Republicans and the White Working Class

Jim Tankersley:

For the past 40 years, America's economy has raked blue-collar white men over the coals. It whittled their paychecks. It devalued the type of work they did best. It shuttered factories and mines and shops in their communities....They were not the only ones who felt abandoned by a rapidly globalizing economy, but they developed a distinctly strong pessimism in its face.

On Tuesday, their frustrations helped elect Donald Trump, the first major-party nominee of the modern era to speak directly and relentlessly to their economic and cultural fears....It was a rejection of the business-friendly policies favored at various points by elites in both parties, which deepened trade relationships with foreign countries and favored allowing more immigrants in. And it was a raw outburst at the trends of rising inequality and economic dislocation that defined America's economy thus far this century.

We're going to hear a lot about this over the next few months. We're going to hear about it so much we're all going to get sick of it. But every time it comes up, I ask myself: Just what are Democrats supposed to do about this? Whatever they are or aren't doing, you have to keep two things in mind:

  • It's only the white working class that has abandoned the party. Working class blacks, working class Latinos, and working class Asians all seem to be perfectly happy with Democratic policies.
  • By any objective measure, Democratic economic policies are better for the white working class than Republican economic policies. And yet the white working class keeps moving inexorably toward the Republican Party anyway.

So is this about policies? Is it about NAFTA and the decline of unions and friendliness to Wall Street? It's hard to see how, since Republicans support these policies far more avidly than Democrats.

Is it about economic decline? Absolutely yes. Nonwhites may be in worse shape than whites, but they've generally made progress over the past few decades. White men alone have seen absolute declines. But what can Democrats do about this? Blacks and Latinos started from such a poor position that they were bound to close some of the gap with whites.

Is it about taxes? Not in any objective sense. The American working class barely pays any federal income tax at all. They're on the hook for payroll taxes, but that's about it. It's all but impossible to cut their taxes any more.

I could go on. And maybe I will eventually. But it's hard to conclude from all this that the white working class is angry about Democratic economic policies. It's mostly about racial and cultural identity—and Republicans appeal to that primarily via symbolic attacks on welfare and immigration and affirmative action and "inner city" crime. Can Democrats join them in doing that? I don't see how.