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The Blue-Collar Imperative

Memo Pad Politics

The Blue-Collar Imperative


WASHINGTON — In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is giving Republicans a real scare in a Senate race the GOP thought it had put away. Some of her new momentum comes from a sustained attack on David Perdue, her businessman foe, for his work shipping American jobs overseas.

One ad includes a quotation from Perdue about his outsourcing past: “Defend it? I’m proud of it.” The tagline: “David Perdue, he’s not for you.”

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, trailing in the polls against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, has refused to say whether she voted for President Obama. But when Hillary Clinton came to the state to campaign for her last week, Grimes was proud to call herself “a Clinton Democrat.”

This is no accident: In Kentucky’s 2008 presidential primary, Clinton defeated Obama 65 percent to 30 percent. Coal country in Eastern Kentucky is a battleground in the Senate contest, and Clinton swept the region six years ago. In Magoffin County, Clinton received 93 percent of the vote.

Finally, consider a speech Clinton’s husband made in New Hampshire last Thursday, campaigning on behalf of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and the rest of the Democratic ticket. “I feel like an old racehorse in a stable,” former President Bill Clinton told a crowd of about 1,200 at a fundraiser to appreciative laughter, “and people just take me out and put me on the track and slap me on the rear to see if I can run around one more time.”

But his message about the Republicans was dead serious. “They want you to cast resentment votes,” he declared. “Resentment against the president. Resentment against the Affordable Care Act. Resentment against the last bad thing that happened.”

The elections in Georgia and Kentucky are different in important ways, but one lesson from both is that Democrats can’t win without a sufficient share of the white working-class vote. Nunn, on offense, and Grimes, on defense, are both trying to secure ballots from the sorts of voters who were once central to the Democratic coalition.

And Bill Clinton’s comments reflected what his party is up against: Republicans have been quite effective at turning the anger that working-class whites feel about being left behind in the new economy against liberals, Democrats and especially the president. The Democrats’ worries were nicely captured in a headline on Matthew Cooper’s recent Newsweek article: “Why Working-Class White Men Make Democrats Nervous.”

There is no reason to be dainty or evasive in saying that racism and racial resentment are part of the equation, and it’s not just that Obama is our first African-American president. Racial politics has been helping Republicans since the 1960s when much of the white South realigned toward the GOP in reaction to the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights.

This year, it’s not hard to see coded messages in Republican advertisements blanketing the airwaves tying the Islamic State and even Ebola fears to immigration and border security, or ads in gubernatorial campaigns in Maine and Massachusetts about welfare.

Yet race is not the only thing going on. Andrew Levison, the author of The White Working Class Today, says it’s important to distinguish between racial feelings today and those of a half-century ago. “It’s not 1950s racism,” he told me. “It’s more a sense of aggrievement — that Democrats care about other groups but not about the white working class.”

Complicating matters, but also giving Democrats hope, is the fact that younger members of the white working are more culturally liberal than their elders. They are also more open to a stronger government role in the economy, as Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress have shown.

Perdue’s problems on outsourcing, like Mitt Romney’s 2012 troubles related to his own business background, reveal the major soft spot in the GOP’s white working-class armor: that many blue-collar Americans combine a mistrust of Democrats with a deep skepticism about the corporate world. Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, says this points the way toward arguments that progressives need to make in the future.

“We have to expose the unholy alliance between money and politics,” she says. “Concern about inequality is unifying, it’s cross-partisan, and it’s not ideological.”

This will play some this year but may loom larger in 2016. For now, vulnerable Democrats seem eager to have the old racehorse on the track, and Arkansas and Louisiana were the next stops on Bill Clinton’s schedule. He’s trying to bring home voters who once saw his party as the working man’s best friend.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Be The Change, Inc via Flickr

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. Dominick Vila October 20, 2014

    Racism is an important element in the anti-Obama sentiments that dominate the decisions of many voters, but the most important factor is the fear or frustration that so many Americans feel about the changes that have transformed a nation where blue collar workers could aspire to earn a good salary, enjoy a good benefit package, send his children to college, and save to enjoy a comfortable retirement, into a nation where a 4-year degree is often not enough to qualify for a job at premier corporations such as Google, MICROSOFT, GE, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Apple, HONEYWELL and others.
    The United States economic model has changed dramatically during the last 4 or 5 decades, and a fairly large segment of our population did not prepare itself for those changes. As a result there are many among us who struggle to support their families, doing menial low paying work, while professionals from countries like India and Pakistan, enter the USA with H1b visas and get six figure jobs the moment they set foot on U.S. soil.
    The frustrations of those who have been left behind, often because of the decisions they made, manifest themselves in a blame game against anyone who represents authority or power, regardless of whether or not the targets or their ire had anything to do with their financial problems and their inability to get ahead.
    The frustration they feel, their fear of cultural changes, and their animosity towards anyone that looks or sounds different, have been skillfully exploited by a Republican party that seems to be much more aware of what resonates in the blue collar world, than Democratic strategists do, and we are likely to learn the consequences of our reliance on stating the benefits of our policies and assuming all Americans are capable of understanding the nuances of governance in the not too distant future.

    1. FireBaron October 20, 2014

      Dominick, we need to remind people that a significant portion of this demonstrated racism against President Obama, goes back to the “He’s not like us,” and “Real Americans” speeches by the failed Reality TV star named Sarah Palin. Those speeches provided a direction for the frustrations on the part of displaced White Factory workers (who pretty much lost their jobs due to Republican Supporters off-shoring their jobs), aiming their anger at someone who did not “look” like them.

      1. kenndeb October 20, 2014

        Yeah. Everyone is a racist. Let’s not look at the Emperors failed policies, or his lies and deceit. Nothing wrong here. It’s just the racists.

      2. neeceoooo October 20, 2014

        It’s not just Sarah Palin but Rush, Chaney and Trump have played a big role in sending the thinking in that direction as well.

    2. Allan Richardson October 21, 2014

      They have also been masterful at deflecting anger which rightly should be directed at a small number of rich (mostly) white men (and a few women) whose financial manipulation of the economy has rigged the rules for themselves and their children (such as Paris and Mitt) and against working people of all racial and ethnic groups, off toward the “other victims” who look, speak, and worship differently from themselves. This “divide and conquer” strategy keeps white and nonwhite, American-born and immigrant (whether legal or not), men and women fighting each other’s groups, rather than uniting to get their fair share of power over their own lives away from these “wage slave holders.”

      Their misinformation (a fancy word for LIES) makes white working class men (especially men) believe that the people who are holding them back are “just like them” the “real” American “god-fearing” force for good, so they vote for the very people who are oppressing them.

    3. rustacus21 October 21, 2014

      … interesting that U mention Hindu & Pakistani tech professionals & racism, as a front page article last week in USAToday (http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2014/10/09/high-tech-pay-gap-hispanics-asians-african-americans/16606121/), paints a dismal portrait of the lives of Men of color, such as those mentioned in the article, the President & especially if they happen to be politically aware & activists, as am I & having the indignity of being not only profiled but placed under constant, 24/7 surveillance – W/OUT the benefit of knowing what I’m accused of (being innocent of ANY CRIME beyond a DUI in ’03). At least in the case of the President, his profiling is far simpler – they (conservatives) just don’t want him to show up their last President, as the the accusations & profiling would prove doubly false & make them look 10 times more foolish. We should by now know the only ‘skill’ involved in their racist tantrums are that of a child – stomping about, yelling, crying, screaming, ranting, all b/c they (conservatives) can’t have their way. Well, they had it & blew it & the American people MUST make them pay for it – if only for the suffering we’ve endured in the un-rich class – not the President, for doing the best job he’s able, w/circumstances best described as under duress…

  2. ps0rjl October 20, 2014


    1. Whatmeworry October 20, 2014

      Really?? Do you think the “little man” wanted to saddle his unborn grand children with $150,000 in new debt?? Sorry no man would ever intentially do that to even his enemy

      1. Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter October 20, 2014

        Nooope, I checked with google and your information is way offff.

  3. Whatmeworry October 20, 2014

    How many jobs has Ms Nunn created?? Let me guess a big fat GOOOSE EGG

    1. Whatmeworry is Dan M Ketter October 20, 2014

      Wooooong!!!! The only thing big and fat is Max Ketters keyster.

  4. rustacus21 October 21, 2014

    Being in ‘real world’ America, where racism can bare it’s fangs & talons in the blink of an eye, Ms. Grimes has made the calculation to deny any association to the President a – sad, but true fact. This must sting awfully, for the President, as he’s unable to get out among the people in what has been known as his favorite season over the last 6 years. The pity here is not where we are as a nation, but where we’re not. In a very real sense, the last 3 elections have hinged on race. And yet, we’re suppose to be well beyond such pettiness. The profiling of professionals such as President Barack Obama seems unreal, but people still see ‘skin’ color before recalling what ever good he’s brought the nation, in the aftermath of absolute hell & misery of the 2001-2009 national/global nightmare. People still see color, profiling a President as not ‘…quite as able…’ as a White Man in that same position, even though the last ‘White Man’ running the White House created a unmitigated disaster that requires years more of retooling & repair, before we are at the same point as when President Clinton left office, leaving the nation at FULL employment, billions in savings in the bank & friends around the globe – in Muslim, Hindu, Christian & Pagan nations equally. What more can we expect – demand from an elected office holder? 1st of all, that he behave as a ‘REPRESENTATIVE’ & NOT a leader. We’re the ‘leaders’ pointing the direction our representatives are ‘expected’ to go. Having done this – even for White male citizens – It’s been conservative ‘White Men’ who have undone the President’s every effort. As such, it shouldn’t be ex-President Clinton’s or President Obama’s job exclusively, to make this pitch. We should already understand this dynamic & take it to the polls in DROVES. We failed to recognize such dynamics in 2010 – much to our collective detriment. We shouldn’t make the same error twice – no matter the odds being staked by big money in this election…


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