The working class is tired of being treated as second class
Donald Trump’s rise to primary stardom has brought with it a newfound analysis of working-class voters. For the first time in a generation, the working class is front and center in an election cycle. This is a welcome development — in theory. The U.S. needs an honest conversation about the obstacles working-class Americans face.
Unfortunately, the term “working class” has become shorthand for white men without college degrees, ignoring the millions of women, African-Americans and Latinos who today make up a much greater share of the working class. In fact, African-Americans and Latinos are much more likely than whites to identify themselves as working class. More than two-thirds of Latinos consider themselves working class, compared to half of blacks and 38% of whites.
I’ve been talking to the new working class — people who overwhelmingly work in America’s ever-expanding service sector — as part of the research for my new book, Sleeping Giant. Unlike the previous industrial-based working class, today’s home health workers, janitors, retail salespeople and fast-food clerks are more female and more racially diverse — and they mostly clock into jobs without the support or protection of a labor union.
As manufacturing jobs got shipped overseas, the working class shifted from “making stuff” to “serving people.” The longstanding “others” in our society — women and people of color — became a much larger share of the non-college-educated workforce. Their marginalized status in our society carried over into the working class, making it easier to overlook and devalue their contribution.
But today’s working class is no longer sitting on the sidelines. Through movements including The Fightfor15 and Black Lives Matter, this new working class has reignited a debate about economic and racial inequality. Winning minimum wage increases in 15 states in just two short years is only one example of how the working class is shaking up politics as usual.
While the old working class, largely white men, drive the Trump candidacy, the new working class supports Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, and to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders. In the Democratic primary in South Carolina in February, Clinton overwhelmingly won the votes of both the white working-class and working class people of color. In the Michigan primary last month, Clinton won 61% of the votes of working-class people of color, and 40% of the white working-class. Sanders won 58% of the white-working class vote in Michigan, and one-third of the non-white working class..
While primary voter turnout is high, especially among Republicans, the big question remains: will the new working class show up in the general election?
If Trump wins the Republican nomination, it’s tempting to think that his race-baiting, anti-immigrant rhetoric will be a sure-fire way to energize the black and Latino vote, which is overwhelmingly working class. The prospect of a President Trump, who has advocated the forcible deportation of 11 million individuals, and who threatens to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., who believes the minimum wage is too high, and whose signature rallying cry is to build a wall on our southern border, may seem like enough to motivate turnout among the new working class, and even dampen turnout among many Republican voters.
But Democrats can’t expect the new working class to turn out in record numbers just to vote against Trump. To reach this group, the Democratic Party needs to recenter its own platform so that it addresses their unique struggles and aspirations.
As a commercial sanitation driver in Atlanta told me, “It feels like the working class are the lepers of society. Needed to carry out the economy, to hold it and make it strong, but disregarded when it comes to our needs.”
It’s critical that the Democratic nominee explicitly speak to the needs of the working class. Trump is tapping the frustration of the white working class, who literally got sold out by corporate and political elites through trade deals that enriched major multi-national companies and depleted communities of good-paying jobs. But in fact the entire working class — white, black, brown, male, female — is reeling from an economic ideology, of which “free trade” is just one prong. This ideology gives primacy to short-term profit, at great cost to workers where low pay, unstable schedules, and wage theft are common practices in the new bargain-basement economy.
The Democrats need to start talking to, and about, the working class — the janitors, home-health workers, retail sales people, fast-food workers, and the displaced and disaffected former manufacturing workers.
Let’s have a real debate about the reality that the U.S. has the largest share of low-paid workers among advanced nations. Let’s talk about the fact that wage theft is ubiquitous, and that austerity is just a fancy elite term for cutting worker benefits. Let’s debate the merits of unions, and how having a say in your the job is a right that exists largely on paper. Let’s hear plans for reinvesting in communities that have been isolated and excluded from society through a toxic combination of deindustrialization, discriminatory housing policies, and the incarceration of its residents.
Most importantly, let’s hear from the presidential candidates that they have a gut-level understanding of the marginalization and degradation that America’s working class has suffered over the past two decades — and a real plan to address it. Let’s make this election a battle for the votes of the new working class — a sleeping giant ready to rise.
Tamara Draut is vice president of policy and research at Demos, public policy organization, and author of Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday).
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