What’s the matter with white people?

WASHINGTON – Building on its stereotype of African-Americans from 30 years ago, the Republican Party has made “cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers into its new ‘welfare queens,'” an author of a new book about the alienation of the white working class says.

The catch, adds Joan Walsh, author of What’s The Matter With White People?” is that the workers and families being demonized, alienated from their ancestral roots in the Democratic Party by the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, don’t realize that’s the Republican attitude – and keep voting against their own economic interests.

Walsh, a self-described “white working class Irish kid from Long Island” offered that analysis at a recent book talk at the AFL-CIO. But she said not all the blame should be laid at the feet of the GOP. The Democrats themselves moved away from white workers, including those whom organized labor represents.

“It’s an incredibly divisive notion to have ‘people-of-color coalitions,” excluding whites, she said. “White liberals and progressives are the worst on this. They’re looking down on the white working class.”

The reaction and the key turning point there, she added, was the 1970 confrontation in New York between construction workers and anti-war protesters, which Richard Nixon and a succession of Republican politicians have exploited.

That exploitation has reached all the way to the 2012 vote. Opinion polls show that Democratic President Barack Obama’s weakest group is white working-class men, again, although there is a regional division to that weakness, Walsh adds.

“In the South, he’s trailing by about 40 percentage points,” she notes. “But he’s ahead in the Midwest and tied in the West and Northeast,” Walsh says. Obama is also running ahead of his 2008 figures among white working class women and Catholics.

Nevertheless, Republicans – she cited former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished second to Mitt Romney in the GOP race, plus Romney himself – keep exploiting the Democratic divide, while hiding their own strategy.

“It gives them the chance to break through where they couldn’t do so before” 1970, Walsh explained.

 “Mitt wants to write off 47% of the country?” she asked, referring to Romney’s infamous remarks at a Florida fundraiser about people who are “victims” and who expect government support. “Well, most of them are white and a quarter of them are seniors.” By bringing those voters back, “We have the opportunity to make the country more stable,”

Audience members described similar attitudes among white working-class voters they interviewed. One Fire Fighter recalled his recent canvassing in Danville, Va., in the southwestern area of the state – an area hard hit by past factory closures.

The biggest source of jobs there now is government, but GOP budget cutting slashed those jobs, too. “It’s been positive but scary. I told them there are a lot of Fire Fighters and police officers who don’t have a job,” he said. “The room was dead silent.”

For the Republicans, her own Long Island relatives and those white working-class people, “the face of welfare is black,” contrary to actual statistics, Walsh replied. “But white poverty and unemployment has doubled, and we have to validate that” to bring those voters back. “It’ll be a tough slog,” she admitted.

The mass media doesn’t help, Walsh noted. Many of the hardest-hit white working class voters “get their facts from Fox,” known for its aggressive Right Wing bias. Fox network chief “Roger Ailes told me they have a target audience: ‘Age 55 to dead,’ and they’re whipping them up into a frenzy.”

But the Occupy movement may help start returning those voters to pocketbook voting, Walsh adds, by putting the issue of rising income inequality and the decline of the middle class squarely at the forefront of the national discussion.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who hosted the discussion, said the labor movement is trying to do its part, through creation and campaigning by Working America, its affiliate for workers who could be sympathetic to the movement’s goals, but who can’t or won’t, join unions. Working America now has more than 3 million members, with tens of thousands of them in battleground states, such as Ohio.

Their efforts are effective, because Working America volunteers are listening to and having discussions with voters, one by one, and adjusting accordingly, he stated. In the 2008, he claimed, voters contacted by Working America – a group prior surveys show is whiter, more working-class and more conservative than the union movement – voted for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama by a 3-to-1 ratio. That was higher than Obama’s ratio among unionists, Trumka said.

“When they get information one-on-one, it moves them dramatically,” Trumka concluded of the white working class.

Photo: “What’s the Matter with White People?: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was,” by Joan Walsh, Hardcover, 288 pages. Also in Kindle edition.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.