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Democrats must reconnect with the white working class

The party can’t rely on just shifting demographics; it needs to win back its traditional base

February 22, 2016 2:00AM ET

The Republican Party faces an array of well-documented existential crises, ranging from an inability to connect with an increasingly diverse electorate to the rise of the tea party. Outsider Donald Trump’s status as the GOP presidential front-runner highlights the party’s weakness.

But Democrats are facing a major challenge all their own. A 2014 Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who identify as Democrats is at the lowest point since the 1950s. The party hemorrhaged supporters from 2008 to 2014, falling from 36 to 30 percent of national voters in the span of six years (Republicans saw a 2 point drop in the same period.)

What’s going on? Certainly, voters are frustrated with Washington, which has been deadlocked and bitterly partisan, particularly over the past eight years. And racial animus undoubtedly drove some supporters out of the Democratic Party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, although this is nearly impossible to verify through polling.

But a major reason is that the mainstream Democratic Party has abandoned the white working class, a segment of the population that used to make up the backbone of the party. Rather than sending a message that poorer white Americans still matter to the party, Democratic elites tend to dismiss them as racist, uneducated and uninformed.

Research shows that working-class Americans are the people who have lost the most worldwide as a result of free trade and outsourcing, with real wages dropping over time. And in 2008, the housing bubble burst, wreaking havoc predominantly in lower-income communities.

For the white working class in particular, the price has been steep. Recent research by two Princeton economists found that while death rates among all other racial and ethnic groups are falling, death rates have been rising among middle-aged white Americans, particularly those with no more than a high school degree. Dramatic increases in suicide and substance abuse, notably of heroin and prescription opioids, are the primary drivers of the additional deaths. Deepening poverty and persistent unemployment are at the root of it all. Nearly all the full-time, well-paying jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates.

Meanwhile, Democrats have failed to support, and at times helped to destroy, the unions that used to protect this segment of society. They have failed to find ways to keep manufacturing communities alive against the forces of globalization.

White working-class people are understandably angry. They used to believe middle-class security was an attainable goal. Now they don’t. Belief in the American Dream has plummeted among white Americans. From 1986 to 2015, a period of economic stagnation for working-class communities, the percentage of young, white Americans who said the American Dream does not exist nearly tripled.

By continually dismissing less educated and less wealthy Americans as racist and ignorant, the Democrats have alienated a natural base of support.

But no one seems to be listening to them, least of all the party that claims to stand for the little guy. Instead, the Democrats condescend and dismiss. We especially see this in the portrayal of Trump’s supporters (most of whom are white and many of whom are working-class) as backward, uninformed and bigoted. Many of these people are experiencing real economic hardship, and the fear that their livelihoods will continue to slip away, whether because of federal policies or elite indifference, is real. By continually dismissing less educated and less wealthy Americans as racist and ignorant, the Democrats have alienated a natural base of support.

This is not just an academic exercise. The loss of support is a real threat to the Democratic Party. Yet many observers believe that demographics are moving in the party’s favor, so much so that it can afford to abandon white working-class voters. There are two problems with this argument.

The first is the assumption that all people of color and millennials are Democrats. No demographic can be taken for granted, and younger voters in particular don’t align with the Democratic Party on every issue.

The second is the assumption that having a relatively larger share of progressives in the population will necessarily translate into political power. Theoretically, we should already be seeing the effects of the demographic shifts that progressives like to cite. But Democrats hold just 18 governorships, to the 31 held by Republicans. (Alaska’s governor is a Democratic-leaning independent.) The numbers on state legislatures are even worse: Democrats have a majority in just 11 of them, while Republicans have 31, and eight are split between the two parties. Perhaps most significant, Republicans control both houses of Congress.

To some extent, Democrats and blue-collar whites have naturally diverged on social issues. But, as Peter Beinart recently argued in The Atlantic, the public is moving left, particularly on issues such as gay marriage, gun control and abortion, and the Republican Party will eventually move with it. In order to stay competitive, Democrats have to offer a more compelling economic case to working-class whites.

There are ways to expand the party’s appeal without sacrificing core progressive values. They include economic revitalization plans for former factory towns, more funding for mental health research and systems, expanded retraining and education programs for the long-term unemployed and simply being mindful of the ways in which Democratic leaders speak publicly about this segment of American society.

Many Americans are afraid of the changes to the status quo that Democrats want to make. The party should not be trying to push them out of the way. Instead, it should be ensuring that there is space in the progressive agenda for the white working class to thrive as well.

Jennifer Rowland works at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., where she supports programs in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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