Primary Colors: On Democratic Presidential Politics, Neoliberalism, and the White Working Class

What happened on Election Night was, in a sense, unremarkable. The white working class, long a constituency at the very heart of American politics, simply found its way into the spotlight once again. Exit polls indicate, with about as much confidence as the entire enterprise of political polling can be held to indicate anything these days, that Donald Trump is President today because Hillary Clinton lost working class whites by an astounding margin. She was beaten by Trump among whites without college degrees by nearly 40 points. And, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has pointed out, she lost a significant amount of support from whites in this category who not only supported Obama, but likely comprised over a third of the coalition that brought him back to the White House in 2012.

Clinton’s atrocious performance among working class whites was, of course, reflective of a long-established trend. The Democratic Party has not won the white working class vote since 1996. Every Democratic campaign since Bill Clinton’s victory that year, save Obama’s 2008 run, has done worse with blue-collar whites than the last. Al Gore lost the white working class by 17 points. John Kerry lost them by 23 points. Obama lost them by 18 points in 2008 and by 25 points in 2012. Even against the Party’s dismal record, Hillary Clinton’s 39 point loss in November stands out. But although she lost the category by an unprecedentedly large margin, Clinton only needed to hold onto a small proportion of white working class voters in the swing states Trump narrowly won to eke out a victory. Given this, it would be absurd to suggest the Party not try to make up some of the difference moving forward. 

The question, of course, is how.


Hillary Clinton—Nathania Johnson/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The Left has been unanimous in its recommendations. Trump, a buffoon, a charlatan, and a racist, won they say because, in spite of everything, he spoke to working class pain with a full-throated populism. They rejected Clinton’s neoliberal prescriptions for their economic anxiety for a candidate that spoke out forcefully about the effects of NAFTA and globalized capitalism on American manufacturing. They flocked enthusiastically to a candidate that literally wore a message about how far behind they’d fallen as a piece of clothing and turned away from a candidate that insisted, despite lost jobs and lower wages, that things were mostly fine. If the Democrats want to win the white working class again, they argue, they will have to mount campaigns that not only speak to working class angst, as Trump did, but advance an agenda that promises to undo the economic havoc that neoliberal policy and the Democratic Party’s centrism and indifference has wreaked upon them. “A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table,”  Naomi Klein wrote in The Guardian. “An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal.”

Bethlehem, PA—JasonParis/Flickr

This was one of the lines of thinking that led many on the left to insist, during the Democratic primaries, that Bernie Sanders stood a much better chance of defeating Trump than Clinton ever did. After all, Sanders won in some of the heavily white working class states where Trump eventually won—Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin for instance. Last May, Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick wrote that the potential impact of Sanders’ progressive agenda on struggling white workers was key to his appeal in those regions and offered a model for winning them moving forward.  “The Sanders program is a recognizably working-class one: higher minimum wage, free college for all, labor unionism, and a re-regulation of finance with steep taxes on the one percent,” he wrote. “And his actual politics go far beyond that. He preaches the necessity and righteousness of class war, calls out our oligarchs by name and — in the case of his Immokalee farmworkers— asks us all to question ‘who benefits from this exploitation?’

Are these the prescriptions for winning back the downtrodden white workers in the Rust Belt that Trump ran away with? During the primaries, liberals marshalled counterevidence against this line of argument. It was pointed out in Vox that same month, for instance, that survey and polling data showed Hillary Clinton was beating Sanders with the kind of older, low-income white factory workers that commonly come to mind when one considers the white working class. Moreover, researchers have questioned the extent to which economic anxiety was responsible for driving white workers to Trump in the first place.  In a widely circulated analysis of survey data from 125,000 Americans, Gallup’s Jonathan T. Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell found  “mixed evidence that economic distress has motivated Trump support.” “His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations,” they wrote, “but they earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.”

Now, no bits of information that have emerged since the election have truly disproven the notion that a Democratic Party willing to toss out centrism or “elite neoliberalism,” in Klein’s words, in favor of the kind of ambitious progressivism of Sanders’ agenda and the Democratic Party of old could make real inroads among white working class voters. But an assessment of Democratic presidential politics in the latter half of the last century suggests the prevailing narrative on the Left about how white workers and the Democrats have gradually parted ways is flawed.


The Left’s story of the split between the white working class and the Party goes something like this. The white working class has, over the past several decades, seen a devastating decline in stable, well-paying industrial work. The Republican and Democratic parties have both proven unwilling to address their plight in part because both have been captured by neoliberalism—the valorization of free market principles and supply-side logic across all areas of public policy—with the GOP naturally falling a bit harder for it than the once progressive Democratic Party. Both parties have cooperated in making matters worse by hacking away at the social safety net and further empowering multinational corporations and the wealthy through deregulation, passing tax cuts, pursuing free trade and undermining unions—all policy aims that have effectively redistributed wealth upwards and significantly deepened economic inequality. What’s more, Democratic liberals have spent years responding to the racist and bigoted attitudes of many white working class voters by calling them racist and bigoted, which has alienated them.

The white working class, dismayed, has responded to all this, and the lack of a truly pro-worker party, by either dropping out of the voting pool entirely or voting for Republicans who unlike the Democrats, are, refreshingly, nicer to them than they are to African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and LGBT people. Right-wing populist appeals, it is argued, have been the only truly populist appeals for decades. Consequently, white working class voters have swung right, in the direction of the only politicians that seem to acknowledge their pain—politicians who have, in fact, been deepening it even more than the liberal politicians who have ceased paying attention. The white working class, in short, has responded to the horrors neoliberalism has inflicted upon them by doing either nothing at all or voting for the more neoliberal party.

None of this, the Left says, was inevitable. Liberals have erred, they argue, in casting all working class whites as politically and perhaps morally irredeemable for the undeniable bigotry and xenophobia of some. And in pushing a narrative of the white working class’ exodus that centers their historical resistance to civil rights and identity politics, they say, liberals have ignored the class dynamics that have been the real driving forces behind their disillusionment—dynamics exacerbated by the Democratic Party’s decision to face right and commit itself deeply to neoliberal economics, as exemplified by the ascendancy of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). It was their move to the center, coupled with their disdain for white workers they see as marked by a kind of original sin that finally pushed those voters away and continues to do so. Blue collar whites have abandoned the Democratic Party simply because the Democratic Party abandoned progressive policies that spoke to the needs of workers and came to loathe the working class itself.


President Lyndon Johnson on a stop of his 1964 poverty tour—Cecil William Stoughton/Wikimedia Commons

It’s a story both simple and substantially untrue. In fact, the decline in white working class support for the Democratic Party at the presidential level began well before the party’s retreat from progressivism and pro-worker politics. Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, and Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who presciently identified the disenfranchised white working class as a force to be reckoned with nearly 20 years ago in America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, laid out the timeline of their departure from the Democratic Party’s coalition in a 2008 Brookings working paper called “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class”. According to Teixeira and Abramowitz, the Democratic vote among whites without college degrees fell from an average of 55 percent in the 1960 and 1964 elections to 35 in the 1968 and 1972 elections—a decline of 20 points in just over a decade. What happened during the 1960s? Had the Party moved substantially to the center? Had the Party become less committed to progressive social programs that would help struggling whites? To the contrary—the 1960s and two Democratic administrations brought the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the expansion of Social Security benefits, the revival of food stamps, minimum wage increases, the launch of the Head Start early childhood education program for lower-income children, increased federal funding for public education, the creation of the Job Corps youth employment program and other vocational education programs, and a dizzying array of other government initiatives that constituted the most expansive array of progressive successes since the New Deal. None of it mattered.

Perhaps, as the labor researcher Penny Lewis has suggested, the white working class was more perturbed by the Vietnam War than popular accounts of the antiwar movement—which commonly frame blue-collar workers as having been hawks pitted against young, relatively well-to-do college students—have portrayed. But most of the drop in support, as nearly every historian surveying the period has agreed, can be attributed to the Party’s full embrace of not only civil rights, but also social liberalism more broadly. The Party emerged from the 1960s championing both economic and social justice and believed it could continue to do so without losing the downscale white voters it had relied on for years. As the election of 1968 made clear, it could not. Those voters fled to Richard Nixon and the segregationist former governor of Alabama George Wallace, who together won 64 percent of the white working class.

Arkansas Governor-Elect Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter, 1978—National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Those voters never really looked back. The theory that they would have had the Party offered up truly economically progressive candidates has to contend with the failed candidacies of  George McGovern in 1972, whom Nixon trounced with 70 percent of the white working class vote and the staunchly pro-labor and union-backed Walter Mondale, whom neoliberal archdaemon Ronald Reagan trounced with 65 percent of their vote in 1984. Since 1968, two Democratic presidential candidates have done well with the white working class: Jimmy Carter, who dramatically outperformed George McGovern in the demographic by running as a conservative Democrat against Ford in 1976, and the DLC-anointed bubba neoliberal Bill Clinton. Ross Perot’s insurgent populism and his warning that NAFTA would produce a “giant sucking sound” as blue-collar jobs were lost to Mexico failed, ultimately, to prevent the man who backed and signed NAFTA from winning narrow pluralities of the white working class vote in 1992 and 1996.

This is not a voting record that inspires confidence that the white working class has been itching, deep down, to cast votes against neoliberal economics upon hearing the right progressive pitch. But looking at general election results offers only an incomplete picture of the white working class’ exit from the Democratic fold. They largely tell a now-familiar story about Democratic collapse among blue-collar and other whites in the south that masks the gradual erosion of white working class support in northern states where Trump won. It’s the Democratic primaries in the wake of the New Deal coalition’s final rupture in 1968 that provide the clearest picture of how even the portion of the white working class presumably most sympathetic to left-of-center politics—northern blue-collar whites—has moved rightward.


In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern and George Wallace, now running as a Democrat, were the most formidable challengers of former Vice President and 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey—a standard bearer for post-war expansionary liberalism and a booster of organized labor. In the eyes of many white working class voters, these bona fides were irrelevant. Humphrey was perhaps the leading member of a Democratic establishment still discredited in the eyes of many by the Vietnam War and the aggressive push for civil rights then playing out in the battle over integrative school busing.

Sen. Edmund Muskie at Earth Day festivities in Philadelphia, 1970—Peter54321/Wikimedia Commons

There had been a third Humphrey opponent at the beginning of the race. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, a liberal pro-busing Democrat, had risen to frontrunner status in 1970 with a speech that decried the disingenuity of Nixon’s law and order rhetoric and slammed the effects of the administration’s economic policies on workers who had been robbed of the guarantee, he said, “of a constantly rising standard of life—which was his only a few years ago, and which has been cruelly snatched away”:

Their policy against inflation requires that unemployment go up. Again, it is the working man who pays the price. In other fields the story is the same. They have cut back on health and education for the many while expanding subsidies and special favors for a few.

They call upon you – the working majority of Americans – to support them while they oppose your interests. They really believe that if they can make you afraid enough, or angry enough, you can be tricked into voting against yourself.

In the early Florida primaries, Wallace shocked the party by winning Florida with 42 percent of the vote. Muskie, maimed perhaps by a speech over scurrilous reporting he’d given in New Hampshire where it was widely reported that he’d broken into tears— came in fourth with under 9 percent. His candidacy never recovered. In his speech on the night of the Florida primary, he responded to his loss by castigating Wallace voters for having deplorably succumbed to “some of the worst instincts of which human beings are capable.”

The Washington Post’s Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported that Nixon aides were giddy about Muskie’s perceived attack on the “Archie Bunker” white working class vote and assessed the myopia that had lead to Muskie’s defeat:

From the beginning, Muskie’s operatives and Florida party leaders supporting him grossly underestimated Wallace’s popularity, resulting from ferocious opposition to school busing and hostility to the political establishment. Despite the intensity of this protest vote, brilliantly courted by Wallace-style populism, Muskie’s men believed to the end the anti-busing candidates, Wallace and Sen. Henry M. Jackson, would get only a minority of the vote. On election day, they prepared a “victory” statement for that night. In fact, Wallace-Jackson totalled 56 percent.

“I think Muskie’s falling into the liberal trap of thinking that the Wallace vote is strictly a hate vote,” one unnamed Muskie supporter told Evans and Novak. The two agreed. “Wallace’s winning total was surely not exclusively a hate vote as Muskie suggested,” they wrote. “His share of the black vote was close to 10 percent. He carried Tampa’s Spanish speaking areas, astonishing regular party leaders who assumed they were safe for Muskie.”

Alabama Governor George Wallace—Marion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia Commons

But despite Wallace’s ability to attract some support among non-stereotypical constituencies, the main threat of his candidacy lay obviously in his sway among traditionally Democratic working class whites. George McGovern, whose Vietnam opposition-driven candidacy was thought to mainly appeal to younger and more affluent Democrats, unlike Muskie, refused to minimize or write off those voters. Instead, he would spend the remainder of the campaign trying to win them over. In Wisconsin, he did so in part by campaigning heavily on the injustice of tax breaks for the wealthy—another key issue of Wallace’s—and downplaying his support for busing. “I don’t know of any place in this state where either blacks or whites have asked for busing,” he told the Washington Post. “So why raise the issue here?” This strategy won him enough blue-collar white votes to carry the state.

But in Michigan, where Detroit area voters expected the carrying out of a fall busing order in the fall, McGovern thrust his busing stance back into the spotlight. “I can’t believe that the people of this state see the school bus as a greater enemy to their future than the war in Southeast Asia,” he said in a press conference opening his campaigning in the state. He’d repeat the sentiments later in a speech to supporters and United Auto Workers retirees, during which he called busing, “one of the prices we have to pay for long years of neglect of our educational system and the problems of equality in this nation.”

Sen. George McGovern—Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons

Wallace won easily in Michigan with around 51 percent of the vote, beating McGovern nearly two-to-one and even winning half of United Auto Workers households. These results alarmed Hubert Humphrey’s union backers who belatedly recognized the anti-establishment mood propelling Wallace and McGovern. For a surprising number of voters, the two seemed largely interchangeable as protest votes despite McGovern’s liberalism and Wallace’s racism.  Over 40 percent of Ohio primary voters who said they would be willing to cast a vote for George Wallace in the fall, for instance, voted for McGovern in that state’s primary. Despite defections, Humphrey managed to hold most of the Rust Belt. McGovern’s dominance in the west and on the upper east coast, however, won him the nomination.


Congressman Mo Udall and President Jimmy Carter, 1978—U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

The expected frontrunner in 1976’s primary was Congressman Mo Udall. Udall like Humphrey, was a staunch progressive.  In fact, Udall had been a backer of Humphrey-Hawkins, an ambitious full employment bill that, as Humphrey proclaimed in 1974, was aimed at securing “every adult American’s right to useful job opportunities at fair rates of compensation” through making the federal government an employer of last resort and allowing Americans to sue over being deprived of their right to a job. Udall was also less of an establishment figure than Humphrey and given to proposals like the breaking up of General Motors. “Economic concentration is un-American,” he said in one primary speech. “Not what we teach to our kids.”

Udall’s major opponents for the nomination were an unknown Jimmy Carter and, yet again, George Wallace.  

Early in the primaries, Carter strenuously avoided committing to any particular set of economic principles and even said that February that he wouldn’t outline a number of his positions until he won the nomination. But a definitive economic mindset did, eventually, emerge. “I’m a businessman and an engineer, and I believe in scientific principles,” he said that April. “I would opt for equality of the state and local governments [with the federal government], and would go with the private sector where I could before relying on the public sector.”

“The image Carter tries to project, the Washington Post’s Hobert Rowan would write, “is that of the scientifically-oriented pragmatist who will cut through waste and put together an efficient operation.” The image Carter tried to project, more precisely, was the image of a technocratic neoliberal years before the term acquired currency. And the policies he promoted during the campaign exemplify the rightward turn the Left argues the Party must reverse if it wants a chance at winning back white working class voters. Against Udall’s support for a new federal “income maintenance” program, Carter campaigned on a welfare reform proposal that would move 1.3 million people from the welfare rolls into “temporary unemployment” and subject the rest to work incentives. Against Udall’s support of Ted Kennedy’s universal healthcare bill, Carter offered a moderate plan partially subsidized by the government. Carter campaigned against a bloated federal bureaucracy, but insisted that defense spending would inevitably have to rise. Udall, in a March interview on his positions with the Washington Post, said he would cut defense spending and that the public sector more broadly, while due for cuts to waste, had been “starved.”

Post: What’s the evidence that the public sector in the United States is being starved?

Udall: Well, the evidence is in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in South Bronx. The evidence is in a medical care system that’s a disgrace and doesn’t get care to people who need it.

Post: It’s a disgrace?

Udall: It really is. You’ve got two systems: You’ve got one for the middle and upper-income people -it’s the best in the world – and you’ve got one for poor people that’s the worst among the industrialized societies. The evidence is all around us, in the way we treat old people, and poor people, and what we’ve done to our cities.

Carter, many reasoned, didn’t stand a chance. Udall, like Humphrey, was a union-backed progressive that could expect wide elite, middle-class, and working-class liberal support without the weariness and baggage brought about by Humphrey’s long career. Carter was a conservative Southerner without any of Wallace’s name-recognition or raw demagogic appeal. With Wallace in poor health and Carter a non-starter, surely the white working class would uniformly back the clear progressive choice this time around.

They did not. The white working class swung for Carter who swept the entirety of the Rust Belt and most of the country. George Wallace racked up double digit shares of the vote as well in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Horrified by the prospect of Carter’s victory, union leaders launched a last ditch effort to block his nomination by backing the anti-busing liberal Henry “Scoop” Jackson in the hopes of forcing a contested convention that could nominate Hubert Humphrey. Idaho Senator Frank Church and California Governor Jerry Brown launched campaigns also aimed at stopping Carter. All failed.

Carter campaigns in Tallahassee, FL, 1976—State Library and Archives of Florida/Wikimedia Commons

What did Carter offer, precisely, that so galvanized his white working class backers? The parts of his economic program that weren’t opaque to voters were regressive by Democratic standards. And he wasn’t the kind of fiery populist Wallace had been. It’s commonly observed now, as it was then, that Carter’s folksiness, religious faith, and gentle charm stood in stark and attractive contrast to the dark, skullduggerous politics Watergate exposed. This was undeniably a factor in his success. But Carter staked his victory on more than relatability and a clean image. On civil rights, Carter tried to triangulate his way out of offending blue-collar whites.

He supported, for instance, the desegregation of private schools. He also said, during one spring campaign stop in Connecticut, that he was baffled by federal court efforts to require “every single school” to admit applicants of all races.  He opposed mandatory desegregation by busing but stated that he would enforce federal court orders imposing it and would oppose a constitutional amendment banning it — a shift from his cautious support for a busing ban amendment while he was the governor of Georgia. As the Washington Post’s David Broder observed in a column about Carter’s tour of Wisconsin, Carter altered his messaging on civil rights for black and white audiences:

He had been asked, he said, his views on ‘school integration…and I’ll give you the same answer I gave in Jackson, Miss., and Biloxi, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala., and Ashville, N.C., and in New Hampshire.

But the truth is he did not give the same answer he had given in those cities. He did not even give the same answer he had given three hours earlier to a predominantly white audience at Marquette University or would give an hour later, to another white audience, at a fundraiser at the Red Carpet Inn.

In his speeches to black audiences, Carter would praise civil rights unreservedly and wax lyrical about his daughter’s attendance of a school with more black than white students in the second grade. In his speeches to white audiences, Carter said the same with a critical addition—he opposed mandatory busing. “Was it misleading or not,” Broder asked, “for a candidate who has pledged ‘never deliberately to mislead you’ to say to a black audience, ‘School integration, I’m for it,’ and to a white audience, ‘Forced busing, I don’t like it?’”

Carter’s civil rights stances would come under additional scrutiny after a series of comments made while campaigning in Indiana. Regarding the question of neighborhood segregation, he said at a news conference, he would not, as president, “use the federal government’s authority to circumvent the natural inclination of people to live in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.” He went on to say that he had no problem with the maintenance of the status quo at “churches, the private clubs, the newspapers, restaurants, all designed to accommodate members of a particular ethnic group.” “I see nothing wrong with that as long as it’s done freely,” Carter said.

His comments proved immediately controversial and his attempts to clarify his stance, as the New York Times’ Christopher Lydon wrote, did him no favors:

“In making the point, he used unusually blunt language about social differences—about “black intrusion” into white neighborhoods for example. He spoke of “alien groups” in communities and of the bad effects of “injecting” a “diametrically opposed kind of family” or “a different kind of person” into a neighborhood.

Carter had backed open housing in Georgia and had famously shocked the state in his inaugural address by proclaiming that “the time for racial discrimination is over”. Substantively, his position on neighborhood segregation specifically was the same as Udall’s—both opposed using federal government power to diversify ethnically homogenous neighborhoods for diversity’s sake. But the episode was widely considered to have tainted Carter—at least among the African-American community, which he tried diligently through the remainder of the campaign to make amends with. If his comments damaged his reputation among the working class whites, it didn’t show. In fact, Udall and others openly speculated that Carter’s gaffe had actually been a ploy to draw voters from a fading George Wallace.


Sen. Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter, 1977—U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

In 1980, an utterly failing economy and collapsing faith in Carter gave the Democratic Party’s progressives a golden opportunity to try unseating him. Ted Kennedy took it. “There may be more ideologically pure Democratic liberals the New York Times’  B. Drummond Ayers Jr., wrote that March. “But in the minds of a great many party members, probably a great majority, the name Senator Kennedy is a definition of Democratic liberalism. He is seen as the ultimate champion of the party’s hard-core constituency of blue-collar workers, minorities, and the aged.”

But his nomination was not to be. “As the Senator has discovered in a series of caucuses and primaries,” Ayers continued, “that perception does not automatically translate into overwhelming support from members of his party. Other perceptions of Mr. Kennedy, particularly doubts about his character, appear to have cost him dearly at the polls.”

Kennedy hemorrhaged white working class voters throughout the primaries even in the kind of blue collar Catholic communities that had been a solid base for the Kennedy family for years. Most reasoned that Chappaquiddick ultimately mattered more than Kennedy’s progressive critiques of Carter’s efforts to balance the deficit with cuts to social programs and Paul Volcker’s efforts to curb inflation through Fed-led economic contraction. Just before the Pennsylvania primaries, Evans and Novak took stock of the scandal’s overbearing impact:

The unenthusiastic Carter voter favors mandatory wage and price controls, a view shared by a 8-to-1 margin of the voters interviewed. They therefore endorse the main economic tactic advocated by Kennedy, who is seen by these voters as better than Carter at handling unemployment and about the same in fighting inflation.

[…]Why, then, do only one out of four voters interviewed express support for Kennedy? Chappaquidick, of course. These voters find Carter more trustworthy than Kennedy by 6-to-1. Only 17 of the 64 voters say they believe the Senator’s account of Chappaquidick (and only nine of his 16 avowed supporters.

Chappaquidick was undoubtedly a factor. But by this point, the Democratic Party’s white working class voters had proven more and more willing to defect to right-leaning candidates even with highly-viable progressive alternatives available to them. It’s not clear, given George Wallace’s surprising success in the demographic in 1968 and 1972 and Carter’s own victory in 1976, that another less damaged progressive candidate would have performed better. Part of the problem was that the influence of labor unions on their increasingly individualistic members continued to wane.

“We’re middle-class people now, not workingclass people the way we used to be,” a Peoria union leader told Cokie and Steven Roberts of the New York Times ahead of Illinois’ primaries. “Our members pay more than their share of the tax burden. When someone says the Federal Government should throw money at problems, we realize most of that money is coming out of our pockets.’” Jerry Toler, another local union member, exemplified the dilemma organized labor now faced:

”I’ll tell you what,” he said. ”I might vote Republican for the first time in my life.” Part of the reason was economic. ”Hell, I was better off five years ago than I am now.” And part of it was Ted Kennedy‘s backing of gun-control legislation. ”I don’t want anybody telling me whether I can own a gun or not.

”But I’m a Democrat,” Toler insisted. ”I’m a workingman. I believe in labor unions.” Well, then, did he know that his union has endorsed Kennedy? ”Nope,” he replied, ”but it doesn’t matter anyway. The union don’t tell me how to vote.

Kennedy managed slim Rust Belt victories in Pennsylvania and in the Michigan caucuses. Carter would win nearly everywhere else.


Former Vice President Walter Mondale and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, 1984—Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons

In 1984, Walter Mondale, Carter’s Vice President, launched a bid largely focused on the negative effects of neoliberal Reaganomics on the American worker. During the campaign, Mondale would actually inadvertently prompt the coining of the phrase “Rust Belt” after a line on the impact of Reagan’s policies on American industry from a speech he’d given— “Reagan’s policies are turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl”—was picked up by the press and made to jibe with “Sun Belt,” a phrase used to describe the South. A speech to the UAW delivered in January further outlined the themes of his campaign. The Democratic Socialists of America’s Michael Harrington, he told those gathered, had recently found that 8 million Americans had fallen out of the middle-class due to deindustrialization under Reagan. “[M]anagement is using King Kong tactics to make American workers take Hong Kong wages,” he said. “Mondale also said Reagan had shifted tax burdens, ‘making the middle class pay more so the rich can pay less,’” the Washington Post’s David Broder reported. “Finally, he accused the administration of ‘disrespect’ for ‘working men and women’ and ‘the organizations that protect them,’ saying it was not until Reagan came to office that businesses used bankruptcy laws to escape union contracts or to avoid compensating workers for job-related illnesses”.

Union leaders, for their part, had backed Mondale early in a panic not only over the pattern of rank and file defections over the last several Democratic primaries, but of the wave of white working class defections to Ronald Reagan in 1980’s general election. Mondale’s reputation, to be sure, took a hit in his joining of the Carter administration. But he was obviously a safer choice for workers than his only viable opponent, Gary Hart.

Sen. Gary Hart, 1984—Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hart, a young Senator from Colorado, entered the 1984 primary much like Carter did in 1976, affably campaigning on the promise of almost comically vague “new ideas”—a phrase he repeated often. Famously, Mondale would skewer him on his lack of specificity during a March debate by asking “Where’s the beef?”

To the extent that the actual substance of his ideas were known, they put him to the right of Mondale and within the burgeoning pack of technocratic “Atari Democrats” who insisted that new technology and efficiency gains would point the way forward for the American economy.

One of Hart’s economic advisers at the time, Perry Quick, had worked in the Carter administration and would later add stints in the Reagan administration and the DLC to his resume. His obituary in the Washington Post from 2007 contains an illuminating anecdote about a memo Hart had written when he began working for him in 1981:

“He was setting up the neo-liberal program right there,” Dr. Quick once said. “Under new approaches, he listed the consumption tax, a tax imposed only on the income people spent, designed to encourage savings, and a tax on industries that allowed prices or wages to exceed an established maximum, I guess because those were the things he knew about at the time. And he said to me, ‘Do for the economy what we’ve already done for the military. Take all this, put some economic theory behind it and give me a plan that is workable.'”

Publicly, Hart specifically pushed little more for industrial America than retraining programs for laid off blue-collar workers and infrastructure spending. He also hit Mondale repeatedly for his closeness to labor, which he identified as one of the many “special interests” the Democratic Party and Mondale were unduly loyal to. During one debate, Hart pointedly asked Mondale to name a single issue where he disagreed with unions. Mondale took four days to respond.  

In one speech, Mondale hit back hard against Hart’s attacks and messaging on this front. “If you fight for better schools, you’re old,” he said. “But if you fight for big oil, you’re new. If you fight for civil rights, that’s a special interest. But if you buckle to the hospital lobby, that’s a new idea.”

It was this kind of framing—Mondale as the loyal warrior for workers and the disadvantaged, Hart as an empty suit dissembler for big business—that Mondale and his labor backers hoped would keep white working class voters securely in the fold. It didn’t. Early in the primaries, Hart won union members in New Hampshire and also Vermont where he beat Mondale among members three-to-one. He would go on to win Ohio and Wisconsin in the Rust Belt. Mondale would ultimately win the primary, but it was a much closer race than many expected largely because Hart, whose candidacy had been thought to appeal mostly to younger, more affluent, and more educated voters, won a significant number of white working class votes. In the general election against Mondale, so would Ronald Reagan.


Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, 1988—Hal O’Brien/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1988 was the last election before the full capture of the Democratic Party by the DLC and the Clinton years. If a strong progressive had been nominated to face George Bush in the general election—if a strong progressive had actually managed to beat Bush thanks to the return of white working class votes—the party would unquestionably have gone in a different direction. Most of the leading candidates that year, though, offered an odd kind of toothless neoliberal and superficially working-class populism that was eerily Trumpian. “Senator Albert Gore Jr., says he would ‘make America competitive’ again,” the New York Times’ Peter Kilborn wrote in March. “Gov. Michael S. Dukakis calls it ‘making America No. 1 again’”.  The hardiest of the pre-fab populists was Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who railed loudly against the abuses heaped upon the working class with a conviction that amused careful watchers of his career. “[R]eflecting ever-widening ambitions,” the Wall Street Journal’s Dennis Farney wrote, “Congressman Gephardt moved in stages. He began as a moderately conservative Democrat, opposing creation of the Consumer Protection Agency and championing a Human Life constitutional amendment; became a Neo-Liberal or ‘Atari Democrat,’ searching for bold ‘new ideas’ to spur economic growth; moved on to moderate-to-liberal Democrat, jettisoning the Human Life amendment. Now he’s a Populist Democrat, scourge of The Establishment.” Gore’s efforts to blue-collarize himself were even less convincing. Unlike Gephardt, who’d grown up in a middle-class union family, Gore was the son of a Senator and had attended Harvard.

Substantively, however, the two shared both an approach and an ideological perspective. Both were members of the DLC and thus committed to taking the party rightward in a chase for ever-more reliably conservative white working class voters. Gore would pursue them in the south. Gephardt would pursue them in the Rust Belt. Michael Dukakis, who had been listed in Esquire with Gephardt and Gore as a member of The Neoliberal Club in 1982, would pursue them too, anywhere he could. Naturally, their efforts were image and not policy driven. Blue-collar whites, they hypothesized, would be won over with ads, not agenda-driven politics. In stark contrast to this approach stood a fourth candidate—the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson, 1983—Warren K. Leffler/Wikimedia Commons

Jesse Jackson had actually mounted a campaign in 1984. Though his prominence as a civil rights leader, electrifying charisma, and registration drives brought African-Americans to the polls in large numbers across the country and especially in the South, he never pulled within striking distance of the nomination. Jackson was expected to run away with the black vote in 1988, but it was widely assumed his lack of broad appeal would again make him an also-ran. Jackson had other ideas. A broad and viable electoral coalition capable of winning the nomination and the presidency, he reasoned, could never be built on the expansive identity political commitments of his Rainbow Coalition and his record of anti-poverty advocacy alone. He too would have to win white working class voters. In 1988, he attempted to do so with class-based politics—advancing a message and an agenda that, in Jackson’s own words, advanced “worker’s rights beyond civil rights” and spoke to the common interest blue-collar and rural whites, urban minorities, and struggling middle-class Americans of all races shared in toppling the exploitative neoliberal capitalism that had been enabled by Reaganomics.

“He has broadened his cast of victims to include family farmers and blue-collar workers who, he says, share common ground with his traditional constituents—the poor, the black, and the rejected,” the Washington Post’s David Maraniss wrote. “The villains are multinational corporations, corporate raiders, and the Reagan administration, all of whom he has accused of inflicting “economic violence” on the rest. Twenty years after the assassination of Jackson’s mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., social justice has been achieved in the south and elsewhere, but economic justice has not.”

An effusive editorial endorsing Jackson in The Nation, where Andrew Kopkind had previously praised Jackson for “running that unspeakable anomaly, that horror of all horrors, a ‘class campaign,” surveyed the staggering breadth of his program:

Electing Jesse Jackson means endorsing an increase in the minimum wage; measures to end gender pay inequities and reward work on the basis of “comparable worth”; an attempt to reverse the systematic destruction of family farms by corporate agribusiness; Federal action to halt factory flight, of both the offshore and Sun Belt varieties, and ameliorate its consequences among workers and their communities. Jackson’s Justice Department, free at last of the Meese curse, could begin to enforce and extend antitrust laws to deal with mergers, takeovers and acquisitions and their baleful effect on economic growth and employment.

In time, under such a presidency, the war economy that has defined the American Century for fifty years might begin to give way to a peace economy. Jackson’s first step, one that could be taken quickly, would be to freeze the defense budget, beginning to weaken apace the ideology of militarism that it has produced … More ambitious still, substantial new investment in education, housing, transportation, community services and infrastructure would lay the foundation for a full-employment society, promised and postponed by Democrats since the end of World War II. Jackson asks that the national education budget be doubled. He proposes job training (and retraining) and a national child-care program to help people stay off welfare. And he seeks a complete revision of the social welfare system as a concept: assistance to the needy not as a necessary evil or noblesse oblige but as a matter of human rights. Finally, alone among presidential candidates now or in the past, Jackson proposes a national health-care plan that would end America’s disgraceful attitude toward its sick and make preventive medicine and long-term treatment universally available.

This was the agenda that Jackson took directly to blue-collar whites across the country. By March 1988, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne wrote, Jackson had already “walked more picket lines than any other Democratic candidate”. And soon, evidence seemed to mount that his message was resonating. In striking contrast to his 1984 campaign, thousands of blue-collar white voters came to Jackson’s rallies across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. It was those white voters, with the help of African-American turnout and a rhetorically and literally absent Michael Dukakis, that brought Jackson a shocking two-to-one victory in Michigan, which, given earlier victories in the South and the flagging Gore and Gephardt campaigns, put him well within reach of the nomination.

The future of Jackson’s candidacy would be decided in Wisconsin, a heavily white working class state with few black voters and a state where Carter had narrowly defeated Mo Udall in 1976. A Jackson win there would signal the solidity of his new coalition and deal a perhaps fatal blow to the Dukakis campaign. And in the days leading up to the primary, a win seemed not only possible, but probable. Cheering all-white crowds greeted Jackson everywhere he went. A rally in Sheboygan brought 1,500 attendees to three standing ovations, including an ‘84 Reagan voter from Manitowoc who told the New York Times he believed Jackson would “think about the small guy” in office. Ken Muller, a Reagan and Nixon voter and Sheboygan resident, told the Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson and Gwen Ifill that he’d been one of the first in his town to acquire a Jackson sign because Jackson had reminded him of another populist Democrat he’d once backed—George Wallace. “He was for the underdog; he was a fighter,” he said of Wallace. “He cared about the little guy, not the big shots. That’s the way I feel about Jackson. I like his charisma, I like the way he handles himself. He’s the champion of the underdog. He’s no puppet to nobody.” “If there’s a stereotype that people in these white, 99 percent Democratic working-class neighborhoods don’t go for a black man in the White House, consider it shredded,” the Milwaukee Journal proclaimed.

Against the Jackson tide swam a hapless Michael Dukakis. Nancy Schwerzler of the Baltimore Sun wrote, just days before the primary, that “SWAT teams” of consultants had been brought in to fix what they imagined the critical gap between Dukakis and Jackson was—a lack of charisma. With little time to spare, new stump speeches were tried and Dukakis borrowed heavily from the rhetoric of Gephardt’s failed campaign in an attempt to match the strength of Jackson’s populist messaging. The results, by all accounts, were mixed. “[W]ith the governor’s droning delivery,  Schwerzler wrote, “condemnations of ‘merger maniacs and sharp operators on Wall Street’ sounded more like a mild rebuke than a battle cry.”

Jackson, it seemed, was poised for a victory that may well have transformed the Democratic Party. Turnout on primary day was a full 50 percent higher than in the last election, reflecting a surge in participation one might have imagined Jackson’s barnstorming campaign brought about. But as the results came in that Tuesday in April, it emerged that Wisconsin’s working class white voters — the voters who had flocked to see him at factories, and plants, and union halls across the state; the voters to whom he’d squarely directed a message about rapacious neoliberal capitalism and the importance of class solidarity —- had, in the privacy of their voting booths, developed a strange new enthusiasm for Michael Dukakis.

Jesse Jackson lost Wisconsin to Michael Dukakis by 19 points. He won only a quarter of the state’s white voters. He lost working class whites to Dukakis two to one.

It is difficult, in hindsight, to see what exactly Jackson had done wrong. He advanced the most progressive agenda the party had ever seen. He adopted a class-first message without surrendering his identity politics. Over and over and over again he’d met blue-collar white voters where they worked and picketed and addressed them not only as equals, but as vital partners in a common struggle against exploitation. He’d certainly had baggage. His offhanded use of an anti-Semitic slur had hindered his 1984 campaign and still lingered, as did his mismanagement of funds at his Operation PUSH organization, and the criminal activities of his brother Noah Robinson, Jr. He also, obviously, lacked experience in government. But none of these issues loomed large enough to derail his campaign. In fact, Dukakis, Gephardt, also-ran Paul Simon of Illinois, and Democratic Party leaders had been careful to treat Jackson with kid gloves, a reticence that a flailing and frustrated Al Gore, in the lead up to Wisconsin, would call “ridiculous” and a “subtle form of racism”.

Moreover, recent events have suggested that personal baggage and inexperience may be less than fatal to candidates with populist appeal.

Signs that all was not well with Jackson’s working class outreach had actually accumulated before campaigning in Wisconsin had begun in earnest. “With 32 of the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses over,” the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Gillette wrote in March, “there are gathering signs that the Rev. Jesse Jackson is failing to win broad support from blue-collar, lower-income white voters—a major segment of the working poor whose cause is the heart and soul of his populist campaign.” According to polling from the then recent Illinois and Texas primaries, the whites backing Johnson were younger, more educated, and more affluent than the Democratic electorate. Students, it seemed, were willing to cast votes for Jackson and against the horrors of neoliberalism. So too were sheltered liberal elites, presumably including many culturally, empathetically, and literally distant from the struggling white workers Jackson spent most of his time addressing. White workers themselves, however, largely rejected Jesse Jackson, who failed to win a single industrial state, save Michigan, in the entire primary.


It is obvious that the Democratic Party must substantively move left regardless of whether the white working class in particular takes to a new agenda—the policies the failures of contemporary American society demand of us are left policies and there are millions of Americans likely already inclined towards left-liberalism and leftism that can be galvanized by a new approach even if the white working class cannot. But the particular circumstances of Donald Trump’s victory and the sense that white working class voters ought to be a natural constituency for progressive policy will center the white working class in debate about the party’s deeply needed transformation for some time to come. Again, the pro-worker party the Left rightfully insists should be crafted out of the ashes of the current party is, to a large extent, the strongly pro-union, unapologetically pro-redistribution, and deeply economically progressive Democratic Party of old — the party that white working class voters suddenly began abandoning in droves for the Republican Party and the party that the white working class voters who stayed influenced by rejecting progressive candidates.

The white working class is far from being entirely to blame for the immersion of the party and its leaders in rentier politics.  This intellectual evolution of the party’s elites took place largely out of the public eye and voters can’t be held responsible for the concentration of economic power and influence over the party that followed. But it remains an inescapable fact that the white working class, largely over race and social issues, has, for decades, helped sink progressive candidates that may have stalled or prevented the party’s full capture by neoliberal centrism and the moneyed interests their move to the center has benefited. In doing so, they’ve not only voted against their interests, as the cliche goes, but also voted against the interests of those worse off than themselves—poorer whites hurt even more acutely by the cuts to programs and middling policy solutions pushed forward by the Republican and conservative Democratic politicians the white working class has taken a shine to, as well as minorities doubly impacted by regressive economic policy and racism.

This isn’t a call for pessimism. It’s not 1988 anymore, and it’s plausible that Jesse Jackson’s model of engaging disenfranchised whites without relinquishing identity politics would work substantially better now. But the success of Donald Trump’s xenophobia-driven campaign suggests this isn’t a given. We ought to give Jackson’s approach another real try anyway—again, shifting the party’s margins with working class whites even slightly would have a significant electoral impact. The case for a new liberal agenda, though, does not ultimately rest upon whether it improves the party’s prospects with them.

3 thoughts on “Primary Colors: On Democratic Presidential Politics, Neoliberalism, and the White Working Class”

  1. I just wanted to say that this is one of the best things I have read on the “white working class” and its relevance to Democratic politics. It is odd how difficult it is for people to state— and accept— the obvious: that the driver of white disaffection (especially white BLUE COLLAR disaffection) with the Democratic Party has been racial animus. 152 years after the Civil War, race continues to roil our politics as much as it ever did, and with the same destructive results.
    As someone who has written on this same subject, I commend your scholarship and perception. I look forward to following your work!
    Kim Messick

    Liked by 1 person

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