Questioning Tom Perez about the White Working Class

Tom Perez, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently sat down for a conversation with The Washington Post. Talk of recent Trump-related headlines was unavoidable but there was also time to rewind and press play on a familiar narrative. Essentially, Perez was asked how the DNC was going to include the white working class in its agenda. His answer, in short, was that they are already included.

Definitely Part of the Democratic Agenda

If you want to hear a politically savvy person of color laugh, go up and ask them, “So what’s it like now that the Democratic Party solely caters to your needs?” In reality, the party significantly focuses on low- and middle-income Americans — the majority of whom are white. The big-ticket items in its platform include jobs, workers’ rights, education, healthcare (the Affordable Care Act), and preserving the safety net.

The numbers back-up Perez’s simplistic answer. Category definitions can be fuzzy. However, it’s safe to assume that many Americans equate “working class” with having something less than a college degree. According to the Urban Institute, this group would make up 80 percent of those losing coveragein the event of a complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, whites without a college degree are by far the biggest beneficiaries of the safety net. It lifts 6.2 million of them out of poverty.

The primary question for the DNC is certainly not “How will you better include the white working class in your agenda?” That notion is rooted in right-wing propaganda that paints the DNC as being obsessed with “identity politics” while making lazy black and brown people the face of government benefits. There is another question that is far more important to the future of the Democratic Party (and our country).

The Real Question

For Perez and the DNC, the most critical question is “How do you plan to solidify a national identity?”

At their last convention, Democrats stood behind the slogan “Stronger Together”. The words seem to embrace America’s diversity and the ability of its people to work together in solving shared challenges. By contrast, Trump’s supporters fear diversity and hold negative views of people of color.

Many commentators have noted this national identity crisis. Is America a strong nation that benefits from its diversity? Or is it a white nation that uses various forms of cruelty to decrease its diversity and marginalize people of color?

In choosing Perez and the rest of its leadership , the DNC seems to be doubling down on its commitment to diversity. How will it solidify a national identity that reflects this progressive value?

Lady Liberty’s Dysfunctional Family

One could imagine Lady Liberty as the mother of a nation. Democrats have to show the white working class and everybody else that she has enough love in her heart for all her children. There must be greater buy-in for the idea that the lady has the ability to raise a united (even if dysfunctional) family capable of building a bright future.

For various reasons, all of the above is obviously a tall order.

First, Trump and his supporters have been clearly throwing a tantrum. They insist on being the center of attention, choosing what the family watches on TV, and having all the best toys. Lady Liberty can’t turn her back for a second without worrying that they’re going to smack, punch, or push one of the other children.

Second, not only is this Trump child behaving badly, but so did his father, his father’s father, and so on. Old habits and ways of being are hard to change. Social hierarchies are hard to change.

Third, multiple sectors still need to develop models of good behavior. Diversity’s value must be constantly demonstrated. At the very least, this requires progressives to walk their talk in spaces ranging from the U.S. Senateto Hollywood to the local company making widgets. This isn’t always easy and inevitably results in some stumbling, falling, and getting back up again.

Fourth, Americans are sorely lacking family time. The members come home and go straight to their own rooms. Each has his/her own television set, all tuned to different channels. The family rarely comes around the dinner table. It’s challenging to build a sense of sustained connection amongst diverse citizens. It’s even harder when they have differing regional cultures, racially and economically segregated communities, and group-specific media environments.

It is easy to be daunted by the national identity question and all the challenges that go along with addressing it. However, this conversation is necessary for a party that wants to rebuild a relationship with the white working class — but that also wants to unite a desperately divided nation around a shared identity.

(Originally Posted on on April 7, 2017)

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