How Democrats Can Win Back the Working Class | Opinion

It's no secret that the complexion of the Democratic Party has changed over time, both literally and figuratively. Up until the Bill Clinton era, Democrats were able to message to both Black communities and rural whites: In 1996, the 42nd President was reelected by winning 1,117 rural counties. In what is an unimaginable feat for a Democrat today, Clinton captured what are now ruby red states like Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and his home state of Arkansas. Fast forward to 2016 and West Virginia had become the most pro-Trump state in the nation. The Left has lost the white working class—and is bleeding working class people of color at a rate no one expected.

The situation is not quite as dire as Republicans would have you believe. Democrats still receive many working class votes, especially in blue counties. There is a good chance your grocery store cashier, your bus driver, and your maintenance worker is a person of color and a reliable Democratic voter if you live in a major metro area. The media uses the term "working class" and "blue collar" to describe suburban and rural white voters, while Black and Latino working class voters are simply referred to by their racial or ethnic demographic, which denies them the recognition for their hard work and labor and skews the story of who is voting for which party.

Still, the trend is unmistakable: The white working class is moving further right and even some working class voters of color are moving away from Democrats over issues like vaccine mandates and pandemic school closures.

How can the Democrats reverse this trend and recapture working class voters? By reversing the things that made them lose these voters to begin with.

Those things are no mystery. Blue collar Americans once had suitors from both parties who regularly fought for their votes and approval, but the decline of unionization made Democratic politics all but disappear in many blue collar communities. White working class voters began to feel that Democrats had abandoned them, or worse—looked down upon them. And a triumphant liberal narrative about the browning of America made blue collar whites feel that they were losing ground to people of color.

President Obama came to represent everything they resented: He was young, a person of color, highly educated, urban, a Democrat, well traveled—and he held a seat of power and influence over their lives. And he represented policies they despised and felt were unfair to them, things like affirmative action.

Texas railway worker
CROSBY, TX - SEPTEMBER 04: A worker walks along a section of Union Pacific railroad tracks left unsupported from flooding caused by Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey on September 4, 2017 in Crosby, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain causing widespread flooding in Southeast Texas. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trump was willing to say the quiet part out loud, questioning Obama's citizenship and academic credentials—absurd and racially biased claims, but ones that endeared him to working class whites because he didn't fear backlash from the Left. Trump was their fighter who would go toe to toe unapologetically with those they perceived to be their enemies.

Trump was also the antithesis of Obama in his presentation. Obama gave moving, prepared speeches with flowery language straight out of the Black church and civil rights tradition, while Trump gave entertaining stream of consciousness monologues laced with familiar applause lines and sprinkled with profanity. The audience felt he was leveling with them. It didn't matter that he was a billionaire Manhattan socialite who had far less in common with regular working people than Obama; Trump made them feel seen.

Meanwhile the Democratic establishment was dismissing these same people as racist deplorables, openly insulting rural Americans which further alienated them and fed their victimization narrative.

While the racism and nativism within the Trump movement is undeniable, to boil his success down to this one factor is overly simplistic. Consider today's Pennsylvania Senate primary. While David McCormick and Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz, two white men (Oz is Turkish American, but presents as white) competed in the heated primary, Kathy Barnette, a Black woman whose campaign raised approximately one tenth as much as her rivals, came up from the rear and ended up neck to neck with the two heavy hitters. She surged because she appeared less like a corporate-controlled politician and an elite than her opponents, which seems to have resonated with blue collar white voters throughout the state.

Is the Barnette avenue still open to Democrats?

There are no quick fixes for the Democrats' fractured relationship with blue collar whites. What occurred over decades cannot be repaired overnight. But it begins with the realization that all working people have similar concerns. It is very possible to address specific racial justice issues and simultaneously address the issues of working people of all backgrounds.

This starts with showing up. Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton in the Midwest simply because he went there often. Democrats need to travel to rural America and shout from the rooftops about how Biden's infrastructure bill is benefiting farmers and rural Americans. They should go to rural America and talk to seniors about why it would benefit them to have Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices. Democrats can't afford to be scared to get rejected or even shouted down. They have to keep showing up.

Secondly, they must find young working class rural Democrats and develop them to start running for office, the way they did with women of color around the nation. Democrats need to identify nontraditional candidates and have them run anti-corporate, populist, local campaigns that cater to economic issues. They need West Virginians that look and talk like West Virginians and Kentuckians that look and sound like rural Kentuckians. They need them to hit the pavement in their own communities. Have them run for county council and state delegate.

Biden made inroads with working class whites because he was able to cast Trump as the elite and himself as the son of working class parents from Scranton. The problem is he and other Democrats have squandered whatever gains they made by not continuing to cultivate those relationships and build more trust.

That's what's needed: trust.

Democrats need to build a Left that has room for a white working-class identity that rural Americans can wear proudly. That's what Trump did. It would be a good place to start.

Dr. Jason Nichols is an award winning senior lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland College Park and was the longtime editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of Hip-hop Studies. His work has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera,, and The Hill, and he cohosts the "Vince and Jason Save the Nation" podcast.

The views in this article are the writer's own.