Are Democrats 'clueless' on class?
Posted October 29, 2017 4:24 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — President Donald Trump carried white voters without a college degree by a whopping 37 point margin over Hillary Clinton in last year's election, helping power Trump to victory in pivotal states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that had not voted Republican at the presidential level since the 1980s.
Trump's unexpected victory has sparked a vigorous debate within the Democratic Party about what can and should be done to communicate more effectively with white working-class voters.
Teddy Davis and Abigail Crutchfield, co-hosts of "Biblio," CNN's new Q&A on politics and books, and senior producers of CNN's "State of the Union with Jake Tapper," discussed the subject with Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Williams has written a new book, "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America."
(The following conversation, which took place on October 25, has been edited for clarity and length).
Biblio: How did a self-described "silver-spoon girl" come to write a book about the "white working class"?
Williams: I married into a white working-class family, so I have spent the past 40 years, every single day, bridging what I call the class culture gap, and really understanding how the culture of what I call the professional managerial elite (PME) that I was brought up in is really very different in important ways from the people who we often call blue collar, or working class, but they're really actually the middle class.
Biblio: When did you start writing this book?
Williams: When I realized Trump was going to win, I left an election night party here in San Francisco, and I just kind of let it rip. Like many people, I was very, very, very upset, and I just bluntly said what I saw.
Biblio: You write in the book that the working class has gone from a highly respected position to one of ridicule. Why is that important?
Williams: I think it's profoundly important. It fuels the kind of class resentment that, in my opinion, has brought us Trump, and Charlottesville, and a lot else. The PME, the top 17%, often speaks very, very disrespectfully of middle class Americans. So you have Clinton calling them "deplorable," and before her Obama talking about "bitter" people "clinging" to guns and religion, but this is all over popular culture, too. In "Orange is the New Black," for example, the character Pennsatucky is basically the only white working-class character. She is depicted as coarse, ugly, and they basically make fun of her having bad teeth.
So this level of dismissiveness, disrespect, it's completely inconsistent with the ideals of people who are committed to social equality in the United States, and it's also one of the things that is poisoning American politics in a very, very big way.
Biblio: A big theme in your book is the white working-class resentment towards the poor. Do you see that as a key driver of our politics?
Williams: White blue-collar guys are very judgmental about the poor. They see the poor as taking handouts, and they see themselves as working hard for everything they get. Black working-class guys have much more of a "there, but for the grace of God, go I" attitude toward the poor, and so they have much softer boundaries toward the poor.
Biblio: Trump's tax plan has been analyzed by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center as providing 80% of its benefits to the top 1%. Will that hurt Trump with the white working class?
Williams: We'll see. People get their news through very, very partisan channels, so we'll see how much of that gets through. Democrats are doing, by and large, a not so effective job in pointing that out and in holding Trump's feet to the fire. Democrats need to say that not only is this not going to produce jobs, because it's just a giveaway to rich people, this tax cut will make an infrastructure program impossible.
If the national political discussion is on discussions of cultural issues, and racial issues, and immigration, that is going to marry Trump's base to him.
These rural and Rust Belt whites, their votes are over-weighted. They're over-weighted in the Electoral College. They're over-weighted in the Senate. They're over-weighted in state legislatures that control House redistricting.
The fact that we're going to have a majority-minority country is no solution for making a genuine economic connection.
Biblio: You have urged Democrats to embrace universal rather than means-tested programs. But if that is the case, why do you think it would be a mistake politically for Democrats to push single-payer health care?
Williams: I support single payer, but I don't think that's the kind of thing that's going to bring the Democratic Party together. It's very easy to caricature it as just another expensive government giveaway. A public option, by contrast, would be a gradual way to go close to single payer without some of the political downside.
Biblio: You write that Hillary Clinton's message about "shattering the glass ceiling" was lost on a lot of white working-class women. Why is that?
Williams: I mean that's just an example of the dazzling class cluelessness of the Democratic Party, and here again I think Obama showed it, and Hillary Clinton showed it as well. What does the "glass ceiling" mean? The glass ceiling is a metaphor that says that elite women, like myself, should be able to get the same jobs as elite men. Why do middle class people care? They don't. They don't care. One of the things, and we see it now with the #MeToo campaign, if the Clinton campaign had focused more on sexual harassment, which is a workplace experience that is shared by women in lots of different classes, things might have broken a little bit differently.
Biblio: In his new book, "We Were Eight Years in Power," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: "The focus on one sector of Trump voters, the white working class, is puzzling given the breadth of his white coalition." Ta-Nehisi argues that Trump assembled a broad white coalition, that ran the gamut from Joe the dishwasher, to Joe the plumber, to Joe the banker. What's your response to his argument?
Williams: Well, first of all, as somebody who has studied gender and race for 30 years, I certainly think you can tell a coherent story about what's going on in the United States, focusing on class. You can also tell a coherent story focusing on race, and Coates, with his usual brilliance, is telling that coherent story focusing on race. What swung the election for Trump were about 77,000 voters in some Rust Belt states, that have now been shown to have been concentrated in counties that were bleeding, bleeding good jobs. So, if people actually want to win, they should care about the white working class.
Biblio: What do you think of people like Mark Lilla, author of "Once and Future Liberal," who have urged the Democratic Party to abandon identity politics?
Williams: I wouldn't even know what a shift away from identity politics is. The country club Bush Republicans vote because of their identities. I, a San Francisco liberal, vote as an expression of my identity. Trump voters vote as an expression of their identity. African-American voters vote as an expression of their identity.
That is the way that voting works, so I do not get on board with this, "You need to abandon identity politics." To me, that sounds like people saying, "Okay, women and people of color, you've had your 40 years. Nothing much has changed, but we're going to stop talking about your issues." That is not what I'm saying.
What I'm saying is that we should also connect with another group of disrespected and disenfranchised people in the United States, and that is people who have been disadvantaged by class.
Biblio: Do you see any national Democrats out there that you think are particularly good at connecting with the white working class?
Williams: You know, I'm not really going to go there. I've been talking to a lot of people in Capitol Hill, I've been talking to a lot of people. People are like, "Well, what candidate are you backing?" My attitude is, I'm backing one that can win. We need to capture that segment of working-class whites, who really, their concern is about economic issues, not about racism. We need someone who can win in that ocean of red.
Biblio: One Democrat who's gotten elected out in that "ocean of red," is Sen. Sherrod Brown out in Ohio, and we asked him about your book the other day, and he told us the two of you actually went to school together.
Williams: Yeah, I've known Sherrod since he was like, what, 21 years old, 19 years old. He's great. Sherrod Brown is great, and you know, I do think there are number of people who could connect with the white working class. Sherrod Brown is certainly one. Joe Biden knows how to do this. Cheri Bustos from the House knows how to do this. Elizabeth Warren. So again, who do I support? I support someone who can win. (In an email exchange with CNN following the interview, Williams said that she "left out a lot of good potential Democratic candidates, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and others." She added that she views herself "not as a candidate-chooser but as a class-explainer").
Biblio: Your book ends with advice for Democrats about how to talk about hot-button issues. On abortion, you recommend describing the Democratic position as "pro-child, pro-choice, pro-family" versus a more "egocentric" message about "my body, my choice." For Democrats, is this just a communications problem? Or does there need to be a policy shift?
Williams: I think both are right. One of the reasons Republicans have been so incredibly successful at connecting with white working-class people is racism, that's true. But another reason is they have made every issue into a "jobs issue." Environmentalism they made into a jobs issue. Immigration, they made it into a jobs issue. You name it, they made it into a jobs issue.
Biblio: The media tends to treat every other Trump tweet as a major controversy. What part of his presidency do you think the white working class is actually focused on? What are they going to judge him on?
Williams: A lot of them voted with their middle finger. Trump had very high unlikability, but he has a lot of appeal, because he drives the elites nuts. Just constantly attacking Trump threatens to marry his base to him even more because if he's driving the elites that nuts, we love him. This obsession with Trump's tweets allows him to control the conversation, and that is not working for us. We need to be having a sustained discussion about whether he's giving Americans the jobs he's promised.
Biblio: For how long will Trump get the benefit of the doubt from the white working class if they don't see a change in their standard of living?
Williams: That depends on Democrats. I think if Democrats keep talking about jobs, and keep bringing things back to jobs, then I, as a Democrat, can be quite hopeful. But we have to remember what Steve Bannon has told us: so long as the conversation is only about race, Trump is going to win.
Biblio: Final question: What book has shaped your thinking more than any other?
Williams: On this issue? That's an easy one. Michele Lamont, "The Dignity of Working Men," the single best book on class in America. She compares and contrasts the black working class in the United States with the white working class. She compares them with the white and people of color working class in France. It is a brilliant book. It is a must read.