Karen Nussbaum is the founding director of Working America, community affiliate of the AFL-CIO union confederation, and is on its board. She co-founded and led 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, and District 925 of the Service Employees International Union. This article is part of a series with Social Europe on the 2020 U.S. elections.
‘Voters have made up their minds,’ reads one recent headline. ‘Blue collar men … are the core of Trump’s base of support, and their enthusiasm has only deepened,’ the Washington Post asserts. Scenes of crowds of white supporters at Trump rallies are in every newspaper, punctuated with pictures of white men in military gear and automatic weapons at right-wing militia shows.
America’s political institutions are more divided than they have been since the civil war and basic democratic practices are threatened, including the peaceful transfer of power. But the American people are far less polarised than we may think. If we write off the ‘white working class’ as right-wing, we’ll lose the election and the very voters who are necessary to maintain democracy.
Working-class voters have legitimate grievances with the Democratic Party, which has aligned with corporate interests on neoliberal policies. Over time, there has been a move to Republicans. And there was a substantial shift to Donald Trump among white working-class voters in 2016—largely as a way to lash out. But it was smaller than typically suggested, according to the Center for American Progress.
Research at Vanderbilt University shows that while 60 per cent of white working-class voters supported Trump in 2016, they accounted for only 30 per cent of his vote. Trump enjoyed broad support across the social range of Republican voters.
Class and education tell us less about who is an immutable Trump supporter than other demographic factors. ‘While there is an education gap in the United States, it is nothing compared to the gap along the lines of religious affiliation,’ says Michael Podhorzer, senior advisor to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO trade union confederation.
And in the US that matters. According to Pew Research, in much of western Europe, only one in ten describe themselves as very religious, while in the US over half say religion is very important: ‘White evangelical Protestants, who constituted one out of every five voters, consistently have been among the strongest supporters of Republican candidates and supported Trump by a 77% to 16% margin.’
Ownership of a firearm is another important predictor of vote choice. In the US gun ownership is three times as great as in the most armed country in Europe (Montenegro). Nearly half of all civilian-held guns in the world belong to people in the US. Sixty-two per cent of gun-owners voted for Trump—10 percentage points more than voted for the then Republican candidate, John McCain, in the 2008 presidential election.
Religious affiliation and gun ownership are associated with strong values such as a belief in personal liberty and distrust of government. And, of course, the biggest supporters of Trump are ‘free-market’ Republicans.
But many voters are not committed to a fixed outlook. ‘By some measures, around half of the population is either disengaged or has ideologically inconsistent views,’ write Nate Cohn and Sabrina Tavernese in the New York Times. ‘Together, 54 percent of Americans either hold a roughly equal mix of conservative and liberal positions or say they don’t follow the news most of the time.’
That’s what I found when I knocked on doors with Working America, a national community organisation affiliated with the AFL-CIO. We were in Columbus, Ohio, in the industrial midwest, a few months after the 2016 election. We were talking to people who had previously voted for Barack Obama but turned to Trump. We learnt that we shouldn’t tell people they’re wrong—that Trump is bad or they’re racist—but tell them something they don’t know.
Gertrude, a retiree, is a good example. She was a strong Trump supporter and didn’t want to hear anything bad about him. But when we told her that one of Trump’s policies included eliminating public assistance to pay for home heating, something she depended on, she fell back in her chair. ‘That’s not what he promised,’ she said.
Gertrude is one of 3.5 million Working America members, working people who aren’t union members. Most—75 per cent— are white working-class and 25 per cent are people of colour. Nine out of ten are not involved with any other progressive organisation.
Working America has combined its knowledge of its members gleaned over the last 17 years with clinical research and finds that 20 million voters in battleground states can be persuaded to be new voters for Joe Biden and down-ticket Democrats standing for Congress. Most likely to be persuaded are those without a college degree who don’t watch cable TV—the low-information voters identified by the New York Times as those who aren’t polarised. One in five will be people of colour.
Convincing these voters, regardless of race, depends on using the same approaches that broke through to Gertrude: talking about their concerns—not politics and politicians—and finding common ground on economic issues such as healthcare. With careful identification of those voters who are most responsive and avoiding divisive content, we shall include about 5 million gun-owners among those we contact.
Just as Working America’s working-class base has to be understood in a nuanced way, so do union members. There is an image of union members moving from Obama to Trump in 2016, especially among men in the building trades. But that may be changing. ‘It’s going to be close among my members between Biden and President Trump,’ Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions told Politico. But, especially because of Trump’s response to the coronavirus, there had been ‘dramatic change in the last six months’, he said.
Many of the biggest unions include people of colour as a significant part or majority of their members. The president of the Service Employees International Union, Mary Kay Henry, predicts that 80 to 90 per cent of her members will vote for Biden.
UNITE HERE is the national union representing hospitality workers, including in all the casinos in Las Vegas—they have come from 40 countries and speak 148 languages. The union is credited with turning the state of Nevada Democratic. Despite the vast majority of the union’s members losing their jobs because of the pandemic, UNITE HERE is running an aggressive election campaign.
The decline of union membership over the last 50 years has hollowed out the middle class and resulted in the loss of the ‘small-d’ democratic institutions which anchor civil society. ‘We need more organisations where people take minutes!’ a local labour leader in Minnesota insisted to me. ‘There’s a lack of opportunity for people to experience democracy—debate issues, argue about how to spend dues money, vote, take minutes—the tools of transparency and accountability. People need to experience power on issues. They need structures and systems. Unions are a place where people can get that, and can change their minds.’ This vacuum has been a breeding ground for the right wing.
Reaching conflicted or discouraged voters is key to winning this election. But these volatile voters in the middle are also central to whether there will be a peaceful transfer of power. If right-wing militias take to the streets and Republicans go to the courts to contest a win by Biden, it will be the attitudes and actions of millions of non-ideological working people that will determine the outcome.
After that comes the much bigger task of rebuilding the voice of working people in a responsive democracy and economy.
This article originally appeared on Social Europe.