A good deal of ink has been spilled over the question of Bernie Sanders’s relationship to African American voters, and it still remains a real question whether he can attract enough black Democratic voters in the upcoming primaries to close the distance between himself and Hillary Clinton. Even his historic upset in the Michigan primary only won him 28% of the African American vote. However, the Michigan results may reveal something even more significant. Sanders won the white working class vote in the Democratic Primary, putting him over the top. Even more stunning is that this is the constituency that had provided Clinton with one of her strongest bases of support in her 2008 contest with Obama.
Exit polls in every contest so far reveal a clear pattern: Sanders beats Clinton handily among white working-class Democratic voters. In Iowa, Sanders won the white working class vote by a 57 to 41 margin. In New Hampshire, this was a stunning 71 to 25 margin. In the Illinois primary, where Clinton edged out Sanders, he still took the white working class vote from Clinton. In some states, Sanders is even beating Trump in the contest for white working-class voters. According to CNN’s exit polls, Sanders won over 29% of the white working class voters who voted in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in Massachusetts, while Trump received 27% and Clinton 24%.
The next few weeks will demonstrate whether Sanders will be able to retain the support of white working class voters. The prospect of a Trump presidency clearly weighs on the mind of those making their decision between Clinton and Sanders. This may explain Clinton’s strong showing on Super Tuesday. According to exit polls conducted by ABC, 2 out of 3 Democratic primary voters in the five states voting in the March 15th primaries said that they believed Clinton had a better chance of beating Trump than Sanders. This likely helps account for her 12-point victory among Ohio’s union voters and her, even more surprising 7-point victory among those Ohio voters who said trade with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs.”
Nevertheless, younger white working-class voters, whose parents had joined the white flight from the Democratic Party to vote for Reagan in 1980, still seem to be breaking for Sanders by an overwhelming margin. Michigan’s open primary system allows registered Independents to vote in whichever primary they choose. Of those voters, Sanders won an astounding 71%, representing a full quarter of the electorate. On the March 15th primaries in Illinois and Missouri, Sanders enjoyed respectively the support of 71% and 65% of independents. It’s worth considering whether these independents aren’t white working-class voters finally returning to the Democratic Party.
A little history as to why white voters left the party is in order here to explain why this is so significant.
The 1964 presidential campaign first exposed white discontent with the increasingly pro-civil rights leadership in the Democratic Party. Even though Lyndon B. Johnson walloped archconservative Barry Goldwater in the general election, the Arizona Republican managed to win six states. Besides his home state, he took Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. What brought the Deep South into the Republican column for the first time since 1928 was Goldwater’s staunch opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Just a few months previously, Alabama Governor George Wallace’s performance in the 1964 Democratic primary revealed that this white backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement spilled far beyond the borders of the South. Following his nationally televised attempt to block the desegregation of the University of Alabama, Wallace entered the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. Most observers viewed him as a fringe candidate, figuring that he might get 10% of the vote tops. However, by explicitly running against the civil rights movement, he took a third of vote in Wisconsin and Indiana and 43% of the vote in Maryland.
Both Wallace and Goldwater made visible a national constituency of disaffected Democrats unhappy with their party’s embrace of civil rights. When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, he set in motion an exodus of white voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Four years later, Richard Nixon captured the first wave of this white backlash, helping him secure the White House in 1968. Successive waves of white flight from the Democratic Party secured landslide victories for Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.
In an era of declining expectations, Nixon’s calls for a return to “law and order” and Reagan’s infamous attacks on so-called “welfare queens” appealed to a white working class facing stagflation, rapid deindustrialization, and an all-out assault on organized labor that had once guaranteed a decent standard of living for working-class families. After more than a decade of economic turmoil, the American Dream seemed increasingly and inexplicably out of reach for most white Americans. In this context, many white Americans abandoned the idea of a social safety net, choosing instead to rely on their own families and resources to get them through rather than feeling any solidarity with the strangers that made up America with them.
The political strategy of racial resentment was very effective in keeping the White House in Republican hands. Before Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, the Democrats had lost five of the last six Presidential elections. It seemed that the GOP had secured a permanent lock on the White House due to Republican strength in the Sunbelt, the Rocky Mountain West and the Upper Midwest. In 1992, the states in these regions collectively held 250 electoral votes, just 20 fewer than the 270 needed for victory.
To wrest these ‘Reagan Democrats’ away from the Republican Party, a small but influential group of Democrats founded the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the aftermath of Reagan’s 1984 blowout victory. The members of this group came from the conservative wing of the party, most were from the South and most had close ties to major corporations. Their membership roster included many who would become household names in the 1990s: Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton.
The DLC argued that to win back the “white flight” Democrats, the party would have adopt conservative positions on issues such as welfare reform, crime, free trade and defense. At the same time, they could take for granted the support of African Americans, union members, and liberals who had no other viable political home. This policy of triangulation made conservative white voters the most important voting bloc in the nation.
Upon taking office in 1992, President Clinton would pull the Democratic Party to the right as he chased after these white prodigal sons. Adopting as his own several Republican initiatives, Clinton began to dismantle New Deal and Great Society programs that had once been the Democrats’ signature accomplishments of the twentieth century.
The Clintons’ appropriation of the Republican Party agenda is perhaps most evident when Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. Clinton’s welfare reform was modeled on a similar bill introduced by Newt Gingrich following the Republican takeover of Congress two years previously. Like Gingrich’s vision, Clinton’s law ended the entitlement status of AFDC welfare benefits, included workfare provisions, and a lifetime limit on benefits received under the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs. Two decades later it has become clear that TANF did little to improve the lives of the poor, instead condemning an entire generation Americans to extreme poverty. By 2014, a record 47 million Americans — nearly one in six — lived below the poverty line. As Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis reported in The Nation, this extreme poverty was “most pronounced for black families, who experienced a 183 percent increase during this period, compared with 132 percent for Latinos and 110 percent for whites.”
Then, over the course of the 1990s, the Clintons enthusiastically expanded the War on Drugs far beyond the ambitions of the Republican legislators who supported the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. As historian Donna Much recently related in the pages of the New Republic, “in the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities.” As the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party competed with the Republican Party for the allegiance of conservative white voters, they passed legislation that would “impose mandatory minimums, deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes and impose draconian restrictions on parole.” As a result of these policies, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons– a disproportionate number of whom were people of color — nearly doubled from 1.2 million to 2 million during Clinton’s two terms in office.
Clinton’s triangulation strategy was effective in winning the support of enough “white flight” Democrats to return him to the White House during the 1996 election. However, it seriously depressed the turnout of the rest of the Democratic base. This resulted in Democratic losses in the Senate, while in the House the Democrats won a mere three seats. While triangulation may have been good for Clinton, it was terrible for the Democratic Party.
Now, twenty years later what remains of that aging white backlash is firmly lined up behind Trump. By contrast, a much younger white working-class vote seems to have bolted for Sanders. It remains to be seen what they will do in the general election. Some of Clinton’s more avid supporters have expressed fears that should Clinton win the nomination, disappointed Sandernistas would abandon the Democrats to support Trump in the general election. While these fears are certainly overstated, the existence of a group of white voters who are split between Trump and Sanders is undeniable. Rather than look at this as a menace, this could be a sign that a significant part of the white working class vote is up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been for decades.
Perhaps Sanders’s calls for genuinely universal health care, tuition-free higher education, his strong support for organized labor, and his open criticism of the destructive legacies of US militarism is finally beginning to attract the support of a majority of white working class voters long repelled by both the Republicans and the Clintonista wing of the Democratic Party. Maybe one of the things that will come out of this election is that a large section of the white working-class will have the space to define themselves against that fraction which wraps itself in the Confederate flag.
If they succeed, this could be the beginning of a genuinely viable interracial working class movement more robust than any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Perhaps the most important outcome of Sanders’s historic primary campaign is that it shows there’s a more effective way to appeal to white working-class voters without appealing to racism.