The Invisible Workforce

On Labor Day weekend, here’s a question that hard-left Democrats need to ask themselves: If they’re so pro-worker how come workers have been abandoning them in droves?

Once the blue collar party, Democrats are fast becoming the party of college-educated, relatively affluent, white collar workers who live in big cities and college towns. And yet, the party likes to tout a host of policies that blue collar workers should love: a higher minimum wage, expansion of Obama Care, progressive taxation and more.

As I’ve written many times in this space before, I think Democrats focus too much on specific policies while they either ignore values or inadvertently embody values that working class Americans abhor. Like it or not, the Democratic brand stands for spending a lot of money and giving stuff away to people whether they deserve it or not while obsessing over boutique issues of identity politics.

Nothing reinforces that image more thoroughly than Pres. Joe Biden’s proposal to forgive college debt. It checks all the boxes. It spends an enormous amount of money — $500 billion to as much as one trillion dollars. It gives the money away regardless of need. And one of the big justifications for it is that a disproportionate percentage of the beneficiaries will be Black people. (Never mind that only 14% of Black adults have a four year degree compared with 30% of the overall population, meaning that a greater percentage of Black blue collar workers will be subsidizing Black (and white) college grads with much higher incomes.)

And it does one other thing: it doubles down on the Democrats’ image as the party that discounts personal initiative and individual responsibility. Aside from maybe filling out some paperwork, you don’t have to do anything to get $10,000 or $20,000 from the government; you just have to be a member of the favored group. One person might have worked her way through school while her parents scrimped and saved while another might have majored in partying, taken a semester abroad and a gap year to find herself and, guess what? They will be treated to the same loan forgiveness.

The fundamental disconnect for Democratic elites is that they have no idea who blue collar workers are. Liberal elites live in echo chamber neighborhoods of mostly college-educated white folks just like themselves and they are deeply concerned about Black folks, transgender folks, women and anybody they perceive as “oppressed”. When they think about working people at all, they think about union coal miners in 1915.

When hard-left elites think about labor, this is what pops into their heads.

Here’s what Democratic elites don’t get. Only one in ten American workers belongs to a union and most of those unions are for teachers, cops, firefighters or state and local government office workers. Today’s blue collar worker is the non-unionized manager at the Kwik Trip, the forklift operator at Costco, the hospital nurse, the freelance book keeper, the dietician at an assisted living facility. These are, in short, people that liberal Democrats just don’t see. They’re invisible to them.

And they’re also the demographic that voted for Donald Trump most heavily: People in their 30’s, 40’s and and 50’s without college degrees working in jobs like those I just listed. They’re working very hard to stay afloat in a middle class lifestyle. They’re supporting their kids while they also worry about their aging parents. They pay their taxes.

And they feel not just ignored by Democrats but inadvertently insulted by them at every turn. According to the hard-left, they only got what they have because of their “privilege”, not their hard work. They didn’t “do the right thing” by going to college. (Bernie Sanders has literally said that going to college is “doing the right thing.”) They haven’t caught up with the latest fashionable views on gender fluidity. They’re concerned that what their kids are being taught in the public schools they pay for through their tax dollars doesn’t match the values of their own families. And when they so much as raise a practical question about any of this, the hard-left is quick to call them bigots.

Democrats will never win back any substantial part of this group on their current path. And if they don’t change that path, they are destined to remain the minority party for the foreseeable future. And ya know what? They’ll deserve it.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

9 thoughts on “The Invisible Workforce

  1. You are spot on, Dave, regarding the Democratic brand. But, how do you define minority party? The Democratic candidate for president has earned the most votes in 7 out of the last 8 elections.

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    1. Democrats win national elections at least by the popular vote. But we lose too often in the Electoral College and we lose statehouses (Republicans control them 30-17) not just because of gerrymandering but also because Democratic voters are clustered in cities. So, while we might not be the minority party in terms of gross national numbers, we’re set up to be the minority party under the rules we have to live by. And we are just not going to get rid of the Electoral College, the Senate or gerrymandering anytime soon. My point is that Democrats can’t hope for some radical systemic change. They have to figure out how to play the hand they’re dealt. And that means they have to do better with blue collar voters. And to do better with blue collar voters they have to understand them, respect their values and not talk down to them.

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      1. Dave, this is some of your best work.

        Look at a presidential election results by county map of Wisconsin. Outside of a few populous counties, it’s all red. There is no reason why Democrats shouldn’t be competitive in every county in Wisconsin. The Republicans are dysfunctional, so it’s up to the Democratic party to be the party that one can rally behind.

        Economists sometimes divide the country into 5 tiers by income. Don’t be surprised if the top tier (#1) votes for low taxes, no matter what. Tiers #2 and #3 are the middle class. The system has worked pretty well for them. Democrats do a good job worrying about the bottom tier (#5): rights for poor minorities, transfer payments, government programs, etc. But if you are Tier #4, the working stiff who has seen their jobs sent to China and competes with immigrant labor (11-15 million of whom are undocumented), and has never seen a government program, is your government working for you? Their only hope is to fight like hell to get into Tier #2 and #3. And yes, get angry and maybe even vote for the likes of Trump.

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  2. “It gives the money away regardless of need.”
    I mean not entirely, there is an income cap.

    And say what you will about Bernie, but he does walk the talk. He’s manned the picket lines at strikes or advocated for union movements everywhere from Nissan in Mississippi, to yes coal miners and Amazon in Alabama, to grocery stores in Colorado, to CNH Industrial in Racine.

    I whole-heartedly agree with your broader point about the condescending nature of the hard-left that dominates the levers of the current Democratic party, but I think Bernie is actually an exception to that in that he does speak to people like equals and not talk down to them.

    This article may be of interest: https://www.npr.org/2022/04/06/1091015744/struggling-democrats-hope-growing-union-support-will-provide-boost-in-midterms

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  3. Most of the time disagree with you, but yeah the Democrats do not reflect my values at all, so they get what they deserve.

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  4. I actually think you are committing the error you’re attributing to Democrats: your notion of the class divide is outdated. It’s true that the majority of Americans don’t have four-year degrees, but the *great* majority of kids who graduate from high school today go on to some post-secondary education, whether that’s college, community college, beauty school etc. Many of them don’t graduate, but most of them accumulate debt.

    The opinion divide on student debt forgiveness is not really about class. It’s more about generation: older people are much more opposed than young people.

    But if forgiving student debt is such an elitist policy, then the system that members of your generation benefited from was arguably far more elitist. Back then taxpayers covered almost the entire cost of college education for a much smaller segment of the population.

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  5. Good sentiments Dave, but you are one of the people who actively disparages the entire Republican party. Here are two very recent examples among many on your site:

    “If the last two years are any indication, this remains a party built around not a set of ideas, but loyalty to one awful man. Trump, and most of his party, have launched a sustained effort to do nothing less than undermine American democracy. ”
    ” They’re not just sore losers over 2020; the party is actively working to assure a Republican victory in 2024 regardless of the popular vote and regardless even of that vote as reflected in the Electoral College.”

    Your description certainly applies to some Republicans. Equally true, and you wrote on this, some Democrats are trying to pack the Union, to undermine American democracy. Since you are a Democrat, does that mean that you are trying to undermine American democracy?

    Until people such as yourself acquire a more nuanced perspective on those whom you probably don’t disagree with as much as you appear to, divisions will only grow.

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