Having just celebrated Labor Day and entering the final two months of the 2016 election cycle, now is a good time to pause and appreciate those members of the working class who are white and progressive. We hear so much about Donald Trump’s support among the white working class (usually defined as non–college-educated whites) and how that group has abandoned Democrats over the years that it’s easy to overlook white members of the working class who are progressive and do stand with people of color. There are more of them than one would think, and their numbers are sufficiently numerous to form a significant, and indispensable, part of a winning, progressive multiracial coalition—the New American Majority.
One would think from recent media coverage that every single working-class white person is wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and pining for the days when African Americans couldn’t vote, immigrants of color couldn’t become citizens, and women were kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. In reality, however, there are millions of white working-class voters who proudly cast their ballots for a black man running for president in 2008 and 2012, and millions have also expressed their preference for a white woman seeking the same office. In a country that held black people in chattel slavery for hundreds of years and refused to recognize any women’s rights separate from a relationship to a man until the 21st century, those votes by working-class whites are a big deal.
The obsessive focus on conservative white workers prompted me to ask in my book, Brown Is the New White, “What’s wrong with the white people we have? Can’t we show them some love?” As important as voters of color are to forming a governing New American Majority, progressive working-class whites are also a key component of a winning coalition, and they accounted for 27 percent of Obama’s voters in 2012.
It is true, for a variety of historical, psychological, and sociological reasons, that the majority of all white voters—including white working-class voters—tend to vote more conservative. Since 1976, the advent of exit polls that ask about racial background, an average of 55 percent of whites have voted for the Republican nominee for president, with 40.6 percent choosing the Democrat.
Over the past eight years, Obama has run and won twice, and his share of white working-class support was 40 percent in 2008 and 36 percent in 2012. The current numbers for Clinton in the August 25 Quinnipiac University National Poll show her securing support from 35 percent of the white working class. College-educated whites and people of color account for the rest of her lead in the polls. That solid sector of progressive working-class whites is an essential component of her coalition and vital to her prospects in November.
Given the prevalence of systemic racism in all sectors of society—combined with the lack of effective countervailing communication from progressives consistently challenging racism—it’s actually kind of remarkable that so many members of the white working class vote progressive.