Fred’s Focus: Regaining the Trust of the Working Class

Working class white men were a linchpin of the Democratic Party coalition through the middle years of the last century. The 30 years following World War II were shaped by substantial economic growth and shared prosperity. Middle and lower income Americans were seeing their wealth grow at similar rates to those of the top 1%.

The working class was given an equal shot at pursuing the American Dream – and they took it.

About 40 years ago, that worker/Democratic Party tie started to shift. It was a complex change that was the result of several things. The first shot came in 1971 when, just two months before President Nixon would appoint him to the United States Supreme Court, Lewis Powell laid out a plan of collusion between corporations and the US Chamber of Commerce – all at the expense of the worker. Tragically, not only did America let that attack happen, but Powell then assumed one of the highest levels of power in the nation.

Next, the Roe vs Wade decision in 1973 effectively severed the alliance between the Catholic Church and blue collar men and women. Catholics had been partners in the creation of the New Deal with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and reached a peak in party affiliation in 1960 when 80% of their votes went to John F. Kennedy. After that election, due to shifting populations and new influences, the voting bloc began to break up. But it was the controversial Supreme Court case that catalyzed this break up of Catholic voting coherence.

Unions, the face of the American working class, began to weaken at the same time as the launching of Powell’s memo. In the first decade of this century, big business outspent unions 50 to 1 on political lobbying. And these blows came without the protection once granted by party affiliation.

Attacks on the American worker became part of the national narrative at the same time that the Democratic party was fashioning new priorities. They made the right decision to reach out to new constituents – women and minorities – but failed to bring along its time ally, working Americans.

Like the American poor, working Americans became largely invisible to the general public. Once proud partners of a powerful coalition, many lost hope as their wages stagnated regardless of the fact that they were producing more than they ever had, the Rust Belt jobs disappeared, and their kids’ futures darkened. They wanted signals that America was still fair, that there was still a level playing field, but they did not come.
Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton documented the rise in the death rates due to increased health issues and suicide linked to increased economic security amongst middle-aged white Americans. Working class Americans were hurting, and had lost much of their hope.
The Republican Party wooed these vulnerable workers with slogans appealing to patriotism and faith. They created scapegoats of immigrants and minorities, blaming joblessness on the two groups and globalization. The Democratic Party could have easily responded to this challenge. After all, this was the party that created Medicare and Social Security. This was the party with an honest record of fighting for average Americans.
But they failed to meet the challenge.
But there is hope in this contentious election year. This specific presidential election year is the perfect opportunity for the long ago coalition of Democratic Party and working Americans to once again work together. For the Democratic party, they have promoted and fought for a platform that is the most progressive of any major party in decades – one that is inclusionary, would tackle inequality, and one that gives a voice back to average Americans.
The two need each other going forward. By including allies old and new, the Democrats would have the chance to pass fair legislation that would benefit the entire country, regardless of affiliation.


Patriotic Millionaire Fred Rotondaro has had a varied career that includes journalism, teaching, anti-poverty and civil rights work, and national association management. He was a senior fellow from 2003 to 2015 at the Center for American Progress where he concentrated on poverty and inequality. He has written extensively for academic and popular publications. He holds a PhD in American Studies from New York University, an honorary doctorate from Wheeling College, and is currently Chair of the Board of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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