The idea has taken hold in some circles that Democrats can win elections by appealing almost exclusively to the wealthy, women, and voters of color. This appears to be an about-face from the triangulation President Bill Clinton and his adviser Dick Morris practiced in the 1990s. Twenty-five years ago, Clinton and Morris sought to bring so-called Reagan Democrats, i.e., white working-class voters, back into the Democratic fold with implicit and sometimes explicit appeals to race.
In January 1992, Clinton made it a point to return to Arkansas from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of intellectually disabled African American Ricky Ray Rector. During the same year, he chastised black rap artist Sister Souljah for intemperate remarks about the Rodney King riots. As President, Bill signed, and both he and Hillary, championed legislation targeting the African-American community for its perceived sloth – welfare reform – and lawlessness – massive increases in spending on prisons and incarceration rates.
On a superficial level, current calls to ignore working whites would seem to be a repudiation of the politics of the 1990s. But underlying both strategies is the cynical assumption that successful politicians piece together a majority from various blocs of voters identifiable by immutable characteristics like race, gender, and ethnicity. Groups that are not needed or whose support is assumed (like blacks in the 90s), are ignored or even scapegoated.
The Clintons seem committed to this type of politics. In her 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination, Hillary touted the support she received from “hard-working Americans, white Americans”. Her surrogate Geraldine Ferraro insisted Barack Obama’s success was “because he is black.”
Eight years later, Bernie Sanders has captured a sizable number of white working-class voters with explicit appeals to class solidarity and an insistent call that we (a multi-racial coalition of poor, working, and middle-class Americans) revolutionize America by taking it back from Wall Street and K Street. In response, the Clintons, the Democratic establishment more generally, and some sociologists dismiss the white swing voter.
States like Iowa and New Hampshire and their hard-scrabble mostly white residents, whom the Clintons previously praised as hard-working Americans, are now out of step with the nation as a whole. They can safely be disregarded goes the new conventional thinking. Instead, Democrats should, as the Clintons are now trying to do, win the nomination by fitting together a jigsaw puzzle with older women, voters of color, and elites including wealthy liberals and Democratic superdelegates.
Although this strategy may succeed, there is much that is wrong with it and little right. A fundamental assumption underlying slice and dice politics is that the economic interests of working-class whites conflict with those of African-Americans and Latinos. There are no doubt instances where this appears to be the case. Situations involving a multitude of applicants seeking a fixed number of jobs at a manufacturing plant or slots in an incoming class at a highly selective university may fall into this category.
But the American experience from the 1930s to the early 70s belies the claim that white working-class success comes at the expense of people of color or vice versa. According to US Census figures, between 1947 and 1960, the percentage gap in median family income between blacks and whites shrank somewhat. In 1947, a representative African-American family earned 51% of what its white counterpart did. By 1955, the black family had earnings equal to 55% of the white one – a ratio that remained unchanged five years later. Over the thirteen year period, median black income rose over 50% from $10,704 to $16,100 in constant dollars. Median white income rose over the same span from $20,908 to $29,084 or just under 40%. A rising tide truly was lifting all boats with African Americans gaining slightly on whites albeit not nearly fast enough.
From the 30s to the late 50s, America addressed economic injustice forcibly through FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, the G.I. Bill, Eisenhower’s Highway Bill, and other programs. Unfortunately, racial injustice received far less shrift. This changed, however, as the civil rights movement characterized America’s domestic priorities in the 60s as much as the war on poverty did. With President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to passing the Voting Rights Act and the broad range of social programs known as the Great Society, including Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Housing Act, and other laws, American liberalism reached its apotheosis.
On average both black and white families benefited greatly. Between 1960 and 1970, median black family income rose 52% to $24,401. Meanwhile, the median white family’s income rose 37% to $39,979. Simply put, the real purchasing power of whites and blacks grew significantly and consistently from the 40s through 1970. A middle class arose and flourished.
Slow economic growth in the 1970s coupled with a reduced commitment in Washington to addressing economic inequality resulted in few relative gains for the less affluent. But the Reagan economic revolution in the 80s, which included massive tax cuts for the rich, middle-class tax hikes, cutbacks in social programs, union-busting, and deregulation put the nail in the coffin of widespread prosperity in America.
In a speech last September, Elizabeth Warren described how despite real GDP growth from 1980-2012, only the top 10% benefited. Everybody else – “black, white, Latino” saw no increase in their net purchasing power.
African-Americans, who were so far behind earlier in the 20th Century and only began to narrow the gap in the 50s and 60s, were hit particularly hard Warren related. In January 2015, African-American unemployment was 10.3% – more than double white unemployment. From 1984 to 2009, she said “the wealth gap between black and white families tripled.”
History often speaks in riddles. Here, it issues a clarion call that when the federal government is dedicated to full-employment, strong unions, high marginal tax rates, cheap education, affordable housing, and increased access to health care, American families – white and black – in the millions do achieve the American dream. This is the message that Democratic voters should demand from their candidates for public office.