The 2013 season of Progressivism on Tap began on June 6 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Joan Walsh, editor-at-large of Salon, discussed her recent book, What’s the Matter with White People?, with CAP Senior Fellows John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira. Walsh began by explaining how the book had grown out of her experience of watching time, education, and working-class origins change the political worldview of her family.
Her book argues that there are two competing visions of American history that affect how people form their political views: On the one hand, lost in “no one helped us” rhetoric, there are those who forget the extent to which the government helped build the middle class of the last century—from the G.I. Bill to public-sector jobs. On the other hand, there are those who ignore how frightening the drastic societal changes of the 1960s and 1970s were and how these changes, from family structure to the race and gender of the American workforce, can lead people to believe the country is “falling apart.”
The discussion centered on understanding where members of the white working class fit in a multiracial, pluralistic society. It can be strange, awkward, or even racially problematic to some to talk about a concerted outreach to a group of people who used to be an “unmarked” segment of society and who are not united by a specific ethnicity or culture. Walsh mentioned her April article, “How to Talk About White People,” in which she confronted the assumptions, particularly when talking about politics, that white people are rich, Republican, and racist. There are people who can be classified in some combination of those categories, but there are also those—as the numbers show—who cannot. As such, Walsh argued that progressives must do a better job of expanding outreach to all Americans, including white people.
When asked whether it has been “cultural grievance” or economic policy that has driven white voters away from progressive candidates and policies, Walsh noted that the right has used both tactics. Racially tinged, 24-hour conservative news cycles have served as an echo chamber for white voters who feel they are not being understood or helped by Democrats or progressives. “Cultural grievance” can appear to be the most likely culprit; otherwise, it can be hard to explain why white working-class voters vote against progressive candidates and economic policies that would benefit them.
Walsh noted that this was not necessarily true. President Obama, for example, did fairly well with white voters in places where his economic policies, such as those relating to the auto industry, had benefited workers.
Walsh suggested that beyond reaching out to white working-class voters, the goal should be to restore the advantages they once had—but for everyone. The opportunities that allowed Americans to join the middle class 50 or 60 years ago, to buy a house or go to college, should be our goals today. To do this, progressives must work on building coalitions across racial, ethnic, and class lines at the local level, whether through organized labor, churches, or other civic institutions.