Building Trust to Win Votes

There’s a mostly good article at Washington Monthly about the problems Democrats have with white working class voters. Andrew Levison writes that if Democrats are going to win WWC votes, they have to earn WWC trust.

WWC voters see three interest-group blocks that they say they don’t trust. One is politicians, who are seen as utterly corrupt parasites. This may account why they don’t learn from voting for Republicans.

Two is “Wall Street financial elite that makes decisions in faraway office towers that destroy local community jobs and mom-and-pop businesses.” And three is the “liberal elite.”

The third group is the “liberal” elite—the heterogeneous group of college professors and students, Hollywood actors and producers, music and fashion producers, and TV, newspaper, and magazine columnists and commentators. They are not seen as a financial ruling class but rather a social group that dominates and controls the culture …. This power to impose their “liberal” agenda on ordinary Americans is obtained through a cynical alliance with minorities who are bribed to vote for Democrats by various kinds of “handouts,” special government programs, or preferential treatment.

There is a big urban versus rural component this, also. If you live in a city, you are more likely to accept diversity because you can’t very well avoid it. Small towns and suburbs are more homogenous.

This “class consciousness” and “class resentment” is a complex perspective that cannot be easily tracked by standard opinion polls. For this reason, it is often overlooked in the discussion of Democratic political strategy. But it is vividly evident in focus groups with white working-class Americans, in the discussions that occur during progressive campaigns of door to door canvassing in white working-class neighborhoods, and in the interviews conducted during ethnographic field studies. Its centrality is revealed in the very titles of the major sociological studies of white working-class Americans that have appeared in the last several years: Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Justin Gest’s The New Minority.

Essentially, a decades-long campaign by conservatives has succeeded in creating among the broad majority of white working class and small town/red state Americans a deeply embedded view of Democrats as the party of the educated urban elite who impose their liberal agenda through a cynical alliance with minorities.

Further, in “red” states most voters simply never hear Democratic messages. Levison describes a “three-level conservative ideological cocoon” that shuts out everything but right-wing messages. The Fox News and similar national media; “local” media, often dominated by Sinclair TV stations and regional talk radio; and personal relationships. What’s happened in vast parts of the United States is that these three levels have formed a perfect echo chamber/feedback loop exclusively for right-wing messages. Nothing else can get through. I’ve been pretty much saying the same thing for years.

Levison does a good job describing the problem. The question is, what’s to be done about it? Levison’s prescriptions are weak, seems to me. Yeah, okay, be Jon Tester and go out and fix a tractor now and then.  But I disagree with Levison that campaigning on issues is not the way to win back voters.

Part of the problem with Democrats is that they believe they campaign on issues when they really don’t.  This was my gripe with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She did not campaign on issues. Clinton supporters disagree with that and complain up and down that she did too; she had a whole website full of policy proposals. Yeah, and the only way to find out about them was to go to her website. By watching her television ads and seeing her on the teevee news, you wouldn’t have had a clue what she was running on other than her resume.

The recent right-to-work vote in Missouri proves that voters can turn out for issues. The Washington Post had a fascinating vote analysis that showed some of the same areas that went big for Trump in 2016 also went big against right-to-work this week.

From Washington Post

The two highlighted counties are the ones with the biggest difference in votes. By some coincidence, where I am living now is adjacent to those counties. The Washington County line is about a twenty-minute walk from here. It is rural, white, poor as dirt. The biggest employers, I’m guessing, are county government and WalMart.

Right-to-work is a signature Republican issue in these parts, and it failed with Republican voters.

Of course, the opposition didn’t run oppo ads saying that right-to-work is a corrupt politician who is friends with Nancy Pelosi.

Josh Hawley, who is running against Claire McCaskill for senator, says in his ads that he represents Missouri values, but McCaskill doesn’t. What values would those be? The value of busting unions and underpaying workers? Of closing rural hospitals to force laboring women to travel for two hours to a hospital? Of laying off workers because of Trump’s tariffs? Which values, exactly? There is an unspoken assumption that Democrats are off-the-charts amoral and corrupt, but what the bleep? Republicans aren’t?

McCaskill is running on how she is going to take on the drug companies to lower prices. Okay, but too small bore. We’re going to fix health care, dammit. Don’t be afraid to make big promises. But then, of course, you can’t just disappear into a government office building, not to be heard from until the next campaign. Levison says,

[If] Democrats can regain a majority in the House of Representatives this November, it will provide them with the opportunity to show white working-class Americans the real sources of their economic problems and who is their genuine advocate. .. Revealing the hidden history of deindustrialization and the impoverishment of large sectors of small town and rural America can indeed contribute significantly to showing these voters that Democrats are actually “on their side” and “understand their problems”

The “hidden history” is how people and communities who have been left behind by the global economy were tossed aside by corporations and the local business communities. Levison provides examples. But Democrats have to be aggressive, and as nasty as they need to be. No more gentility.

Anyway, do read the whole Levison article. He does make some good points.

11 thoughts on “Building Trust to Win Votes

  1. So Levinson says "it's not our fault; someone else did it; we can get them back; they resent us for no reason; even though we're not the 'elite' we are empowered to change other people"? That's almost Trumpian. Amazing! I should say something clever about horseshoe theory here but I just can't stomach it.

    He somehow missed that Democrats completely abandoned the WWC (unironically misapplied from pro wrestling to the working class?), which would otherwise explain some of his magical thinking. They think there are urban liberal elites in urban areas because those are the regions not abandoned. Not surprisingly because execs and bankers and such live there. Not that they're elite, I'm sure. This doesn't fit Levinson's narrative of victim blaming and party guiltlessness, though.

    Maybe one day when Democrats learn to listen to these people and try to represent their interests (e.g. no to "right to work") they can have their votes again. Maybe they should try listening to those progressives.

    • “it’s not our fault; someone else did it; we can get them back; they resent us for no reason; even though we’re not the ‘elite’ we are empowered to change other people”?

      Drew Cooper — I take it you struggle with reading comprehension. While Levison could have done more to emphasize the way Democrats abandoned the middle class in the 1980s and 1990s, your characterization of what he said is several light-years away from what he actually wrote.

  2. I think Mr. Levison is right with his advice, but the people who are in control of the national party are committed to a strategy of "promise her anything but give her Arpege." They actually prefer not to campaign on the issues, I believe, because they have no intention of fulfilling any of those promises. I wish I didn't have to bring it up so often, but I've been reading Al From's book, <i>The NEW Democrats and the Return to Power</i>, and he explains there exactly why the New Democrats/Third Way chose to abandon the New Deal, separate themselves from Labor, and swear fealty to Wall Street. He praises Bill Clinton for putting these  policies into effect, and my belief is the only way to return to electoral power is to get these weasels out. Fortunately that's happening in a lot of places, and I have some faint hope for the enthusiastic, idealistic left-leaning candidates, many of them women and many new to politics. I hope they can be weaned away from moronic ideas like "impeachment now!" and brought to concentrate on things like $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All.

  3. "There is an unspoken assumption that Democrats are off-the-charts amoral and corrupt, what what the bleep? Republicans aren’t?"

    This is another one of those tropes republicans still run on, e.g. democrats are weak on defense and soft on crime; that they are fiscally irresponsible, to name a few. 

    Given Trump and all the corruption swirling around him, and GOP legislators not only abandoning their constitutional duty to reel him in, but some acting as accomplices, the GOP has ceded any realistic hold on decent values.  Democrats need to point this out when they bring it up.

  4. I was around to witness the beginnings of the rift between the White working class and the Democratic Party. That's one reason I say that George Wallace defeated Hillary Clinton. It was George Wallace who showed Nixon and other Republicans that a Southern (i.e., racist) strategy would work. At the same time, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the Feminist Movement were changing the Democratic Party, to the dismay of the Solid (Democratic) South. Also, in the 1970s racism in the North was being addressed. It was the children of the working class, not the elites, who were being bussed in order to integrate schools. The children of the working class were being drafted, while the children of the elite got deferments. At the time, it did not seem to me so much that the Democratic Party was deserting the White working class outside the South as that they were being wooed by the Republicans and deserting the Democratic Party. Later on, the New Democrats embraced the corporations and globalists, turning away from the unions. The Republicans had always embraced them, but didn't let on to their working class voters. Even so, the Democrats continued to produce better economic results for all groups than the Republicans, but they did not woo the White working class, but championed social and economic equality, which focused upon minority groups. Unfortunately, it was the White working class who paid for the sins of the right-wing elites. 

    What to do? I can't say. But I do think that one place to start is to admit that the White working class has been oppressed. That is as true now as it was in the antebellum South. The oppression of slavery allowed Southern elites to oppress the White working class, and play them and the slaves off against each other.

  5. Procopius: "They actually prefer not to campaign on the issues, I believe, because they have no intention of fulfilling any of those promises."

    Amen, brother, amen!

  6. Rural v. Urban.

    IMO, that IS the real main problem America has, and always has had. 

    And the Constitutional Convention had to deal with that.

    Southern rural areas wanted to keep their slaves, since agricultural work took a lot of labor.  And the rich whites loved their labor to be free.  Why pay, when you can enslave?   

    Urban areas had less need for slaves, since The Industrial Revolution was changing the economy there.

    During the debates over our Constitution, the slave-owning states wanted go be sure that the North didn't dominate representation in the new government because they had a far larger populace.

    One compromise was that black people in the South – who weren't allowed to vote – were assigned "3/5th's" of a person, so their master could vote for them. 

    Another compromise, was that each state was assigned 2 Senators – no matter its population.

    I won't bore you with any more basic American history.

    So, let's talk about the future.  But it'll scare ya!

    I recently read that by 2040, 70% of Americans will be living in urban areas, and 30% in rural.

    Looks good right?

    But look at it again.  

    And think about the consequences.  Not just culturally, but politically.

    More cultural discord?  Yes.

    How about politically?  Well, there may very well be additional Republicans in the Senate.   

    And we already have too many states that have 2 GOP Senators, and they both represent less people than a NYC borough.  



    • At the very least, we absolutely must get rid of the electoral college and begin to choose presidents by popular vote.

  7. Definitely get rid of the electoral college and I am also in favor of term limits for members of Congress.  Need to get rid of those old fogeys that have made it a career and get some fresh blood in there.  If they didn't have to spend so much time fund raising for re-election, they might get something done.

  8. "It was George Wallace who showed Nixon and other Republicans that a Southern (i.e., racist) strategy would work."


    The white working class has been virtually all in with the GOP since 1968.  Attracted by low taxes, law and order, small government – all of the tropes that Lee Atwater famously mentioned as dog whistles for racism that would appeal to the WWC, their support reached its high-water mark with Reagan in 1984, when he got 525 Electoral College votes.  They came back to some extent with Clinton, but the tide turned again under Obama, leading to Trump.

    Here’s what I’d like to ask the WWC: what have you gotten for your years of support and dedication to the GOP?  Your taxes aren’t lower, and law and order is relative to the overall social condition, unless you are taking it at its real meaning, which is suppression of minorities which Trump had the insight to focus on for you, at least rhetorically.  Small government was just the vehicle that produced, over time, the economic inequalities that are now too stark to ignore, not to mention taking access to health care for many of you away.  The GOP fed them rhetoric about improving their lives, but didn’t really mean economically.  They just defined “better” from a social rather than an economic perspective, which apparently had been fine.  Clinton being “The Man from Hope” and Obama’s “Hope and Change” appealed because they thought maybe they’d get more than their fears addressed.  Which is why Trump had the foresight to come at them from the left, phony though it was, but knew enough to know that, other than the ACA, and that left a lot to be desired from many of these voters perspectives, Obama didn’t really address these issues.  Hillary Clinton just seemed to offer more of the same.  Hence, Trump.

    Still though, the WWC has been selling themselves out for a long time, buying into the GOP snake oil of a restoration of their social position that had always been built on a house of cards, rather than realizing their class affinities across racial lines as working people.  Hard to feel sorry for them.  That said, having been thoroughly bamboozled by Trump, democrats have the best opportunity they’ve had in years to bring a significant number of WWC voters back into the fold.  But they need to appeal to them on a purely class basis, and not so much as a "white" working class.

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