How Barack Obama Can Win White Working Class Votes

Now that we finally have a Democratic nominee, a burning issue is how Obama can win the voters who went overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton. It's a complicated topic. This blog will offer a game plan over the next few weeks. (I will speak to Obama, egghead to egghead, providing the book titles Democratic strategists should be reading if they want to understand the white working class.)

Let's start simple. Democrats are mystified about why working class voters resent them - who have such good intentions - but not Republicans, whose chief goal (as the Dems see it) is to protect the capitalist class. The hard truth is that the white working class distrusts professionals but admires the rich.

Joseph Howell's Hard Living on Clay Street found hostility towards college students, and that professional people were generally suspect. Lawyers were most disliked - many blue collar workers felt had cheated or overcharged them (typically in divorce cases). But doctors fell not far behind: "Doctors will screw you every time. Prescribe medicine for you you don't need and then charge you double for not helping you one goddamn bit."

Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods found tremendous resentment against teachers. No wonder. Lareau tells of:

*a working class child with learning disabilities who never gets properly diagnosed;

* a college student who is never counseled to drop a course she is failing, thereby jeopardizing her future;

*a seriously ill woman who refuses to go to the doctor because she feels she is tread like "white trash" when she does.

Elite children "learn to think of themselves as special and as entitled to receive certain kinds of services," Lareau notes, but working class kids learn a sense of powerlessness and resentment towards professionals, whom they often see as uncaring, arrogant, and exercising unchecked power over working class lives.

In sharp contrast, Michelle Lamont's The Dignity of Working Men found little resentment of the affluent. Some quotes:

I "can't knock anyone from succeeding." (Laborer)

"There's a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I'm sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have." (Receiving Clerk)

"You can't associate money with happiness, but I would sure like to give it a try." (Electronics Technician)

White working class people rank income above education in evaluating people's worth; they rank formal education below competence, knowledge, and common sense. "I'd rather have common sense than an education" is a common saying among steelworkers in Trenton.

All this is expressed to a T in Maureen Dowd's New York Times column. Dowd tells us she grew up working class, and reminds us that Obama did not - that his mother "got her Ph.D. in anthropology, studying the culture of Indonesia." Then she lights in, faulting Obama for appearing to be "observing the odd habits of the colorful locals" in Rocky country. Americans don't mind some elitism: "the great tradition of the millionaire who was cool enough to relate to the common man--like Cary Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven in 'The Philadelphia Story.'"

In others words, we admire the rich. "What turns off voters is the detached, egghead quality that they tend to equate with wimpiness, wordiness, and a lack of action--the same quality that got the professorial and superior Adlai Stevenson mocked by critics as Adelaide." Be rich and you are manly. Be intellectual? What a wuss.

Being an egghead is another professional identity the white working class distrusts. This is the chasm we need to bridge. How? Stay tuned.