, or toward immigrants more than non-immigrants, or toward minority populations instead of the traditional white Anglo population.

ILLING: But that’s just racism and cultural resentment, and calling it a manifestation of some deeper anxiety doesn’t alter that fact.

WUTHNOW: I don’t disagree with that. I’m just explaining what I heard from people on the ground in these communities. This is what they believe, what they say, not what I believe.

This is a political problem for Democrats: if small-town residents were driven by economic concerns, there might be something they could do to help. Larry Summers, for example, argues for a sort of Marshall Plan for distressed areas of the country. The problem is that it’s unclear if it would do Democrats any good. Take a look at this chart of blue-collar earnings:

The 1979-80 drop in blue-collar earnings was one of the reasons Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, but the Reagan Democrats who helped put him in office got nothing in return. Since then, two Democratic presidents have delivered good wage growth for blue-collar workers, while a Republican president delivered an enormous recession. And yet, many white—and only white—working-class voters continue to be loyal Republicans. Democrats have been pretty good for these folks, but it hasn’t translated into reliable votes.

This suggests that Wuthnow is right. But if the real problem among the white working class is anxiety over blacks and immigrants and changing cultural mores, that’s no better. These are core principles that liberals just aren’t willing to compromise about.

Either way, Democrats have a big problem if they need to win votes among these folks. I suppose that some of the answer might be purely rhetorical. But even after reading dozens of books and articles on this topic, I’m still not entirely sure how.


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