A Demographic the Democrats Must Not Forget

E.J. Dionne, Washington Post, January 18, 2008

This is a good time to put in a word for the white working class.

For days, the Democratic campaign for president was mired in a discussion, started by Hillary Clinton, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in winning passage of civil rights laws. There was also much talk of the crucial part women played in the New Hampshire primary.

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But the long term is another matter. To build a majority this fall and make history, both candidates would need a lot of help from a group with its own reasons to be discontented: the white working class.

“Working class” seems an antique term, but the people it describes still exist, more now in the service industries than in manufacturing. Demographers often use education levels as a surrogate for class position, and the past three decades have not been kind to Americans who are not college graduates.

For white male high school grads, average wages stood at $18.44 an hour (in constant 2006 dollars) in 1979. They dropped to $16.06 an hour in 1995. There was then a brief upturn—wages for such men hit $17.49 in 2002—but by 2006, their hourly earnings had fallen to $17.31. White female high school graduates have gained ground, but their wages have recently stagnated too. In 1979, such women earned $11.75 an hour. Their wages peaked at $13.42 in 2003, but dropped to $13.08 in 2006. Similar patterns, at somewhat higher wage levels, are visible over the years for men and women who attended college but didn’t graduate.

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Both Clinton and Obama know all this. So does John Edwards, who deserves credit for pushing his competitors to address class issues and whose policies—and “son of a millworker” speeches—are aimed directly at working-class voters.

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Obama knows that Clinton has had an edge on him so far among white working-class Democrats, and he has long preached that social reform transcends race and ethnicity. {snip}. “[What] would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers.”

But these themes have been garbled, obscured and distorted by the recent distractions. “We’re not going to win on identity politics,” said Rep. Artur Davis, an African American Democrat from Alabama whose words should be chiseled on the walls of both campaigns’ headquarters. “The Republican Party is sitting there salivating at the prospects of a battle between white females and blacks.”

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