Rebuilding the Working Class

Rebuilding the Working Class

Our organizers talked to 300,000 voters, across racial and party lines, since the 2016 election. Here’s what we learned about rebuilding working-class power at the polls.

Participants in Working America’s “In This Together” canvassing campaign, 2016 (courtesy of Working America)

Trump isn’t an aberration but a consequence. He is a harrowing mix of monster and buffoon and rallying those who are outraged will be an important part of winning in 2018. But two generations of a falling standard of living and quality of life for most working people have led them to believe that politicians just aren’t that into them. These voters are dropping out of the political process or swinging erratically between the parties in elections as they try to find someone who will “shake things up.” Democrats who are giddy at the prospect of a wave election will be disappointed if they fail to understand what happened in 2016 and the need to do things differently this year.

Unless Democrats promote real solutions to the economic problems faced by working families and communities, they won’t win in states where a significant number of white working-class voters are needed for a majority. Even the highest projections for Democratic turnout in the key battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan can only be achieved by persuading swing voters that Democrats have at least credible, and at best, inspiring solutions to their problems. The challenge for Democrats is not just winning the 2018 election—it is radically changing how voters perceive government, politics, and the priorities of parties in order to win them over in the long run. This can only be done by addressing their real concerns and opening dialogue across the divisions of race and immigrant status.

I believe such a realignment is possible. This belief is based on the last fifteen years of organizing in working-class communities by Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO that I helped found in 2003. Our door-to-door organizers have had more than 12 million conversations, 80 percent of which have been with white working-class moderates across the country. Our 3 million members are not in unions, and 90 percent of our email subscribers don’t show up on the list of any other progressive organization.

For Democrats to win these voters over is not a simple task. Working America’s organizers have encountered racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant bias that is more overt and pointed today than we have ever seen. But by focusing on economic issues, organizers have been able to establish common ground and can help bridge social divides through ongoing engagement with voters.

Since the 2016 election, we’ve talked with 300,000 voters to understand their attitudes, concerns, sources of information, and what approaches and arguments they find persuasive. Here’s what we found.


Voting against the establishment

Darren, forty-four, and Rhonda, fifty-seven, are both white Rust Belt voters, long-time Democrats who reluctantly voted for Trump. They voiced the cynicism and confusion that many voters like them felt in the last election.

Darren believes that all politicians are out of touch with regular voters and hopes that, as an outsider, Trump will pay attention to issues like poverty and child hunger. “We mean nothing [to politicians],” he said, “because regular people don’t have money.”

Rhonda, a retired teacher, is pro-choice and supports marriage equality. But she voted for Trump because she wanted to send a message to career politicians who helped create a government “that no longer works for Americans.”

Many African Americans are disappointed in politicians too. Darren and Rhonda echo the black voters we talked to in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio, most of whom voted for Clinton. Nearly half of these voters said it made no difference to their economic well-being if Democrats or Republicans were in office.

Carol, fifty-five, was laid off from her job of thirty years and can’t find anything else. Though she voted, she doesn’t blame people who didn’t. “They don’t see anything around them change. [Politicians] promise things and nothing happens. You have to ask yourself, ‘Does it even matter?'”

Carol isn’t wrong to think that Democrats’ allegiances lie elsewhere. Starting in the 1970s, Democrats came to rely on corporate donors. In 2016, business interests contributed equally to Democrats and Republicans, accounting for two-thirds of their income. And that doesn’t include indirect political contributions.

The interests of wealthy donors trumped those of working-class voters, and they know it. The Democratic Party, over the last two generations, failed to make a priority of addressing the forces that were destroying working-class communities, such as outsourcing, privatization, assaults on union rights, and the collapse of good, stable jobs.

We see the effects. A study by economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger found that between 2005 and 2015, 94 percent of net job growth has been in “alternative work arrangements”—such as temporary work, independent contracting, and the like. So when parents worry that their children can’t find good jobs, they’re right.

We heard the fear and frustration in the fall of 2015, and understood then that Trump was a real threat. At the time, half of the likely swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania we talked with hadn’t yet chosen a candidate. But of those who had, a startling 38 percent supported Trump, more than the total for Clinton and Sanders combined. And one out of four Democrats preferred Trump too.

When asked why they supported him, only one out of ten voters named an issue; the rest cited a personal characteristic, with nearly half saying “he speaks his mind.” A strong core of Trump’s support came from Republicans—after all, a third of voters in this country are conservative. But he also attracted fed-up voters who were ready to burn the house down. One male voter from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, said, “They’re all crooks and liars. Can’t trust any of them.” This undertow withstood all the ripples of the Trump campaign—Russia, the Access Hollywood tape, his conflicts of interest. His narrow victory in 2016 was the result.


Polarized, but not partisan

Simply defeating Trump in 2018 won’t fix what’s broken. The country may be highly polarized around Trump himself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these voters care much for Democrats. Our field leaders report a strong shift away from party identification both in Trump country and in urban communities.

According to a long-time field director in Ohio, “Fewer people are strongly ID’ing as Democrat or Republican; more are likely to describe themselves as pro- or anti-Trump. A lot of Trump supporters don’t necessarily like the Republican Congress. A lot of Democrats aren’t happy with the Party.”

Black, white, and Hispanic voters are all much more likely to say that “all politicians”—not an individual, such as the president or a governor—are responsible for the economy in the last ten years. They don’t distinguish who is acting on their behalf and who crafts policies at the behest of wealthy elites. In their minds, members of both political parties are equally at fault.

But the ideological chaos Trump has sown allows Wall Street and corporate elites to obscure their outsized role in shaping the U.S. economy. As a result, almost 70 percent of people across racial lines say that politicians, not corporations, are responsible for the state of the economy. Only 10 percent of the people we talked to blamed Wall Street and corporations. About the same number blamed lazy people or society for the economy. The mutually reinforcing relationship between political power and the distribution of wealth remains hidden in plain sight.


Don’t tell them they’re wrong—tell them something new

As any couples counselor will tell you, it doesn’t work to go up to a stranger and pick a fight with them about what they “know” and believe. You can, however, provide new information and pivot to common ground. A big part of Trump’s base is not going to change. But about half of the swing voters we spoke to were willing to support politicians who took their economic problems seriously.

I knocked on Gertrude’s door in central Ohio a year ago. In her early eighties, Gertrude was a staunch Trump voter, and her middle-aged daughter invited us in to talk. They were not concerned about Russia or Trump’s conflicts of interest. But when we told them that his tax plan would eliminate HEAP, the popular heating assistance program in Ohio, Gertrude’s daughter slumped back in her chair. “We depend on HEAP,” she said. We had made a connection, and can now go back to them on this and other economic issues in the future.

Linda, a white grandmother in her sixties, complained to us about immigrants and lowered her voice when she talked about her fear of Muslims. We didn’t challenge her on her racism—after all, we had just knocked on her door. But we did talk about the need for good schools and that tax reform could hurt families like hers. Linda said she wanted us to stay in touch with her.

One of our organizers spoke to a couple about the new tax plan. The husband said, “I know people who had an extra $300 in their paycheck, the liberals have this wrong.” She didn’t challenge his facts, but instead asked a question: “So what will you do in a few years when these breaks expire? The corporate tax breaks are permanent.”

As David Leonhardt recently wrote in the New York Times, “The best debate for Democrats is one that keeps reminding white working-class voters that they’re working class. It’s a debate about Medicare, Medicaid, tax, or Wall Street. The worst debate is one that keeps reminding these voters that they’re white.” Leonhardt could have been talking about Gertrude and Linda.

And class is making a comeback. Union favorability is the highest it’s been in fifteen years, at 61 percent according to Gallup. Mac, in his mid-twenties, told me he grew up in a family of cement masons. He saw how important the union was in shaping their views. They always had the union paper around, and his father and uncles talked about it. “This may sound radical,” he said, “but I believe class consciousness is made.”

Our conversations in the field show that class issues are on voters’ minds. Nicole, thirty-three, is a Democrat who voted for Trump but believes “the rich should pay more taxes and the working class less. Heck, they can afford it.” Allison, forty-two, said, “Everything is stacked against you. It’s a challenge to be a working person in America.” Reflecting on her health problems, she continued, “We’re pawns in a chess game to make money. You better find a way to make money for the rich people or you’ll die.”


Finding common ground

To reach swing voters, the solution is to go left. Our conversations reveal that working-class voters across racial lines, including Trump supporters, endorse an economic agenda that benefits working people and are looking for politicians who show up and fight for it.

We talked with likely midterm voters about eleven public policies designed to address economic and public health concerns. Trump voters supported most of the policies. Two-thirds or more supported policies on outsourcing, the opioid crisis, paid family leave. A majority supported expanding overtime, paid sick days, and ending employee misclassification, and nearly half supported making it easier to unionize.

Susie, sixty-nine, a white Trump voter from Circleville, Ohio, said she watches Fox News because when she changes the channel she feels “like taking an antidepressant, they’re so negative.” Though she’s a strong Trump supporter, she “likes the sound” of the policies to raise the minimum wage, improve retirement savings, and establish paid leave.

We compared priorities and concerns across race, talking with black, white, and Hispanic voters and found surprising agreement on their priorities. All three groups identify jobs/economy and healthcare as their top two issues. But they don’t see convincing champions. Some respond to the economic stresses they face by not voting at all, while others split their votes or switch parties.

A laundry list of policies isn’t good enough. A higher minimum wage and paid leave have been thrillingly successful fights, but they don’t reach the depths of the problems faced by so many. Remember that Katz and Krueger study about new jobs in “alternative work arrangements”? People want politicians to address the enormity of the jobs crisis or at least look like they’re really trying, with policies such as massive public investment in infrastructure tied to community-based training and hiring programs, economic development plans for stressed rural and inner-city communities, living wages and benefits for all public and publicly supported jobs, and the like.

One middle-aged white woman in suburban Philadelphia, Dorine, was an ardent Trump supporter. She angrily complained about parents and immigrants who got free breaks, while she, single, with no kids, and a cancer survivor, received none, even though she was living in poverty.

“After a while, she broke down and began crying,” the organizer reported. “At this point, I knew this wasn’t just about Trump anymore. She truly felt that she was alone without support in society, and that Trump was the only exception. While I told her honestly that we disagreed with her on immigrants, one thing we found agreement on was that this tax plan was atrocious, because it was a handout to the rich by cutting healthcare programs.”

The organizer concedes that he didn’t change her views on immigrants in this one conversation. “But,” he said, “I can say she felt listened to and supports what we’re doing to hold corporations accountable, because she became a member and signed the petition. We hugged goodbye and she shouted to her neighbors next door and across the street about how they needed to support what I was doing.”


Strong institutions and trusted messengers

Dorine worked through her thoughts with our organizer because she viewed him as a trusted messenger. Our canvassers report that the phrases “we’re non-partisan” and “we aim to hold politicians accountable” get even the most reluctant people to open up. As one Philadelphia man put it, “I really appreciate you coming out here and telling me this . . . I am tired of all the stuff on TV and wouldn’t have found half of this [information] on my own.”

That role used to be played by people you knew in civic organizations, your church, or, most importantly, a union. Unions bear some responsibility for their loss of membership and power and many are making important internal changes to address these problems, such as undertaking comprehensive member education and engagement efforts, developing new approaches to organizing and representation, and cultivating an independent political voice. But the attack on unions and their decline hurts workers, progressives, and Democrats grievously.

Unions remain the backbone of a class-based progressive movement. In 2016, they contributed $150 million to elections and reaching voters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

They have an unparalleled infrastructure, with 40,000 local organizations around the country, lobbyists at every level of government, and tens of millions of dollars in direct grants to nonprofit worker-advocacy and research organizations every year. “Even in their diminished state, unions still provide a significant amount of the money, organization, political power, and stability that fuel progressive life,” writes long-time unionist Kim Fellner. “That’s why the right hates them. But they also don’t get much love from the left, which demands a level of ideological purity that unions, with a much broader constituency, can seldom attain.” Weaker unions lead to fewer votes for Democrats. A recent analysis finds that right-to-work laws decreased Democratic presidential vote share by 3.5 percent. Turnout is also 2 to 3 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after those laws pass.

Perhaps the most important consequence of union decline is that fewer Americans have direct experience with collective power. If they don’t believe that joining together builds the strength that can hold politicians accountable and challenge Wall Street and corporate lobbyists, then voting for the politician who promises a tax cut rather than affordable healthcare or economic development feels rational. “People only see what they can see,” as one of our lead organizers put it.

Unions also have a big influence on their members. Union members have long supported Democratic candidates more than their neighbors because they have experience changing their economic conditions through collective bargaining, and because they receive political information from a source they trust.

Democrats need and should support unions and community groups, which can act as trusted messengers. It’s those trusted messengers—co-workers, neighbors, and organizers—who can also begin to tackle our frightening social divisions today. Our diverse team of canvas organizers has encountered racism, sexism, and xenophobia at the door. People will remark on how articulate organizers of color are, they’ll oppose Black Lives Matter, and blame immigrants for taking jobs and driving down wages. A canvasser noticed a door with stickers “Speak English” and “I’m Republican because we can’t all be on welfare.” Another saw “Men’s Rights” yard signs. A white organizer said that white bigots expect his complicity.

Is there a way to move these people? Our organizers insist that for some of them, there is. “Being at the door and having the conversation is the most important thing we can do to combat this,” a Latina field director said. “I encounter people I never would have met otherwise, hopefully changing minds and introducing them to new perspectives. I compare it to the gay rights movement—people need to be visible, meet people outside their bubble.”

Does this class-based strategy actually work? It did in the governor’s race in Virginia last year.

The “resistance” won big for Democrats in northern Virginia—where the party’s candidates for governor (Ralph Northam), lieutenant governor (Justin Fairfax), and the state legislature won by large margins. But we tested our theories in Trump country in southwest Virginia—cities like Lynchburg, Christiansburg, and Martinsville. We were the only ones on our side talking to these small-town voters who had given Trump a twenty-point margin in 2016.

We started with a week in the field just asking voters what they cared about and found that healthcare was a bigger priority than jobs in Virginia, which has a low unemployment rate. So we focused our canvassing on raising support for expanding Medicaid. We asked every voter to sign a petition to that end. We pledged to hold all the state’s elected representatives accountable and asked voters to sign up for our email program so they could stay involved; half of them did, a remarkable result in an election canvassing effort.

According to independent analysts David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, our efforts moved the vote in this conservative area for Ralph Northam by eight points and for Justin Fairfax, an African American, by ten. Dozens of new members later became active in the campaign to expand Medicaid. These new activists were primarily older, female, and racially diverse—70 percent white and 30 percent African American. And Governor Northam did his part by making the expansion of Medicaid his first order of business.

We’ve made gains in other elections in Trump country this year. Pennsylvania’s congressional district 18 voted for Trump by twenty points in 2016. We engaged swing voters with issue-oriented, longer conversations and found those concerned about Social Security and healthcare were most likely to be persuaded to vote for Democrat Conor Lamb. A strong union program mobilizing members to talk with each other, combined with canvassing efforts helped Lamb gain fifteen points from voters outside of his base, a margin he needed to win.

In a special election for state senate in suburban Minneapolis, canvassers encountered nativist yard signs in lower-middle-class neighborhoods. The Republican incumbent came from a prominent family, and attacked the Democratic newcomer as a “tax-and-spend liberal.” We identified a narrow slice of persuadable voters, emphasized the issue of investing in local infrastructure, and canvassed them repeatedly. The precincts we saturated performed three points better than similar precincts we did not canvass.

“We can contest for the hearts and minds of disaffected white working-class voters, and we will need to prevail in Trump country to take back the House and defend the ten Democrats running for Senate in states where Trump won,” said Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America. He calls this “the movement and the math.” Momentum alone won’t prevail in hard-hit states where white voters predominate.

But there is much more at stake than just getting Democrats elected in 2018. We have to do the hard work of organizing working people across race to demand an economy that works for all of them.


Karen Nussbaum is the founding director and a board member of Working America, AFL-CIO.


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