Originally published for The Baffler Magazine Issue no. 63 (“Proletarians”) in May 2022.
THE POSTMORTEMS WERE SWIFT and decisive. Despite winning the popular vote, Hillary Clinton had lost key Rust Belt States. Which meant she had been rejected by working-class voters—those white guys in hard hats. This analysis could be indirect or straight-on. Mark Lilla wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that Clinton’s loss was a rejection of “identity liberalism.” By acknowledging the interests of traditionally disfavored groups, she turned off “the white working class and those with strong religious convictions,” Lilla argued. Two days after the election, Joan C. Williams, author of White Working Class (2017), wrote for the Harvard Business Review that Clinton lost because blue-collar whites saw in her “the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.” Even Bernie Sanders, the so-called paragon of coalition building on the left, found himself deferring to the public narrative. “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite,” Sanders said on a CBS This Morning interview less than a week after election day. “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
There was nothing new in this critique of a losing Democratic campaign. When Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale, a labor-friendly former vice president from Minnesota, in 1984, a series of focus groups led by the pollster Stanley Greenberg zeroed in on working-class voters in Macomb County, Michigan, who Greenberg famously labeled as “Reagan Democrats.” As one reporter noted at the time, Greenberg “found that these working-class whites interpreted Democratic calls for economic fairness as code for transfer payments to African Americans.” The New York Times reported a few days after the 1984 election that exit polls showed Mondale winning 90 percent of the African American vote. Yet Mondale apparently had been unable, in the Sanders formulation, to “talk to where I came from.”
There’s no dispute that general working-class support for Democrats has fluctuated from election cycle to election cycle. The one constant, though, is that “working-class” is almost always used in the media to suggest white, male workers. The representative Reagan Democrat was, literally, a white autoworker in Michigan. Even when the white prefix is used to indicate a specific research interest—as in Joan Williams’s White Working Class—there is still an unspoken assumption that this is the part of the working class that matters most. White workers were supposedly neglected in the 2016 campaigns, and so we ended up with Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton.Continue reading