As more presidential candidates join the 2020 Democratic primary, or at least, do that weird exploratory committee thing, social media are exploding with commentaries about each candidates’ winnability. One measure of winnablity that is often casually used to rank white candidates is their ability to win the “white working-class” vote.
This is a confusing phrase because it doesn’t often try to capture what all working, poor to middle-class, voters want. Sometimes it captures the opposite. To win the white working-class vote, you don’t necessarily need legitimate economic policies that focus on the poor and middle class. You just need to win over white people living in a white supremacist society. Adding the words “working” or “class” disguises this type of white vote as a racial dog whistle or a political message that pushes racism but in a coded, race-neutral way—like implying the white working-class vote has something to do with workers or class issues and not the feelings of white people who feel threatened or left out of efforts to promote diversity and equality.
I would like to make a request to all white Democrat voters, when talking about white candidates’ “winnability” among white voters, instead of saying phrases like the “white working-class” vote or “white middle-class” vote, could we just call it the racism vote? When white people prefer a candidate based on skin color, their support for policies that benefit mainly white people, or their lack of policies addressing racism, it’s not because of their particular type of vocation or their amount of wealth.
According to the 2016 exit polls, contrary to the argument that Democrats should focus more on winning back white working-class voters, Trump did not win the poor, middle, or working-class vote. He won the white vote—in almost every category from white men, white women, white people in all financial classes (especially the upper class), white evangelicals and white people of all education levels except white female college graduates whom Clinton won with 51 percent.
Based on Trump’s explicitly racist campaign rhetoric and promises, it’s hard to say racism or tolerance/ignorance to racism, wasn’t a major factor in winning the votes of these white groups. He literally ran on a platform based on demonizing people of color from migrants and asylum seekers to Muslim refugees and immigrants to victims and protesters of police brutality. He even used an old Reagan racial dog whistle, Make American Great Again (MAGA), specifically designed to demonize civil rights achievements, protections, and programs, as the cause of our country’s “lack of greatness,” in order to win white resentment votes by stirring white backlash to racial progress.
Nikole Hannah-Jones on Democracy Now Discussing History of American White Backlash to Racial Progress from Civil War to 2016 Election
People unaware of racism or uncomfortable talking about it tried to paint an economic coating on the 2016 election, claiming there’s some forgotten midwestern, white, blue-collar population who voted for Trump because they felt left out of the economy and government policies. This has been proven false many times since the 2016 election from exit polls that show Trump supporters were more concerned about immigration and terrorism (two common Trump campaign scapegoats) than the economy and a plethora of studies that found Trump supporters were more concerned about being culturally replaced by increasing diversity, being discriminated against for being white, male, straight, Christian, etc., and losing their American way of life, which was founded on white supremacy.
This is not to say there are no poor, struggling and underserved white populations across the U.S. There are many such communities. But the majority of people making $50K or under, especially the ones who felt our recent recession the most, voted for Hillary. This may be in part because Democrat policies on average at least attempt to benefit poor- and middle-class voters (protecting unions and workers’ rights, protecting our social safety nets and ACA, pushing jobs/stimulus bills, minimum wages, protecting voter rights, supporting environmental justice, etc.).
While GOP policies often exploit these people for profit (Right to Work laws, tax cuts for the upper class and military increases while cutting the social safety net, dismantling ACA, deregulating consumer protections and Wall St., initiating nationwide voter suppression, supporting environmental injustice, etc.). And the white poor and white middle class that did vote for Trump overwhelmingly said they were feeling more left out of the top positions of a racial hierarchy than the economy.
And for those calling for Democrats to work more to gain the “white working-class” votes lost in 2016, can we just call this the racial dog whistle it is? This is a really nice “coded” way to ask the Democrats to drop their support for equal rights and social justice to win more white voters who don’t understand systemic racism. It’s a type of liberal racism. Progressive victories should never be won by increasing oppression.
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