As recently as the 1990s, when the sociologist Michèle Lamont interviewed blue-collar white New Yorkers for her book The Dignity of Working Men, she found that many of her interview subjects expressed relatively positive attitudes about immigrants, describing them as “family oriented” and “hard workers, just like us.” What changed? In large part, the far right’s story line: Why did the good jobs leave? Trade treaties. Why do the ones that replaced them pay so poorly? Immigrants.
Without question, the anti-immigrant attitudes encouraged by this story line feed off racial resentment. Many white people freak out when they’re told that they will soon be a minority: Experiments show that when white people are told they will lose their majority status and related social advantages, they respond with anger toward and fear of ethnic minorities. But this response isn’t unique to working-class people—college students react in much the same way as other white people.
To counter the far right’s story line, Democrats must acknowledge the persistence of racism while shifting attention to the American dream of social mobility. The first step is to acknowledge that immigration sometimes hurts American workers, primarily those without high-school degrees. Immigration may have a positive effect on the economy overall, but people don’t live averages: They live where they live, and see what they see, which is that some employers use immigrant workers to drive down wages and undermine unions. Why not admit this and insist that everyone, immigrants included, deserves the dignity of a paycheck that lasts the week (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.)?
If Democrats want to build a winning coalition that includes not just the blue coasts but also the swath of red in between, they must master this economic message. The party’s new “Heartland” strategy, articulated by Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, is promising. Bustos won reelection in 2016 by 20 points—a feat, considering that Trump narrowly carried her largely agricultural and industrial blue-collar district. She has flourished by de-emphasizing socially divisive issues (these lead to “no-win conversations,” she has said) and highlighting economic ones. Democrats should also talk more about ways to empower workers; a good example is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which would require that 40 percent of a company’s board members be elected by its workers.
One final note: If Democrats spend less time taking the bait on immigration and more time prioritizing good jobs for people without college degrees, they won’t help only the white working class—they will help people of every race. After all, black and Hispanic students are less likely than white ones to end up with a college degree.
4| Racism Is a White Problem, Not a Working-Class Problem
A final dynamic will be particularly hard to fix: the broken relationship between elite and non-elite white people, for which people of all races are paying the price. This is a white-people problem, and white people need to fix it. (I wouldn’t presume to advise people of color on how to respond to racism, or to suggest that they should refrain from seeing the 2016 election through the always-powerful lens of race. But as an elite white person, I do see it as my place to tell elite whites to stop displacing blame for their own racism onto non-elite whites.)