There’s been an interesting conversation going on here on BMG concerning Democrats and the working class (especially members of the white working class). A big part of the conversation is the claim, like that of Thomas Frank’s, that Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal policies has pushed away white working class voters and led at least some of them to the Republican Party. In a similar vein, a number of BMG’ers (including the always perceptive jconway) have argued that Democrats can — and must — win back these voters by doing more to seriously address their economic anxieties.
I agree that Democrats should pursue policies of social justice and take seriously the concerns of those who feel especially economically insecure. However, there is good reason to believe that much of the white working class that have abandoned the Democrats in recent years won’t be coming back anytime soon — and that we shouldn’t want them back. Backing up both of these claims is the real reason why so much of the white working class has abandoned Democrats. It’s not because of Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal policies (which Republicans have done to a greater extent), or because the Democrats have jettisoned their commitment to issues like the minimum wage, protection of Social Security, or trying to reign in health care costs (all of which are central parts of the Democratic platform). Instead, the real reason can be summarized in one word — authoritarianism.
Political scientists have done considerable work on Americans’ authoritarian tendencies in recent years. Amanda Traub of Vox summarized some of this recent work in a terrific piece last week: The Rise of American Authoritarianism. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already. But the main point is that there has long been an authoritarian streak in American politics. What do these American authoritarians want? Well, among other things, “authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world.” When there are challenges to that social order, authoritarians “favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats” and flock to leaders who promise decisive action. The article’s point is that Donald Trump has very much tapped into this authoritarian strain in this election.
But there’s a broader context too. In the past, American authoritarians (many in the Populist and Democratic Parties) may have been convinced that the threat was coming from bankers, capitalists, industrialists, Northerners, and so forth. This was likely the group leftist populist (and demagogue) Huey Long tapped into back in the 1930s, when he attacked FDR from the Left. But that’s not what motivates many American authoritarians today. Instead, as the Vox article illustrates, it is exaggerated fears of terrorism, of increasing racial diversity, and of social change more generally. It is these attributes that have driven many American authoritarians to Trump — who promises to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” attack “P.C. culture,” and build a giant wall on the Mexican border to keep out Mexican rapists (which he and many supporters see as one and the same).
Of course, not all authoritarians are members of the white working class, and not all members of the white working class are authoritarians. But as the great political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset noted back in the 1950s (quoted here), “authoritarian predispositions and ethnic prejudice flow more naturally from the situation of the lower classes than from that of middle and upper classes.” Interestingly, even as late at the early 1990s, many white, working class authoritarians associated more with the Democratic Party. But they shifted largely to the Republican Party because of the Democratic Party’s increasing diversification into a multi-racial party. (A point argued by political scientist Julie Wronski in this paper).
My larger point is that there is a significant portion of the white working class that has authoritarian tendencies. They were once Democrats, but racial diversification has pushed them to the lily-white GOP. No matter how much the Democrats shed “neoliberal policies,” or conduct “outreach” to these groups, they are not coming back to a party that treats immigrants with respect, places significant emphasis on racial justice, and believes “bombing the hell out of ISIS” is an overly simplistic foreign policy. They may have legitimate economic insecurities, but these other concerns about “social change run amok” trump the economics.
And that gets to my last point: we don’t want them back. To be sure, we as Democrats need to keep economic and social justice at the forefront of our concerns. We need to pursue a preferential option for the poor, which of course includes economically distressed whites. But having members of the authoritarian working class as part of the Democratic coalition — in other words, returning to an earlier Democratic coalition — would be, even if possible, absolutely disastrous for the progressive cause. Trying to appeal to and satisfy that part of the coalition would hamper progress on crucial issues like criminal justice reform, racial justice, gay rights, and immigration. By all means, we certainly need to reach out to non-authoritarian white working class voters (who, in any case, are likely still Democrats). But there is a significant portion of the white working class I never would never want to see come back the Democratic Party. They are going to follow Trump’s siren song of hatred. This, in turn, grants the Democratic coalition we have now more room to achieve the sort of social change that will lead to a more prosperous and tolerant American republic.