The ‘American Way of Life’ Is Shaping Up to Be a Battleground

There are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line.

Chris Christie, a Trump supporter and a former New Jersey governor, pleaded with Americans on May 5 to risk disease and death by returning to work. “Everybody wants to save every life they can,” he said, but “we’ve got to let some of these folks get back to work.” Otherwise “we’re going to destroy the American way of life in these families.”

The “American way of life” is shaping up to be a battleground.

On one side is the working class. From Amazon warehouse workers to striking sanitation workers in New Orleans, there are limits to what ordinary people are willing to endure to secure their employers’ bottom line. Resistance to oppression and exploitation is a familiar experience for millions of workers in this country. And when workers have not found justice or relief in mainstream politics, they have turned to more combative ways of mobilizing to secure it.

On the other side is the Republican Party, led by the Trump administration, which has accelerated its call for states to “reopen” the economy by sending people back to work. While President Trump admits that some people will “be affected badly,” nonetheless “we have to get our country open.”

Public health experts disagree. Instead, they argue that testing rates must “double or triple” and that we need a more intense regime of “contact tracing” and isolation. This has been the established pattern in countries that managed the coronavirus with success. But without these measures, forecast models predict a sharp rise in fatalities. A conservative model that in mid-April predicted a ghastly death toll of 60,000 by August now estimates 147,000 fatalities by August. Just as the rate of infection drops in cities like New York and Detroit, new outbreaks threaten to emerge elsewhere where restrictions are being relaxed.

But if we expect tens of millions of people to stay at home for even longer, that is possible only if people have access to income, food, stable housing and reliable health care. If people cannot work, then these things will have to be provided by the federal government. It is that simple.

For Republicans, the “American way of life” as one with big government social welfare programs would be worse than the pandemic. At the core of their vision of the United States is a celebration of supposed rugged individualism and self-sufficiency where hard work is valorized and creates success. Of course, the contrapositive is also believed to be true, that when people have not been successful it is because they did not work hard enough.

Buried within this is the false notion that the U.S. is free from the hierarchies of class. Instead, Republicans and most mainstream Democrats would argue, America has fluid social mobility where a person’s fortitude determines the heights of his or her success. This powerful narrative has motivated millions to migrate to this country. But for tens of millions, this view of ‘the American way of life’ has no bearing on their lives.

Typically, the contradictions of our society are buried beneath the American flag, suffocating hubris and triumphalist claims of exceptionalism. But the pandemic has pushed all of the country’s problems to the center of American life. It has also highlighted how our political class, disproportionately wealthy and white, dithers for weeks, only to produce underwhelming “rescue” bills that, at best, do no more than barely maintain the status quo.

The median wealth of a U.S. senator was $3.2 million as of 2018, and $900,000 for a member of the House of Representatives. These elected officials voted for one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 as if that was enough to sustain workers, whose median income is $61,973 and who are now nearly two months into various mandates to shelter-in-place and not work outside their homes. As a result, a tale of two pandemics has emerged.

The crisis spotlights the vicious class divide cleaving through our society and the ways it is also permeated with racism and xenophobia. African-Americans endure disproportionate exposure to the disease, and an alarming number of videos show black people being brutalized by the police for not wearing masks or social distancing, while middle-class white people doing the same things are left in peace. In New York City, 92 percent of those arrested for violating rules regarding social distancing and 82 percent of those receiving summons for the same offense have been black or Latino.

Our society imagines itself to be impervious to the rigidities of class, but it is overwhelmed with suffering, deprivation and hunger. Food banks across the country report extraordinary demand, producing an almost shocking rebuke of the image of a country of universal abundance. According to one report, a food bank along the affluent New Jersey shore has set up a text service allowing people to discreetly pick up their food.

Elsewhere, the signs of a crisis that looks like the Great Depression are impossible to hide. In Anaheim, Calif., home to Disneyland, cars formed half-mile-long lines in two different directions, waiting to pick up free food. In San Antonio, 10,000 cars waited for hours to receive food from a food bank. Even still, Republicans balk at expanding access to food stamps while hunger is on the rise. Nearly one in five children 12 and younger don’t have enough to eat.

That “way of life” may also begin to look like mass homelessness. Through the first five days of April, 31 percent of tenants nationwide had failed to pay their rent. And while more people paid in May, continued payments seem unsustainable as millions fall into unemployment. Forty-three million households rent in the U.S., but there is no public rental assistance for residents who lose the ability to afford their rent. With only a few weeks left on many eviction moratoriums, there is a thin line between a place to shelter in and homelessness for tens of millions of Americans.

Many elected officials in the Republican Party have access to Covid-19 testing, quality health care and the ultimate cushion of wealth to protect them. Yet they suggest others take the “risk” of returning to work as an act of patriotism necessary to regenerate the economy. This is duplicitous and obscures the manipulation of U.S. workers.

While the recent stimulus bills doled out trillions of dollars to corporate America and the “financial sector,” the smallest allocations have provided cash, food, rent or health care for citizens. The gaps in the thin membrane of a safety net for ordinary Americans have made it impossible to do anything other than return to work.

This isn’t just malfeasance or incompetence. Part of the “American way of life” for at least some of these elected officials is keeping workers just poor enough to ensure that the “essential” work force stays shows up each day. In place of decent wages, hazard pay, robust distribution of personal protective equipment and the simplest guarantees of health and safety, these lawmakers use the threat of starvation and homelessness to keep the work force intact.

In the case of the meatpacking industry, there is not even a veil of choice, as those jobs are inexplicably labeled essential, as if life cannot go on without meat consumption. The largely immigrant and black meatpacking work force has been treated barely better than the carcasses they process. They are completely expendable. Thousands have tested positive, but the plants chug along, while employers offer the bare minimum by way of safety protectionsaccording to workers. If there were any question about the conditions endured in meatpacking plants, consider that 145 meat inspectors have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and three have died.

The statements of the two senators from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, vociferously opposing the extension of $600 supplemental payments to unemployment insurance, offer another stark example of how workers are being compelled to return to unsafe work environments. Mr. Scott referred to the supplement as a “perverse incentive” to not work. He and Mr. Graham argued that the payments were more than some workers’ salaries, which is an indictment of the jobs and the companies, not the employees.

This is not the first time Southern politicians have complained that government aid to poor or working-class people would undermine their perverse reliance on low-wage labor. During the Great Depression, Southern leaders opposed new systems of social welfare over fear it would undermine “the civilization to which we are accustomed,” as a newspaper in Charleston, S.C., described it. The crude version came from an official in Alabama who insisted that welfare payments to African-Americans should be lower because, “Negroes just don’t want to work.” The logic was that if you could pay black men a nickel then white men would celebrate being paid a dime. Meanwhile, the prevailing wages elsewhere were significantly higher than both. This is why wages are still lower across the South than elsewhere in the country.

American progress means that Mr. Scott, an African-American senator from South Carolina, now voices these ideas. But then as now, complaints about social welfare are central to disciplining the labor force. Discipline in the U.S. has always included low and inconsistent unemployment and welfare combined with stark deprivation. Each has resulted in a hyper-productive work force with few benefits in comparison to America’s peer countries.

This is at the heart of the conflict over reopening the country or allowing people to continue to shelter-in-place to suppress the virus. But if the social distancing and closures were ever going to be successful, it would have meant providing all workers with the means to live in comfort at home while they waited out the disease. Instead, they have been offered the choice of hunger and homelessness or death and disease at work.

The governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, made this painfully clear when she announced that not only was Iowa reopening, but that furloughed workers in private or public employment who refused to work out of fear of being infected would lose current unemployment benefits. She described these workers’ choices as a “voluntary quit.”

The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is also instructing employers to report workers who refuse to go to work because of the pandemic. Part of what’s going on is the crush of people filing for benefits means state funds are shrinking. This is exacerbated by the reluctance of the Trump administration to bail out state governments. That the U.S. government would funnel trillions to corporate America but balk at sending money to state governments also appears to be part of “the American way of life” that resembles the financial sector bailout in 2008.

This cannot all be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, though it has undeniably made life worse for millions. These are also the bitter fruits of decades of public policies that have denigrated the need for a social safety net while gambling on growth to keep the heads of U.S. workers above water just enough to ward off any real complaints or protests.

The attacks on welfare, food stamps, public housing and all of the attendant programs that could mitigate the worst aspects of this disaster continue to be bipartisan. The loud praise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in contrast to the poor performance of President Trump, has overshadowed protests against his $400 million cuts to hospitals in New York as the virus was raging through the city.

There will be many more examples of Democrats wielding the ax in response to unprecedented budget shortages in the coming months. With the increasing scale of the crisis — as unemployment grows to an otherworldly 36.5 million people while states run out of money and contemplate cutting Medicaid and other already meager kinds of social welfare — the vast need for government assistance will test the political class’s aversion to such intervention.

During the long and uneven recovery from the Great Recession, the warped distribution of wealth led to protests and labor organizing. The crisis unfolding today is already deeper and much more catastrophic to a wider swath of workers than anything since the 1930s. The status quo is untenable.

There Are Really Two Distinct White Working Classes

One is solidly Republican and will stay that way; the other leans Democratic. And then there are the in-betweeners.

At Nancy Pelosi’s news conference last week, a reporter asked her about Joe Biden’s comments on his congenial dealings in the senate of the 1970s with the Southern Democrats James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge, who were both staunch opponents of Civil Rights legislation and racial integration:

There’s been a back‑and‑forth between Vice President Biden and some of the candidates. Do you think that it is helpful to the party to sort of fight that fight over who best represents the party when it comes to sensitivities about race?

“That’s not what this election is about,” Pelosi answered in a severe tone. “This election is about how we connect with the American people, addressing their kitchen table needs.”

Reporters continued to press Pelosi: “What do you think about Vice President Biden’s words, referencing his work with segregationists and talking about his idea of civility?”

She shot back: “I have answered that question, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

The intensity of the exchange shows how determined key Democratic leaders are to keep the party focused on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health care and financial stability and to shore up the gains the party made in 2018, especially among whites.

Pelosi’s response illustrates the deep fear among the same leaders that the agenda could shift to issues of race and immigration. These are issues that a cadre of newly elected progressive members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — as well as Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, all with warmly enthusiastic followings — have brought to the fore. Race and immigration are just the issues Donald Trump and his Republican allies want to place front and center in 2020.

Underlying this is the recognition by many Democratic strategists of the continuing political centrality of less highly educated white voters. Marginal shifts in partisan balloting by the white working class have been a crucial determinant in the outcome of elections since 1968.

This non-college white constituency — pollster shorthand for both the white working class and the white middle class without college degrees — makes up a massive bloc of the electorate, with estimates ranging from 48 percent of the entire electorate in 2016, according to an analysis by Catalist, a liberal voter research group, to 54 percentaccording to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Pete Brodnitz, founder and president of Expedition Strategies, a Democratic polling firm that has performed studies for the Democratic House Majority PAC, wrote by email that in 2018 he found that the white working class could be divided into five political categories:

  1. reliably Democratic, 33 percent;
  2. lean Democratic, 7 percent;
  3. true independents, 10 percent;
  4. lean Republican, 7 percent; and
  5. reliably Republican, 44 percent.

How each of these categories voted in 2016 shows the importance of these distinctions. In a poll of battleground House Districts, Hillary Clinton carried the reliably Democratic base by a solid 67-point margin (78-11) and the lean Democrats by 61 points (64-3). She lost the true independents by 16 percentage points (21-37). Trump won overwhelmingly among the lean Republican whites (73-12, a 61-point margin) and the solid Republicans by 84 points (88-4), according to the data collected by Expedition Strategies working with Normington/Petts, another Democratic polling firm.

In almost every way, white non-college Democrats and white non-college Republicans are nothing alike,” Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, emailed in response to my inquiry.

Polling conducted by GQR, a Democratic firm, for the AFL-CIO, found that among the Republican white working class, 79 percent identify as Christian, two thirds of whom are evangelical or born again. Among the Democratic non-college electorate, 44 percent said they were Christian, and one third of them said they were evangelical or born again.

The Democrats are much younger, according to Podhorzer: 22 percent are Gen Z or Millennial compared with 12 percent of working class white Republicans. The Democratic members of the white working class are 59 percent female and 41 percent male, compared with 51 percent female, 49 percent male among Republican non-college whites.

Perhaps most important, the white non-college Republican and Democratic constituencies differ radically on policy and political beliefs.

Take favorability ratings of

  • Obamacare,
  • Black Lives Matter and
  • Medicare for all.

Among working class white Democrats, the ratings are uniformly positive, according to AFL-CIO data: 89 percent, 80 percent and 85 percent. Among their white Republican counterparts, the ratings are uniformly dismal: 5 percent, 9 percent and 18 percent.

What this data shows is that Democrats should have little trouble retaining the support of members of the white working class who identify as Democrats, but they will struggle mightily to win over their Republican counterparts.

This divide leaves the small percentage of the white working class whose views put them in the middle ground between left and right up for grabs and likely to determine the outcome in 2020.

The AFL-CIO survey suggests that the roughly 10 percent of non-college whites who do not identify with either party may be reachable for Democratic candidates, but there are big hurdles.

For one thing, these self-described independents do not side with mainstream Democrats on the kinds of incendiary issues that President Trump loves to promote.

The AFL-CIO study examined four categories of voters: all Democrats; non-college white Democrats; independent non-college whites; and Republican non-college whites.

The survey asked, for example, whether voters agree or disagree with the statement “Social and economic problems in this country are largely due to individuals across races and origins refusing to work and expecting handouts.”

All Democrats, including white non-college Democratic respondents, took liberal stands, sharply disagreeing with the statement by 62 points (78-16) and 56 points (76-20). Independent voters in the white working class were in favor by 11 percentage points (52-41), and Republican respondents were solidly in agreement, by 72 points (84-12).

On a similar racially freighted question — “Social and economic problems in this country are largely due to certain groups failing to work hard and play by the rules” — Democrats disagreed by large margins, while independent white non-college voters showed greater conservatism, agreeing 54-36; Republican non-college whites strongly agreed, 79-12.

The accompanying graphic shows the pattern of opinion on three additional questions measuring what sociologists call “anti-black affect.”

A Partisan Chasm on Race

Less-educated white Democrats largely agree with Democrats overall, but the views of independents and Republicans are the reverse. Percentage of respondents to a 2018 survey who agreed or disagreed with these statements.

AGREE: White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.

ALL DEMOCRATS

83%

76

DEM.

WHITES WITH

NO COLLEGE

29

IND.

17

REP.

AGREE: Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for African-Americans to work their way out of the lower class.

ALL DEMOCRATS

73

69

DEM.

WHITES WITH

NO COLLEGE

24

IND.

8

REP.

DISAGREE: Ethnic groups like the Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.

ALL DEMOCRATS

57

49

DEM.

WHITES WITH

NO COLLEGE

14

IND.

4

REP.

By The New York Times | Source: Polling Consortium Election Survey conducted Oct. 24–Nov. 7

The next accompanying graphic illustrates hostility toward immigrants — or acceptance.

Democrats Stand Alone on Immigration

Percentage of respondents who disagreed with these two statements.

DISAGREE: Increase border security by building a fence along part of the U.S. border with Mexico.

ALL DEMOCRATS

80%

DEM.

82

WHITES WITH

NO COLLEGE

IND.

28

REP.

3

DISAGREE: Deport undocumented immigrants to their native countries.

ALL DEMOCRATS

56

DEM.

55

WHITES WITH

NO COLLEGE

IND.

14

REP.

1

By The New York Times | Source: Polling Consortium Election Survey conducted Oct. 24–Nov. 7

The AFL-CIO survey demonstrate why liberal Democratic leaders like Pelosi are resolved to stand clear of some of the issues that divide their party from independents. At the same time, it shows why Pelosi and others want to focus on so-called kitchen table issues.

On health care and economic matters, there is far more overlap between the views of Democrats as a whole and independent white working class voters.

Support for a tax on wealth in excess of $100 million tops 90 percent among Democrats, while white working class independents support such a proposal 59-25.

A proposal supported by Democrats of all stripes — “Having the government produce generic versions of lifesaving drugs, even if it required revoking patents held by pharmaceutical companies” — has the backing of non-college white independents, 56-25.

By two to one, white independents agreed with two liberal populist statements: that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people rigging the rules to their advantage” and that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people dividing us against each other so they can take more for themselves.”

Two proposals backed by some of the Democratic presidential candidates — Abolish ICE and Medicare for All — do not sell well among white non-college independents, who opposed the two initiatives by 71-15 and 48-31.

Podhorzer argues that in the 2020 battleground districts and states the contest will be fought over the 13 percent who are swing voters, a group he calls “partisan bystanders.” He described them as “voters who either have a very negative view of both parties or do not have strong feelings about either party. These voters favored Democrats in the 2018 midterms by 11 points after favoring Trump by 6 points in 2016.”

According to Podhorzer, almost half (46 percent) of the partisan bystanders are “white non-college, so this group, especially white non-college women, is going to be a battleground for both campaigns.”

Podhorzer makes a key point: In his view, this 13 percent is receptive to Democratic appeals because they

are looking for answers to the basic economic challenges they face. That issues like health care are much more important to them makes sense given that just about everyone who cares about issues like immigration has already picked sides and won’t be moved.”

In some respects, the AFL-CIO poll provides ammunition to the Third Way, a centrist Democratic advocacy group.

Jonathan Cowan, president and co-founder of Third Way, argued in an email that:

Going forward to 2020, there are lines that Democrats can’t cross if they want to win nationally and hold the House and gain in the Senate. Medicare for All is one of those lines. But there are others like abolishing ICE, a guaranteed federal job, and certain climate proposals that ignore the economic circumstances of the interior of the country.

Third Way survey of Democratic primary voters, conducted in May by David Binder Research, found that calls to abolish ICE in particular are problematic. In fact, Democratic presidential candidates are backing away from their earlier support of the idea, despite the horror show that is happening on the border right now.

The Third Way poll found that Democratic voters of all stripes prefer a candidate who promises to expand employment opportunity to one who would guarantee everyone a government job; and these voters prefer a candidate who would ensure “that every student who enters college can finish with a degree” to one “who supports free 4-year college for all students.”

In the case of health care, the Third Way survey of Democratic primary voters found that a plurality, 42.9 percent, preferred a candidate “who wants an annual cap that limits the costs people pay while making sure everyone has insurance coverage” while 35.2 percent prefer a candidate “who wants to pass a single-payer, Medicare for All government-run plan.”

Both Democratic and Republican strategists are putting all of these findings under a microscope because in a highly competitive election, seemingly small shifts can determine the outcome.

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Take the difference between Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016 and the performance of House Democratic candidates.

In 2016, all non-college whites went 60-34 for Trump over Clinton, while voting 58-38 in favor of Republican House candidates, according to Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts and senior researcher at the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

This may seem insignificant, but if Clinton had been able to match the margin of Democratic House candidates, not only would she have picked up 2.9 million votes nationwide, she would have won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined total of 383,000 votes instead of losing them by a total of 79,646 votes.

One interpretation of Democratic success in taking control of the House in 2018 suggests a strategy of moderation, while using animosity to Trump to boost turnout in hard core Democratic constituencies, including among minorities, young voters and single women. If the 2018 House give hints on the type of voters who offer the best targets for 2020, it is worth recalling that more than three quarters of the newly Democratic seats are in centrist districts.

According to data provided by Third Way, the new Democratic districts are predominately upscale, with higher than average percentages of well-educated, well-off whites and lower than average percentages of less-well-off whites.

However, the demographics of these districts mask the significant gains Democrats made in 2018 among non-college, less affluent whites. This becomes clear in an analysis of the 2018 election by Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist.

“There has been a lot of attention paid to the Democratic victories in suburban areas, but we find that Democratic gains were actually largest in rural areas,” Ghitza wrote:

These gains weren’t enough to get over 50 percent and win seats in many rural districts, so they have escaped much of the mainstream election analysis to this point. These changes are nonetheless important, particularly because they were large in many of the Midwest battleground states that will no doubt be important in 2020.

Ghitza provided further support for the Democratic strategy of going after white non-college voters by noting that 2018 Democratic gains were “largely driven by voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and voted Democratic in 2018.”

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It is no wonder, then, that Pelosi is not the only party leader warning Democrats to be wary of the danger of focusing too much on social and cultural issues in the heat of the primaries. Such counsel also comes from African-American Democrats.

Take Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who suggested to the Washington Post last week that there should be less attention paid to Biden’s stumble on race: “African-Americans are worried about the safety of their families. They’re worried about jobs. They’re worried about health care, diabetes, cancer, and they’re worried about how to pay for kids’ college.”

Richmond was joined by Representative John Lewis, who said he didn’t think Biden’s remarks were “offensive,” before adding, “During the height of the civil rights movement we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us, and arrested us and jailed us.”

The Rev. J.M. Flemming, president of the Greenville NAACP, told the Washington Post:

“I’m not going to let anybody sidetrack folks that I know about who are looking at Biden, when we ought to be looking at the things said by Trump. Nobody is making anybody out to be a perfect person, but what Trump is doing, for me, that’s far worse.”

The concerns of African-Americans, in this view, are substantially the same as the concerns of the millions of white working class voters who remain open to Democratic candidates — or at least they coincide in critically important ways.

The fate of the Democratic Party in 2020 hangs on this premise and on a united resistance to Trump’s malign strategy of divide and conquer.