What Does Hillary Clinton Have to Offer Blue-Collar White Men?

The Democratic Party’s emphasis on race and gender is compelling to many voters—but it may not accord with the experience of many who are struggling.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

After an analysis of polls gauging support for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the New York Times concluded earlier this week that the Democratic nominee struggles most with one demographic group: working-class white men without college degrees. “Mr. Trump has adopted a message all but perfectly devised to attract these voters,” the article states. “He has a populist message on trade and immigration. He has abandoned key elements of the Republican agenda that hurt the party among white working-class Democrats, like support for cutting the social safety net.”

Gender may be a factor, the article adds, before addressing a final possible explanation:

It is also possible that less-educated white men are reacting to rapid changes in cultural and economic status, completely independent of Mrs. Clinton’s gender. No liberal arts college class on “power, privilege and hierarchy” will tell you that white working-class men have become a disadvantaged group. But many white working-class men do not feel privileged — not in a society where power and status are often vested in well-educated elites along the coasts. From their standpoint, the Democratic Party might look like an identity politics patronage system — affirmative action, immigration, “political correctness,” gender or whatever else.

This formulation understates the antagonism that these voters hear from the cultural left. Liberal-arts classes, numerous left-leaning media outlets, and many social-media progressives don’t merely fail to treat these voters as a disadvantaged class—they speak as if they are playing the entire game of life on the easiest setting, to borrow a characterization of whiteness that is prevalent on college campuses.

The framework of white privilege can be invoked with insight and subtlety, or with myopia and exaggeration; but either is a lot easier for white people to hear and to assimilate into their worldview if they’re college graduates who anticipate rewarding careers and stable family lives and mostly socialize with the similarly advantaged. They’re told that they ought to be thriving given their race … and they are thriving!

But imagine that you’re a white man from a working-class family who dropped out of college because you couldn’t swing the tuition. You worked construction, but that dried up—you’re presently unemployed, with child-support payments piling up, a sister addicted to pain pills, and a brother who is in jail again for felony drunk driving. You drive a beat up car with a broken turn signal that you can’t afford to fix. You get pulled over regularly, and you’re often harassed by the cops, who hate your tattoos. Would you identify with a coalition that alighted on white privilege as the center of its cultural outlook and that mostly disseminated that worldview through people with more educational, social, and financial capital than you’ll ever have?

Of course you wouldn’t. To do so would seem at odds with all the struggling white people in your familial and social circles. It would seem to imply that failing despite having all the advantages in the world makes you a special kind of loser. It would seem to focus on race to the exclusion of other hugely important factors. And as far as you can tell, when a white family gets their door kicked down and their dog shot in a drug raid, or when a white high school classmate of yours commits suicide, no one in the world of national media much cares.

Then you watch the DNC, where Michelle Obama, Cory Booker, Eva Longoria, and numerous other black and brown people who are much more successful than anyone you know take the stage. This needn’t feel threatening in and of itself to cause alienation. All it takes is being told that you’re the privileged one.

Given the family histories and life experiences of many black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters in the U.S., it’s totally understandable why a political coalition that emphasizes racial and ethnic identity as a source of struggle would resonate. It is understandable why Bernie Sanders’s laser focus on economics seemed inadequate.

And given the family histories and life experiences of many struggling white people without college degrees, it’s easy to see why a class explanation for what’s wrong with America would resonate far more in comparison. Little wonder that this latest incarnation of the Democratic Party has the most trouble with less educated whites, whether they’re right-leaning folks who prefer Donald Trump or Bernie-or-Bust folks.

Alongside the truth that no one single aspect of a person’s identity, whether class or race or a dozen factors besides, can be understood in isolation from all of the others, Democratic leaders this year correctly perceive that highlighting racial, ethnic, and gender diversity will win over a Rainbow coalition that includes college-educated whites.

But despite the relative care with which they execute this outreach, it is associated, in the minds of many working-class white voters, with the rhetorical excesses and substantive exaggerations of the college campus or the web of identity politics. And although Hillary Clinton and her surrogates have messages of uplift for black voters, for Latinos, for gays and lesbians, for the transgender community, and for undocumented immigrants—although they point to all manner of prejudice these groups have overcome and promise their members more progress—does she have any message of uplift for white men without college degrees? As yet, not any as resonant as what Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders offered.

If Hillary can find a way to speak to those voters without alienating her base of support among more highly educated whites, Hispanics, and African Americans, she will win. But prevailing trends on campus and in the media that treat race and gender as the important factors, rather than two important factors, will make her job extremely difficult.