Ignored and belittled for decades by Republicans and Democrats, the white working class is, for the moment at least, enjoying the sweet taste of revenge. Neither party factored into its election-year algorithm Americans who work with their hands. As a result, the current political landscape looks like a scene from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
If the presidential election were held today, it could pit a socialist against a billionaire.
Think of the debates. Bernie Sanders would wiggle his finger at the fellow at the other lectern as he rails against the 1-percenters. Trump would denounce socialism as a noxious foreign import, like Chinese goods and unauthorized Mexicans.
If that prospect is disconcerting, consider what the primary races must look like to a truck driver or school crossing guard, punch press operator or beautician who happens to be Caucasian. Like the scrawny football player at the end of the bench, their number doesn’t get called. During last week’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton and Sanders gave a shoutout to virtually every last scrap of cloth on America’s patchwork quilt.
Clinton pledged herself to the causes of African-Americans, unauthorized immigrants, college students, women and American Muslims.
Sanders said: “We are fighting for every vote we can get from women, from men, straight, gay, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians.”
Both candidates put in a good word for prison inmates. But until a moderator introduced it, one group didn’t have a seat at the roundtable: working-class white Americans. “Don’t they have a reason to be resentful?” Gwen Ifill asked.
Sanders acknowledged that their life expectancy is declining. But that was it. Nothing was said about the hopes and frustrations of white people who drive the trucks that bring our food to supermarkets, who stand guard over our schoolchildren, who operate the machinery in our remaining factories, who cut and curl our hair.
Once a keystone of the Democratic Party, the blue-collar worker with a white face has become its forgotten man.
When he is recalled, it’s not with warm memories. Barack Obama said of the people of Rust Belt America: “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
That last - white working-class xenophobia - has been an unquestioned assumption of liberal thought. Having taken up the cause of minorities, and rightly so, liberals dismissed working-class whites as racists.
Having been raised amid it, I’m not going to deny blue-collar racism. As a child I saw neighbors cheering as a home burned down, a sight etched in my memory. There was a rumor it had been bought by a black family. But in seminar rooms and country clubs, I’ve also heard anti-black sentiments - albeit expressed more discretely. “We moved out here for the children’s sake,” suburbanites will say. “The schools are better.”
Without question, something had to be done to bring the excluded into the mainstream. Yet the question of who bore the cost of doing so is seldom addressed.
To get more African-Americans onto college campuses, affirmative action was adopted. That gives minority applicants a boost up. At prestigious universities, the offspring of alumni benefit from “legacy” programs. That gives the children of the well-to-do an advantage. But the white hairdresser’s son, or the truck driver’s daughter, they’re on their own.
So is it surprising that blue-collar workers aren’t eager to vote for those who kicked them out of the tent, and bad-mouthed them to boot? This time, being an oddball helped.
In the New Hampshire primary, 64 percent of Democratic voters with a high school diploma or less went for Sanders. In a state with a tiny minority population, that means the white working class went for a candidate who in other times it might have rejected as a pointy-headed intellectual, even a kook.
In the Republican primary, 46 percent of white working-class voters went for Donald Trump. How can a billionaire have ballot appeal to folks living from paycheck to paycheck?
Perhaps for the same reason Sanders beat Clinton. Other than his deep pockets, Trump is the least establishment of the Republican contenders. He is vulgar, a showoff, a bully - everything a member of the establishment is not supposed to be. Plus, he took a shot at a cherished Republican idea: “globalization.”
To blue-collar voters, globalization sounds like they are being sold out for a bowl of porridge. Last week, Carrier announced it was moving its air-conditioning manufacturing plant, and 1,400 jobs, from Indianapolis to Mexico.
Republicans have courted defectors from the Democrats, playing to racial fears and unease with social change. They promised that globalization would lead to prosperity. But seeing all the Chinese products on big-box shelves, wouldn’t a former factory worker now flipping hamburgers ask: “Where is my share of this prosperity?”
Not getting an answer, he or she might well lend an ear when Trump denounces an existing free-trade agreement as “a disaster” and a pending one as “horrible.”
So as the unlikely rise of Sanders and Trump shows, there are votes to be garnered from members of the white working class. Perhaps even by mainstream candidates. But first, you have to recognize them, according to a formula posed by Ralph Ellison in “Invisible Man.” The novel’s protagonist is black, but his message also applies to a working-class white:
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Ron Grossman is a Chicago Tribune reporter. Readers may send him mail at email@example.com.