Who Lost the Working Class?
As the 2000 election approached, campaign strategists began to assert that Gore could win it if the contest was decided on the issues rather than personalities. While "values" were said to be important, those were defined to be a position on a particular set of issues such as gun control and abortion rather than an underlying personal philosophy. And the campaign was indeed largely fought on the basis of the issues Democrats had hoped to highlight. Yet while black and Latino blue-collar workers gave Gore substantial majorities, white workers turned away.
In a survey of 2,000 voters conducted immediately after the election, Gore's pollster Stanley Greenberg found that there were several key factors that had contributed to Gore's loss. Bush was successful in blurring the differences between the candidates on the issues where Gore held an advantage. More critically, Gore was perceived as less trustworthy than Bush, and more Americans felt that Bush, not Gore, shared their values. In fact, the single most important predictor of how people would vote was their perception of which candidate more fully shared their values.
These poll results help explain Bush's victory but seem to offer little guidance for the future: Voters' subjective opinions about trustworthiness and values seem painfully vague and difficult to challenge. But the specific factors Greenberg notes can be seen as elements in the larger process by which American workers make political choices. At this more general level, the outlines of a strategy for progressives does begin to appear.
Because of their limited time and resources, blue-collar workers generally do not try to evaluate competing sets of facts and statistics presented by political candidates. Instead, they pay more attention to what they often call the candidates' "philosophy"--the candidates' views regarding the kinds of policies they consider right or wrong and the general rules or criteria they promise to use in making decisions about specific issues. In effect, workers tend to choose a candidate based on his or her overall approach to the major issues of the day and then rely on that person to make the appropriate decisions about the specifics. This makes certain personal characteristics of a candidate, such as his or her honesty and understanding of working-class life, especially important. Thus, the objections to Gore that Greenberg identified should not be dismissed as superficial or capricious. For blue-collar workers, the trustworthiness, values and honesty of a political candidate are not simply desirable personal characteristics but rather an inherent part of their approach in deciding between competing political views and programs.
There are many potential lessons for progressive politics that can be drawn from the in-depth studies of working-class political opinion. But the central conclusion they suggest is the absolutely critical importance of respecting the values of American workers and understanding the culture in which they live.
To be sure, Democratic political candidates have already become accustomed to reciting a litany of respect for home, work and family when they are on the campaign trail, but this is far from sufficient. It is necessary to face the uncomfortable reality that there is still a vast cultural chasm and a profound lack of understanding that separates the college-educated from the 45 percent of white American men who are manual workers. It is a gap created not by differences in knowledge or intelligence but by the fact that the two groups live in fundamentally different worlds.
For one thing, although opinion polls demonstrate that workers' views on major issues actually span a wide range from left to right, many college-educated Americans still hold stereotypes of blue-collar workers as conservative "hard hats." The reason for the strength of that image is that the political debate between progress and reaction that goes on within working-class America, and the important cultural changes that have occurred over the years, are largely hidden from those outside. The college educated, for example, have not personally observed the subtle evolution of working-class attitudes toward women over the past thirty years, an evolution reflected in the songs of both male and female country music stars. Nor have they frequented the Wednesday evening prayer meetings that are held all across America, where working people seriously and sincerely struggle with their feelings on issues like prejudice, tolerance and greed. The Archie Bunker stereotype survives not because it is accurate but because those who live outside working-class America have no other image with which to replace it.