Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president, launched fifty years ago this spring, holds a special place in the hearts of many progressives. At a time when working-class whites and black voters were at each other’s throats, Kennedy (RFK) managed to forge a remarkable coalition by communicating to both groups that he cared about their futures. Running as a candidate deeply committed to advancing civil rights, Kennedy nevertheless was able to attract many working-class white voters, some of whom had voted for segregationist George Wallace in a previous election.
In the 2016 election, by contrast, progressives were stunned when working-class white voters moved in the opposite direction. Polling analysis finds that 22 percent of non-college-educated whites who supported Barack Obama in the past switched to Donald Trump, a candidate hostile to the civil rights of Mexican Americans, Muslims, and African Americans.1 Trump won the white non-college-educated vote by a stunning 41 percentage points, which tipped the presidential election.2 In all, six states flipped from Obama to Trump.3
This report makes three central points. First, it outlines the evidence suggesting Kennedy achieved a remarkable political coalition in time of strong political antagonism. Although contemporary witnesses to the campaign believed Kennedy’s appeal to be strong, some historians have subsequently questioned RFK’s ability to attract working-class whites. This report seeks to debunk the debunkers, drawing upon polling data and precinct results in key states to suggest Kennedy had powerful appeal with working-class blacks and whites alike.4
Second, along the way, the report spells out the apparent reasons why Kennedy was able to appeal to working-class white and black voters at a time of great tension between the groups. In the end, he was able to communicate that he cared about both groups in a way that few politicians can today by respecting both their interests and their legitimate values. Unlike right-wing urban populists, he was inclusive of minority populations, and unlike today’s liberalism, Kennedy placed a priority on being inclusive of working-class whites. In short, he was a liberal without the elitism and a populist without the racism.
Third, the report seeks to draw lessons from the 1968 campaign for progressives today. Although the campaign involved a unique candidate—the brother of a slain president—at a political moment very different than our own, RFK’s candidacy is more than a mere historic curiosity. Kennedy advanced critical themes and approaches that translate across time and candidates to inform the approach of progressives today. This section suggests a number of concrete policies that could prove important to restoring the multiracial, class-based coalition that Kennedy was able to forge.
RFK’s 1968 Campaign for President
On March 16, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy announced that he was challenging incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy needed little introduction to the country. The younger brother of slain president John F. Kennedy (JFK), Robert Kennedy had managed JFK’s campaigns for Congress, the Senate, and the presidency, and had served as the Kennedy administration’s attorney general, where he fought for civil rights and advised his brother in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The year following JFK’s 1963 assassination, RFK was elected a U.S. senator from New York, where he became a champion of the nation’s underdogs, highlighting the need to address poverty and the plight of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. As senator, he also became a leading opponent of LBJ’s Vietnam War.
The Challenge of Forging and Unlikely Coalition
But as he began his 1968 campaign, RFK faced a major political dilemma. The New Deal Coalition of working-class whites and blacks, which had supported progressive candidates for more than three decades, was in tatters, rent apart by racial strife and resentment. Should he try to bring these groups back together, or instead seek a new coalition of highly-educated whites and minority voters?
Restoring the New Deal Coalition would be tough, because it had been an historical aberration. For centuries, working-class whites and blacks had been kept apart by wealthy white interests who were terrified of an alliance. Populist movements to align the groups based on their shared class interest were attempted over the years, including during Reconstruction, but were usually derailed by demagogic appeals to racism.5 Among the most tragic stories was that of Tom Watson, a Georgia populist, who began his career as an idealist, arguing for racial unity: “the accident of color can make no difference in the interests of farmer, croppers, and laborers,” he declared. But when that tack was foiled, Watson became, by the end of his career, a rabid racist who stood squarely for white supremacy.6
As president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had managed to forge a multi-racial class-based coalition during the New Deal, but he had done so mostly at a terrible cost: by looking the other way at egregious violations of the civil rights for black people. As Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute notes, “Too often, the ‘common good’ of the New Deal left African Americans and other people of color on the outside of what was ‘common.’”7 When the civil rights movement challenged racial segregation and white supremacy in the 1960s, some white working-class voters, particularly in the South, began to defect to the conservative cause.
Passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act to outlaw discrimination in employment and education was a monumental advancement for human freedom but did not sit well with many Southern whites, nor with some white working-class voters in the North. In 1964, when Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace challenged LBJ for the Democratic presidential nomination, he stunned political observers by getting strong support from working-class whites in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Indiana.8
Despite some apparent discomfort over the Civil Rights Act, most working-class whites in the North stuck with the Democratic Party. In the 1964 presidential election, LBJ lost the South to Republican Barry Goldwater over civil rights, but nationally, Johnson won a solid majority of working-class whites, as John Kennedy had.9
Many civil rights leaders remained optimistic about keeping the coalition together. Martin Luther King Jr., who personally experienced hatred in white working-class communities in his fight for civil rights, nevertheless argued that the push for greater economic equality could provide the potential “for a powerful new alliance.” Speaking of lower-income whites, King suggested, “White supremacy can feed their egos but not their stomachs.”10
But the white backlash grew among Northern whites in response to racial rioting in the 1960s. By 1968, as journalist David Halberstam noted, “The easy old coalition between labor and Negroes was no longer so easy; it barely existed. The two were among the American forces most in conflict.”11 Many working-class white voters were also hawkish on foreign policy, and objected to candidates who were dovish on Vietnam.
As a result, when Kennedy began his 1968 campaign, the natural step as a pro-civil-rights, anti-Vietnam politician was to try to build a political coalition of African Americans, Latinos, college students, and upper-middle class educated white liberals. But as fate would have it, a particular sequence of events put that coalition out of easy reach by the time Kennedy joined the campaign. By then, Kennedy faced in the contest not only Lyndon Johnson, but a third candidate, Minnesota U.S. senator and anti-war activist Eugene McCarthy.
A year earlier, Kennedy had been approached by peace activists to oppose Johnson’s reelection but had hesitated. Instead, McCarthy entered the race as an anti-war candidate, and performed surprisingly well in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Only then did RFK enter the race. By that time, white students and upper-middle class liberals were mostly committed to McCarthy and many were infuriated when Kennedy belatedly jumped into the race. “[T]he campus had always been considered as Kennedy’s base,” writers Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page noted. “He had been nurturing this constituency for years; he lost it in a month.”12 The authors noted, “the awkward existence of Eugene McCarthy” forced Kennedy to pursue “the wrong kind of middle-class voters”—less-educated whites who were part of the backlash against racial progress and the peace movement.13
As Kennedy began the race, he decided to enter the Indiana primary, scheduled for May 7, as his first test. Shortly after Kennedy entered the presidential race, LBJ stunned observers by dropping out of the contest, paving the way for his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, to participate. In Indiana, the conservative Democratic governor, Roger Branigin, ran as a stand-in for the Johnson administration, a common practice in those days.
Appealing to white backlash voters of the type who supported George Wallace in Indiana was a tall order for Robert Kennedy. As attorney general, RFK had been a staunch proponent of civil rights. In 1961, after white thugs attacked Freedom Riders seeking to desegregate bus lines, RFK ordered marshals to Montgomery, Alabama. In 1962, he supported James Meredith’s efforts to enroll at the University of Mississippi as the first black student. A year later, RFK urged his brother to submit strong civil rights legislation to Congress. As a U.S. senator, RFK traveled to South Africa and to Mississippi to fight for racial and economic justice and forged a profound connection with black voters.14
If RFK was at the opposite end of civil rights spectrum from Wallace, voters knew it. In a 1968 “thermometer” poll of twelve possible presidential candidates sponsored by the University of Michigan, Robert Kennedy ranked the very highest among black voters, and George Wallace the very lowest.15 Likewise, in a May 1968 Harris survey regarding seven presidential candidates, Robert Kennedy was identified as the most likely to “speed up” racial progress (69 percent), while George Wallace was the least likely (5 percent).16
RFK’s opponents—McCarthy, and the Humphrey-Branigin team—were much less identified with black voters. In the Harris survey, less than half viewed Humphrey as supporting “racial progress speed-up,” and only about one-third viewed Eugene McCarthy in that way. Although Humphrey had first made his name in the 1940s supporting civil rights, by the 1960s, RFK was more closely identified with the struggle. Indeed, RFK attacked the Johnson-Humphrey administration for not being aggressive enough in responding to the February 1968 Kerner Commission report that said urban rioting was largely the result of white racism in employment, education, and housing.17 McCarthy, meanwhile, tended to focus his campaign on affluent white suburbs rather than struggling black communities, whereas Kennedy was known for attracting large, enthusiastic crowds in black inner-city neighborhoods.18
But in Indiana, given McCarthy’s strength among upper-middle class whites, Kennedy would have little choice but to try to forge a coalition of black voters and working-class whites, many of whom had supported George Wallace in the past. In the 1964 Indiana Democratic primary—just a year after Wallace had vowed “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”—Wallace received nearly 30 percent of the vote in the Indiana Democratic primary challenge.
Wallace’s appeal among whites was much stronger among those lower down the education and occupation scales. In a 1967 national Gallup pro-con survey, Wallace was viewed favorably by those with a Grammar school education (54 percent to 32 percent), but unfavorably by those with a university education (30 percent to 65 percent). He was favored by manual workers (51 percent to 36 percent) but disfavored by non-manual workers (31 percent to 60 percent).19 In Gary, Indiana, a Harvard University study found that blue-collar workers were three times more likely to support Wallace than white-collar workers.20
Televised violence by white authorities against peaceful black protesters in the South helped boost white support for civil rights in the early 1960s, but urban rioting, beginning in Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in 1965, and spreading throughout the country in 1966, 1967, and 1968, broadened the white backlash against civil rights. In 1966, the country saw 43 race riots; in 1967, 164 riots left 83 people dead. And 1968 was the peak year for major civil disturbances.21 The political impact was powerful: “For several decades, Americans have voted basically along the lines of property,” Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg wrote in 1970. “Suddenly, sometime in the late 1960s, ‘crime,’ and ‘race’ and ‘lawlessness’ and ‘civil rights’ became the most important domestic issues in America.”22
Rioting hurt the progressive cause because, as David Halberstam noted, “It was the rage, not the causes of it, which showed up on white television sets.”23 By August, 1967, a Gallup poll showed that 32 percent of the American public had changed their attitude toward black people in the previous several months, and “virtually all in this group,” the poll summary found, “have less regard or respect for Negroes now than formerly.”24
As it turned out, the issues of racial injustice—and race rioting—would be at the epicenter of the Indiana primary. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an apostle of nonviolence, was assassinated by a white man in Memphis, Tennessee. Against the advice of police, Kennedy entered the Indianapolis ghetto that night and, speaking without notes, gave one of the great speeches of his career. He informed the shocked crowd that King had been killed and reminded them that he, too, had lost a family member to gun violence. He declared:
We can move in [the] direction [of] greater polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and comprehend. . . . What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.25
Indianapolis was one of the few large cities that did not burn that night.26 Greensboro, Nashville, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington all went up in flames. In total, 110 cities saw rioting, resulting in 39 deaths, 2,500 injuries, and 28,000 arrests. In the nation’s capital, federal troops had to guard the White House. Machine guns were posted on the steps of the Capitol building. As a result, Chester, Hodgson and Page noted, “the 1968 campaign would be fought on Wallace’s chosen ground.”27
Kennedy’s Approach to Building the Coalition
If the challenge was daunting, Kennedy had a plan. Whereas progressives typically told working-class Americans they will look out for their interests, and conservatives typically told these voters they support their values, Kennedy would emphasize connection to both their economic interests and their legitimate values.28 Kennedy would underline common class interests as progressives traditionally did. But he would do more, and suggest that he respected working-class values of hard work and respect for the law. He was not going to backtrack on his commitment to civil rights or his commitment to pursuing peace in Vietnam. But he would augment the pursuit of racial justice and peace with a commitment to toughness—on crime, on welfare, and on national security. This message was reinforced by a personal history of strength that was meant to give working-class whites and blacks the sense that he respected their American values as well as their interests.
1. Emphasizing Common Class Interests
Kennedy believed that racial injustice needed fighting tooth and nail, but he also believed, with the passage of civil rights laws outlawing discrimination, that class inequality was the central impediment to progress for both black and white people. In Indiana, Kennedy told reporter David Halberstam that “it was pointless to talk about the real problem in America being black and white, it was really rich and poor, which as a much more complex problem.”29 Kennedy told journalist Jack Newfield, “You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that poverty is closer to the root of the problem than color. I think there has to be a new kind of coalition to keep the Democratic party going, and to keep the country together. . . . Negroes, blue-collar whites, and the kids. . . . We have to convince the Negroes and the poor whites that they have common interests.”30
During the campaign, RFK continually pounded away at the ability of rich people to escape taxes by exploiting loopholes. He offered “A Program for a Sound Economy,” which the Wall Street Journal denounced in an editorial entitled, “Soak the Rich.”31 Lewis Kaden, who was primarily responsible for the proposal, says it was in the classic populist tradition “of attacking big corporation and rich individuals who weren’t paying their fair share of taxes.”32 Recognizing that tax reform was a complicated issue, he tried to cut through the fog by calling for a minimum 20 percent income tax for those who earned over $50,000 (in 1968, a considerable sum) in order “to prevent the wealthy from continuing to escape taxation completely.”33 RFK speechwriter Jeff Greenfield recalled in an interview that on the stump, Kennedy was not afraid to name names. “He would constantly cite” oil tycoon H. L. Hunt. Kennedy “would use statistics of 200 people who made $200,000 a year or more and paid no taxes. . . He kept coming back to those 200 people . . . and then he’d say: ‘One year Hunt paid $102. I guess he was feeling generous.’ If you think about it, there is no better populist issue than that issue.”34
Progressives frequently hit issues of economic inequality in campaigns, but RFK’s message was particularly strong, which earned him the enmity of business leaders. A survey conducted by Fortune magazine found Kennedy was the most unpopular presidential candidate among business leaders since Franklin D. Roosevelt. “While President Kennedy was never a great favorite among businessmen,” a March 1968 Fortune article noted, “the suspicion with which he was regarded is nothing compared to the anger aroused by his younger brother.” The survey of business leaders found that “mention of the name Bobby Kennedy produced an almost unanimous chorus of condemnation . . . there is agreement that Kennedy is the one public figure who could produce an almost united front of business opposition.”35 (A month after Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968, Hubert Humphrey told Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen that much of Humphrey’s earlier financial support had dried up because it had been driven by hostility to RFK).36
But Kennedy’s appeal to working-class whites and blacks didn’t end with economics. He also knew that it was important that the populist appeal cut across social issues and national security questions as well.
2. Navigating the Social Issues: Crime, Welfare, and Affirmative Action
By 1968, progressives knew all too well that an economic message would not get through to working-class whites unless it was accompanied by a respect for their values on issues such as crime and welfare.
Race riots were the central issue in the 1968 campaign and Kennedy sought to walk a line that was both sensitive to racial injustices which gave cause to black anger and also made clear that looting and violence would never be tolerated no matter how legitimate the underlying grievance. In this way, Kennedy distinguished himself from both right-wingers who spoke only of “law and order” and self-styled liberals for whom the term “law and order” was an anathema.37
Eugene McCarthy, for example, refused to utter the phrase.38 And many McCarthy supporters attacked Kennedy for stressing the crime issue. Reporter Jack Newfield noted, “these McCarthy backers usually lived in low-crime expensive suburbs or luxury apartment buildings with two doormen and elaborate surveillance systems.”39
Kennedy would have none of that. “Though a man of growing compassion,” Chris Matthews writes, “he believed in law and order and didn’t hesitate to employ the phrase.”40 Kennedy did not want to cede the term to right wingers who could imply that liberals were for lawlessness and disorder. In Indiana, he took the advice of campaign officials to speak of himself not as the former attorney general but to tell audiences, “I was the chief law-enforcement offer of the United States. I promise if elected, I will do all in my power to bring an end to this violence. We needn’t have to expect this violence summer after summer.”41 RFK aide Gerard Doherty recalled, “I said if he was going to win, he has to conduct a campaign for sheriff of Indiana. And he did.”42
Early on in the campaign, Kennedy told his media advisor Donald Wilson, “I want a law and order ad. Why don’t we have a law and order ad?” So the campaign developed several on this theme. One advertisement, signed by one hundred law enforcement officials, said Robert Kennedy was the best candidate able to deal with violence in the streets. Wilson recalls, “We had some of the most important law enforcement officers in the United States flying into Indianapolis” to make an ad.43
In another advertisement, shot with Kennedy speaking to factor workers, RFK declares, “We’re going to have law and order in the United States. One thing we have to establish is that we won’t tolerate lawlessness and violence.” In another advertisement, Kennedy tells an audience in Columbus, Indiana: “I don’t think we have to accept the idea that summer after summer we’re going to have violence. I don’t think we have to accept the idea that summer after summer we’re going to have looting. And I don’t think we have to accept the idea that the stain of bloodshed is going to be ever across our country.”44
The message got through. At one point during the presidential campaign, Richard Nixon remarked to journalist Theodore White, “Do you know a lot of these people think Bobby is more a law-and-order man than I am!”45
But at the same time, Kennedy, unlike many conservatives, always balanced his call for law and order with a call for justice. In his television ad with factory workers, for example, after speaking of the need for law and order, he also made clear that the country needed to make sure “that people are going to be treated with justice. And that a man has the opportunity to obtain a job, and has the opportunity to obtain decent housing.”46 Kennedy believed that social justice and law and order were complementary, not contradictory, approaches to fighting crime and providing opportunity.
During the campaign, Kennedy also spoke of “another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heating.”47
On the racially charged issue of welfare reform, RFK emphasized the need for more jobs as a way of empowering people. His campaign slogan in Indiana and elsewhere was “Won’t you help Robert Kennedy give people a hand up rather than a hand out?”48 He argued, “The answer to the welfare crisis is work, jobs, self-sufficiency, and family integrity; not a massive new extension of welfare; not a great new outpouring of guidance counselors that give poor advice.”49
Kennedy’s central message was not that government needed to crack down on abuse, but that recipients would be better off if government invested in jobs. In a television commercial, Kennedy declared, “I think welfare is demeaning and destructive of the human being and of his family. But instead of welfare, instead of the dole, instead of a handout, what we need in the United States is to provide jobs for all of our people.”50 Kennedy didn’t blame welfare recipients; he blamed the system. “We need jobs, dignified employment at decent pay; the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important to himself—‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its greatest public venture.’”51
The appeal wasn’t to racial resentment. He told no stories of “welfare queens” abusing the system as other later candidates would. Indeed, Kennedy once said he recognized that welfare is among the things black people hate most in American society.52 His was an appeal to American values that united working-class black and white people honoring the dignity of work.
On the contentious issue of racial preferences, as well, Kennedy articulated a position in favor of nondiscrimination across the board. His stance was to be pro-civil rights but anti-preference. Kennedy spoke of a “special obligation” owed to black people for years of slavery and segregation but proposed as a remedy an aggressive expansion of racially inclusive social mobility programs, not racial preferences. He favored outreach to black people for job openings but not a change in the performance standard for hiring.53
Kennedy’s position on affirmative action was consistent with Martin Luther King Jr.’s. King spoke of the need to address our nation’s egregious history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. But instead of advocating a Bill of Rights for the Negro, King suggested a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. King wrote: “While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit. . . . It is a simple matter of justice that American, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”54 King knew that race-based preferences would split the multi-racial coalition he and other progressives were seeking to forge. King wrote: “It is my belief that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness etc. and does not take into sufficient account their plight (that of the white worker).”55
3. Showing Toughness on National Security Issues
On issues of national security and war and peace, Kennedy took a principled position in opposition to the Vietnam War—whose very morality he questioned—but threaded the needle in a way that also made clear to working-class voters that he differed sharply from upper middle-class white college students who dodged the draft or even sympathized with the North Vietnamese Communists.
On the one hand, RFK raised deep moral questions about the Vietnam War. “Can we ordain to ourselves the awful majesty of God—to decide what cities and villages are to be destroyed, who will live and who will die, and who will join the refugees wandering in a desert of our own creation?” he asked during the 1968 campaign.56 But his position never translated into being soft on Communism or sympathetic to college students who were avoiding service in the war.
Kennedy argued in his stump speech: “I am not in favor of unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam, that would hurt us in Southeast Asia.”57 He wrote in his book, To Seek a Newer World, “The overwhelming fact of American intervention has created its own reality. . . . Tens of thousands of individual Vietnamese have staked their lives on our presence and protection.” These people, he suggested, “cannot suddenly be abandoned for forcible conquest of a minority.”58 Campaign aide Jeff Greenfield recalls, “There was an effort from the very beginning not to run simply as a peace candidate.” RFK made clear, “I am not running for the president of SANE,” an anti-war group.59
In language likely to resonate with working-class people of all races who disproportionately sent their offspring to Vietnam, Kennedy actively confronted college students who received draft deferments during Vietnam. Although the student draft deferments were supported by the public by a 54 percent to 31 percent margin, Kennedy attacked them as unfair.60 At Notre Dame University, Kennedy was booed for saying college draft deferments should be abolished. “You’re getting the unfair advantage while poor people are being drafted,” Kennedy said.61 Unlike McCarthy, Kennedy refused to promise amnesty to draft evaders.
Kennedy, who himself had served in the U.S. Navy, reminded voters that he had long been a “cold warrior.” In television advertisements employed in Indiana and Nebraska, the Kennedy campaign pieced together clips from RFK’s 1962 trip to Poland and his meeting with Communist leaders. “He confronted our critics, head on,” a narrator declares as Kennedy is shown telling Communist officials, “And the Soviet Union puts a wall up to keep their workers’ paradise.” Kennedy continues, “I appreciate your frankness, and I think you would expect the same from me.” Smiling, he adds, “And you’re going to get it.”62 In case voters had forgotten it, RFK’s ads also harkened back to his involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States stared down the Soviets and won the removal of their missiles.
Kennedy’s message of resolve on national security appeared to penetrate with Indiana voters. Astonishingly for a peace candidate, RFK polled as well among those who favored LBJ’s conduct of the Vietnam War as among those who opposed it.63
4. A Different Kind of Liberal Candidate
In addition to RFK’s stances on economic, social, and national security issues, he stood apart from many liberals because of his personal history—as a devout Catholic, an individual who prized physical toughness, and someone who, despite his family wealth, felt connected to working-class families and disconnected from upper-middle class white liberals.
Kennedy’s Catholicism was well-known at a time when anti-Catholic prejudice was still raw. RFK embraced the Catholic Church more closely than did JFK, and, more than his brother, took poet Robert Frost’s advice to heart: “Be more Irish than Harvard.” RFK and his wife Ethel had ten children, the fact of which the campaign continually reminded voters. In one television advertisement, RFK points to a young girl and says, “we have five of those at home,” and, pointing to a boy, “as well as a lot of those.”64 In another advertisement, RFK is showing playing football with his kids as a voice intones, “A man with ten children can’t avoid concern about the future.”65 As Harvard professor Robert Coles, a Kennedy adviser, noted, all of those children were a powerful symbol to working-class Catholic families.66
The public also knew that Kennedy prized physical toughness and had a reputation for “ruthlessness,” an attribute rarely associated with compassionate liberals. As a former aide to Senator Joe McCarthy in pursuit of purported Communists, and later as a staffer to the Rackets Committee prosecuting Jimmy Hoffa for union corruption, “Robert Kennedy had ‘cop’ written all over his public image,” Ted Sorensen wrote.67 Unlike most liberal Senators, RFK always said hello to the police officers, Chris Matthews notes.68 “The very qualities that the upper-middle class liberal intelligentsia did not like about him,” says Robert Coles, “are what working-class white people liked.”69
During the Indiana campaign, Kennedy emphasized the value of manual labor over philosophizing. In one television commercial, Kennedy is shown speaking to an audience of factory workers; a narrator says: “There’s one thing Robert Kennedy knows for sure. When he talks to men who do the real work in this country, he’s talking with people who aren’t afraid of a new challenge.”70
In fact, Chris Matthews reports that when Bobby Kennedy worked on Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign, he perceived that Stevenson, a renowned intellectual, couldn’t seem to make hard decisions and noticed that he “talked over people’s heads” at campaign stops. Kennedy developed a “contempt for liberals,” Matthews writes, and actually ended up voting for Eisenhower.71 So determined was Kennedy to distance himself from the liberal brand, RFK personally insisted years later on deleting the word “liberal” from his speeches and replacing it with “humane.”72
The message seemed to get across. A 1968 Harris poll found that by 65 percent to 19 percent, Americans believed Kennedy was “courageous and unafraid to follow his convictions.”73 Kennedy aide Adam Walinsky said, “The polls would show up that he was so tough that he scared people. . . . Everybody in the country knew that he was a tough son of a bitch.”74 One factory worker told Robert Coles, “We used to say in the factory, he’s one of us who made good and knows how to think and hasn’t lost touch with the ordinary man.”75 Other white workers told Coles, “This guy isn’t going to use us to show those rich Harvard-types what a great guy he is. He may be for them [African Americans] but he’s for us too.”76 Advisor Justin Feldman recalled that in Indiana, pollsters found that “both sides,” black and white, “trusted [RFK] not to take crap from the other side.”77 Kennedy was, on the hand, a candidate with a strong moral message about civil rights, poverty, and an unjust war; but he was also someone who believed in exercising power—an increasingly rare combination.78
Kennedy’s Remarkable Coalition
As Kennedy campaigned in Indiana, hard-bitten reporters saw evidence that a remarkable coalition of working-class white and black voters appeared to be coalescing around a single candidate.
Kennedy’s strong appeal among black voters was well expected. But reporter Theodore White was struck that cities such as South Bend and Gary, Indiana, white working-class men came out to see Kennedy, “a rare sight in daytime political campaigning.”79
Many journalists were particularly struck by an extraordinary motorcade on May 6—the day before the primary election—that ran through Indiana’s steel towns of Gary, Hammond, and Whiting. The year before, the City of Gary had divided sharply over the city mayoral election; white precincts voted white, black for black. Although the whites in Gary were registered Democratic by a five-to-one margin, 90 percent voted for the white Republican.80
But as RFK began a grueling, nine-hour motorcade through industrial northern Indiana, many of the steel-mill families, black and white, came out to greet him. As the motorcade entered Gary, the city’s black mayor, Richard Hatcher, climbed in to sit next to Kennedy on one side. On the other side of the candidate was Tony Zale, the former middleweight boxing champion who was a native-son hero of Gary’s Slavic steelworkers. Kennedy rode through the industrial neighborhoods, black and white, with Hatcher and Zale remaining at his side, bridging the painful chasm between the races in Gary. “It was hard to escape the meaning of that kind of symbol,” recalled speechwriter Jeff Greenfield.81
Journalist Jules Witcover wrote of the motorcade: “In the history of American political campaigning, certainly in primary elections, Kennedy’s final day in the Indiana campaign must be recorded among the most incredible.” He continued: “What set the motorcade apart, and what made it significant for Kennedy the candidate, was the unbroken display of adulation and support as he moved from Negro neighborhood to blue collar ethnic back to Negro again, over and over and over.”82 Robert Coles told Kennedy, “There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics.”83
On May 7, primary election day, journalists were struck by the remarkable coalition Kennedy seemed to have assembled. On the one hand, RFK did extremely well with black voters, winning 86 percent of their votes against McCarthy and Humphrey stand-in Roger Branigin.84 “What was surprising,” political analysts Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote, “was his record among the backlash ethnic voters that gave George Wallace his remarkable vote in Indiana four years ago….While Negro precincts were delivering around 90 per cent for Kennedy, he was running 2 to 1 ahead in some Polish precincts.”85
The vast majority of those who wrote about the campaign—journalists Jules Witcover, David Halberstam, David Broder, Theodore White, Jack Newfield, Joseph Kraft, Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, as well as a number of historians—found strong evidence of Kennedy’s appeal among working-class whites as well as working-class blacks. But it is important to note that a small number of revisionists have suggested that Evans and Novak and all the other observers got it wrong, and that Kennedy did not perform particularly well among white ethnic voters after all.
Kennedy aides William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman say that in industrial Lake County, Indiana, Kennedy lost 59 of 70 white precincts in Gary, and lost 13 of 14 white cities that Wallace carried outside of Gary.86 Citing vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman’s work, respected historian Ronald Steel suggests that Kennedy “dream coalition” of working-class whites and blacks is the product of “wishful thinking, misperception, and spin control.”87 Another acclaimed writer, Gary Wills, reviewing Steel’s book in the New York Review of Books in 2000, concluded broadly: “The Poles had not come through for [Kennedy]. The coalition never existed.”88
But the weight of the evidence from primaries in Indiana and Nebraska, and from public opinion polling of Kennedy and Wallace supporters, suggests the revisionists are wrong to draw broad conclusions from a single jurisdiction. Although RFK’s appeal with whites was limited in Lake County, the revisionists miss the fact that statewide, RFK, the candidate most closely identified with black voters, performed astonishingly well among working-class whites and Catholics. Consider:
- An analysis of the Indiana results showed that RFK did well enough with working-class whites to win the seven largest Indiana counties where George Wallace ran strongest in 1964.89
- A May 1968 analysis in Indiana by pollster Stanley Greenberg found that RFK ran well among most European ethnic groups.90
- A May 1968 Harris poll found that statewide Kennedy beat McCarthy and Branigin by two-to-one among Catholics and industrial workers in Indiana. He did less well among affluent and educated whites, who were wary of his emphasis on law and order. Harris concluded that Kennedy’s victory “went a long way toward establishing his claim as perhaps the likeliest Democrat in 1968 who can deliver both the Negro and the lower-income white urban vote.”91
- Statewide, the New York Times noted, Kennedy was able to assemble “an unusual coalition of Negroes and lower income whites,” Kennedy did well “with blue-collar workers in the industrial areas and with rural whites.”92
Precinct returns in places such as South Bend, Indiana showed that RFK did well among black voters but also “piled up large pluralities in Polish-American precincts, where there had been some threat of a backlash vote,” according to political columnist Jack Colwell.93 While McCarthy won the Notre Dame University polling sites, Kennedy won in low-income Polish districts. In one heavily Polish precinct, RFK won 201 votes, as compared to 84 for Branigin and 78 for McCarthy. In another Polish precinct, Kennedy won 224 votes to 90 for McCarthy and 83 for Branigin. In the only precinct in St. Joseph’s County where Wallace had prevailed in 1964, Kennedy garnered 190 votes to 95 for McCarthy and 55 for Branigin.94 In Vigo County, which includes Terre Haute, Kennedy prevailed over Branigin and McCarthy, getting 9,600 votes to their respective 7,300 and 5,300 vote tallies. (Four years later, Wallace would defeat Humphrey and Edmund Muskie in the Democratic primary in Vigo County.)95
Even in industrial Lake County—one of two Indiana counties which had gone for Wallace in 1964—Kennedy was able to supplement his strong black support with enough working-class whites to enable him to beat McCarthy and Branigin by 47 percent of the vote to their 34 percent and 19 percent.96 For example, RFK carried East Chicago, which was two-thirds white, with 55 percent of the vote (to McCarthy’s 29 percent and Branigin’s 16 percent). Kennedy also won Whiting, which was all-white, by 47 percent of the vote to their 36 percent and 17 percent.97
Although Kennedy did lose many white precincts in Gary, as vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman note, in a three-way-race, he still won 34 percent of the overall vote in white precincts—a remarkable accomplishment, notes author Thurston Clarke, in a city in which just one year earlier 95 percent of voters in white precincts voted for a white Republican over a black Democrat. Moreover, Clarke notes, many of the white precincts on Gary’s Southern perimeter where McCarthy prevailed were wealthier suburban neighborhoods of the type McCarthy typically won.98 (McCarthy trounced Kennedy, for example, in the white collar Glen Park section of Gary.)99 Meanwhile, in several areas, such as Gary’s thirteenth precinct, where Wallace had in 1964 defeated Johnson’s stand-in, Governor Matthew Welsh, by two-to-one, and Gary’s black mayor had lost, 439 votes to 84, in the November 1967 election, Kennedy defeated McCarthy and Branigin with 151 votes to their respective 86 and 51 vote tallies. Similar RFK victories were had in Gary’s eighth, tenth, twelfth, fourteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth precincts, which had previously gone for Wallace and against Hatcher.100 One analysis found that Kennedy outpolled McCarthy by 14 percent and Branigin by 18 percent in Lake County’s Slavic precincts.101
Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman themselves acknowledge that “Of all the public figures in the nation,” RFK, in the years following his brother’s assassination, “spoke to lower-income whites from the sturdiest base of personal popularity.” They continued, “The respect for his name and his identification with law enforcement, gave him special standing among northern whites most vehement against the Negro.”102 Likewise, the skeptical historian Ronald Steel notes that among Irish and Polish voters in Indiana, Kennedy “ran ahead of McCarthy, whose non-ethnic, intellectual brand of Catholicism invoked no tribal loyalty.”103 Steel acknowledges that statewide, Kennedy got 48 percent of the industrial worker vote, beat McCarthy by 50 percent to 28 percent among Catholics, and came in last among the most affluent and best educated voters.104
Following Kennedy’s seven-week campaign in Indiana, he would run in four states in four weeks. When the presidential campaign turned to Nebraska’s May 14 primary, Kennedy was again victorious, relying on a similar coalition. Kennedy won with 51 percent of the vote to McCarthy’s 31 percent. The balance went to write-in votes for Humphrey (8 percent) and Johnson (6 percent). “Of equal significance,” wrote Jack Newfield, “was the fact that Kennedy’s delicate alliance of slum Negroes and low-income whites had worked again; Kennedy received more than 80 percent of all Negro votes and almost 60 percent of the votes cast in low-income white areas.”105 Despite recent rioting in Omaha, Kennedy was able to connect with working-class whites and swept all the counties with concentrations of Poles and Czechs.106
By contrast, when the campaign moved to Oregon, a more affluent white state, Kennedy would suffer his first defeat to McCarthy. Oregon was just 1 percent black and 10 percent Catholic, and had very few urban voters.107 It was the type of state where McCarthy felt comfortable telling an audience, “The polls seem to prove that he [Kennedy] is running ahead of me among the less intelligent and less well-educated voters of the country.”108 (An April 28 Gallup poll confirmed the correlation between education and support for McCarthy, though no research looked at “intelligence” levels.)109 On June 4, Kennedy won in South Dakota with a coalition of Native Americans and white low-income voters; and on the same day, Kennedy won California with strong vote totals from Latinos and African Americans and a sufficient number of white voters, including some upper-middle class liberals who were more prevalent in California than other primary states.110 Then, in the early morning of June 5, immediately after Kennedy gave his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, he was brutally assassinated. His short and exhilarating campaign that had united unlikely allies came to an abrupt end.
Although we will never know how Kennedy might have done at the Democratic convention or a possible general election campaign, scholars have been intrigued by a number of public opinion polls which found that Kennedy, while extremely popular among black and Latino voters, also had strong appeal with working class-whites who were sympathetic to George Wallace.111 While RFK was the most well-liked of twelve presidential candidates among black people, and Wallace the least popular, there was remarkable overlap in support from blue-collar whites.112 “I remember one of the first surveys I ever did was in 1968,” pollster Patrick Caddell remarked. “There were people in Jacksonville, Florida, telling me that they were for either George Wallace or Robert Kennedy.”113
Pollster Louis Harris suggested that if Kennedy had lived and gotten the Democratic nomination, “he probably would have heavily cut the Wallace vote among trade union members” in November 1968.114 Others point out that in most 1968 opinion-poll “trial heats,” Kennedy ran better against Wallace than any other Democrat.115 Theodore White noted that Wallace’s popularity, which had remained constant from the middle of 1967 to the summer of 1968, began to rise “within days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.”116 A special cross-tabulation of polling data conducted by the Roper Institute also found that a majority of white voters who said they liked Wallace also said they liked Kennedy.117
Paul Cowan, a reporter who covered George Wallace for the Village Voice on a trip to Massachusetts in July 1968, noted that the Governor’s rallies and speeches—almost all in white working-class neighborhoods—were attended by many former Robert Kennedy supporters. “[T]he clear majority of Wallace’s audiences, day or night, are white working-class men,” Cowan wrote. “Many of them planned to vote for Robert Kennedy this year. ‘He wasn’t like the other politicians,’ said a television repairman from Framingham. ‘I had the feeling he really cared about people like us.’” In fact, Cowan noted, Wallace often praised RFK as “a great American” in speeches. “He was a patriot, unlike those professors on college campuses—pseudo-intellectuals, I call them—who say they long for a victory of the Viet Cong,” Wallace said at one rally. “You know,” a woman at a Wallace rally in Middleboro, Massachusetts told Cowan. “Wallace is very much like Kennedy.” Cowan concluded that Robert Kennedy was “the last liberal politician who could communicate with white working class America.”118 Reporter David Halberstam was stunned that Kennedy was deeply loved by black voters and also appeared to borderline backlash whites “who thought the choice in American politics narrowed to George Wallace or Bobby Kennedy.”119
After Kennedy’s death, working-class white and black voters both came to pay their respects to their candidate. An astounding 52 percent of black people in Harlem reported visiting Robert Kennedy’s casket at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, compared to 8 percent of whites on the Upper East Side.120 When Kennedy’s body was carried by train from New York to Arlington cemetery, biographer Chris Matthews notes, one saw: “young, old, black, white, men and women, few well-off, all caught up in their shared devastation.” These warring groups were, he writes, “massed along the tracks on that hot early summer day, holding American flags and saluting, waiting to see him pass.”121 Kennedy advisor Richard E. Neustadt recalls, “That train crawled on from noon to evening, and everywhere, the whole route, on both sides, there were those silent people waiting—it must have been for hours—watching, sometimes crying, black people, blue-collar people.”122 Harvard professor James Galbraith, a McCarthy supporter, thought the train was a fitting vehicle for RFK: “If you were burying Ronald Reagan, you would obviously want to do it with an airplane,” Galbraith said, “but if you are going to bury Robert Kennedy, his people live along the railway tracks.”123 For a campaign lasting eighty-five days, it appeared that these two frustrated groups of Americans had agreed on something—and they stood by the tracks to honor him.
Lessons for Today
Does Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign have any relevance fifty years later in the age of Donald Trump? On the one hand, observers trying to draw similarities need to be cautious:
- Robert Kennedy was a unique figure—the brother of a martyred president who had been in the public eye for more than a decade – and was running in a primary rather than a general election.
- He ran at a time when Roman Catholics were subject to greater prejudice than they are today, and when many such voters were more likely to identify as Polish American or Irish American than as white.
- In 1968, working-class whites (defined as those without a four-year college degree) were a much larger and more important segment of the voting population than they are today.
- Issues such as marriage equality, transgender rights, sexual harassment, immigration, and abortion, were not the hot-button items they are today.
- And, after 2016, many liberals understandably have little interest in wooing voters who went so heavily for an unabashedly bigoted candidate in Donald Trump.
But if the times are different, and the most salient issues have changed, powerful continuities remain. Moreover, in many ways, restoring the old working-class black, white and Latino coalition may be even more possible, more necessary, and more desirable for progressives than it was a half-century ago.124
The Progressive Coalition Is Possible, Necessary, and Desirable
1. The Coalition Is Possible
In the Trump era, when working-class whites and black and Hispanic Americans are deeply polarized as voting blocs, it may seem unthinkable that they could be brought together. But an effective progressive coalition does not require that all working-class whites come on board, only an important subset of voters who are not racist and can live with progressive positions on such issues as a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality. As Andrew Levison notes, “there are actually two fundamentally different kinds of white working class voters.”125 There are the persuadable working-class voters, and the always-Trumpers.126 Ideologically, pollster Guy Molyneux has found, about 15 percent of white-working class voters are reliably liberal about half are reliably conservative and, in between, about 35 percent (23 million voters) are moderate, persuadable white working-class people.127
Reaching these moderate white working-class voters does not require fundamental changes in race relations. As political analyst Jeff Greenfield and the late Jack Newfield have pointed out, “Blacks and almost-poor whites do not have to love, or even like, each other to forge an alliance of self-interest.”128 In some ways, multiracial class-based coalitions should be far more readily achievable today than in Kennedy’s era given three realities: declining racism, increasing income inequality, and the failure of conservatives to deliver for working-class whites.
It may seem odd to say after the election of a race-baiting president in 2016, but RFK was running at a time when white racism was much more naked than it is today. In 1967, 27 percent of whites thought blacks and whites should go to separate schools, a figure that dropped to 4 percent by 1995, after which point the question stopped being asked. In 1967, about half (48 percent) of whites said they would not vote for a “generally well qualified” black candidate, a figure that declined to 5 percent by 1997. In 1968, a solid majority (56 percent) said there should be laws against intermarriage between blacks and whites, a figure that dropped to 10 percent by 2002. Fully 73 percent of whites in 1972 said they disapproved of interracial marriage; by 2011, the number had plummeted to 14 percent.129 (See Figure 2.)
While some might discount the veracity of what white people tell pollsters, actual interracial marriage rates have also increased by more than five times since RFK’s day—from 3 percent of marriages in 1967, to 17 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.130
To be sure, race relations took an enormous step backward recently with the election of Donald Trump. Through a series of actions and statements—denouncing a Mexican-American judge as inherently biased, saying there were “very fine people” who marched alongside neo-Nazis white supremacists in Charlottesville, suggesting immigrants should come from Norway rather than Africa—Trump has continually revealed himself as a racist.131 But just as it was wrong to assume after Barack Obama’s election that America had entered a “post-racial” era, it is wrong to say that the election of Trump signals that America has regressed to its earlier levels of racism. To the contrary, Trump’s racist comments and actions are unpopular among most of the American electorate. Indeed, his bigotry (coupled with his erratic and bullying behavior) help explain why, at a time of very low-unemployment, strong economic growth, and a booming stock market, Trump’s approval ratings are dismal. As political analyst Ruy Teixeira notes, “the underlying trend toward racial liberalism continues.”132
Increasing Economic Inequality
At the same time, economic inequality has increased dramatically since 1968, which, under the right set of political leaders, should serve to reinforce the urgency of building a class-based coalition of self- interest. In 1968, Kennedy argued that class was at the root of the nation’s problem more than color, and today that is far truer than it was then. To take one example, in a comprehensive analysis of the test score gap among groups of students, Stanford professor Sean Reardon examined nineteen nationally representative studies going back more than fifty years and found that, whereas the average gap in standardized test scores between black and white students used to be about twice as large as the gap between rich and poor students, today, the income gap (between those in the ninetieth percentile of income and the tenth percentile) is about twice as large as the gap in test scores between white and black students.133 (See Figure 3.) As Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chief and now a candidate for governor in Maryland, has argued, “The biggest gap in our society is not black and white but rich and poor.”134
The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, was at an all-time low in the United States in 1968.135 Since then, income inequality has skyrocketed.136 America’s three wealthiest individuals now have more in assets than the bottom half of the country.137 Working-class Americans of all races have been battered by globalization and technological change.138
Disadvantaged whites in particular are falling. Between 1990 and 2009, the proportion of children born to single mothers more than doubled among whites without a high school degree, from 21 percent to 51 percent.139 Angus Deaton and Anne Case of Princeton have noted a stunning decline in life expectancy, brought on by what are called “deaths of despair”—opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide.140 There is likely more disruption to come, as robots and driverless cars cause more dislocation among working-class people of all races.
It is fashionable to point out that economic anxiety can produce a rise in racial animosity among whites who are looking for scapegoats to blame and who cling to their racial identity as their only remaining signal of status. But under the right leadership, economic inequality can serve to highlight common interests, as Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated during the Great Depression.
Indeed, today, young people are increasingly open to democratic socialism, once a taboo affiliation in America.141 Polls show that 82 percent of Americans think that wealthy people have too much power in Washington, D.C. and the same proportion think economic inequality is a big problem. Today, 61 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, 60 percent believe “it is the federal government’s responsibility to make sure all American have healthcare coverage,” and 63 percent of registered voters favor making four-year public colleges tuition free.142 It is intriguing that key civil rights advocates, such as Rev. William Barber, the former head of the NAACP in North Carolina, thinks it is time to revive Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign to highlight the needs of economically disadvantaged Americans of all races.143
New Opportunities as Trump Forgets His “Forgotten Americans”
A year into Trump’s presidency, the opportunity seems especially ripe for progressives to appeal to white working-class votes, who were rightly identified by Trump as “forgotten Americans” and then promptly forgotten by Trump himself.
Trump’s initial appeal was that he ran against the traditional conservative elite’s focus on the wealthy; indeed, voters who had voted for Obama and then voted for Trump thought congressional Democrats were twice as likely to favor the rich as Trump.144 But as Trump’s actions line up increasingly with establishment conservative economic priorities, voters are becoming disenchanted. Polls show Americans believe the Trump tax bill not only favors the wealthy; they believe it will hurt them.145 Already, polls show, a majority of white working-class voters have turned against Trump.146 In counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016, Bernie Sanders is much more likely to be viewed favorably (44 percent) as unfavorably (29 percent).147
2. The Coalition Is Necessary for Progressives
The white working-class is a much smaller portion of the American electorate than it was in 1968, so some argue that, to achieve progressive policies, it is more important to generate higher turnout among minority voters than to seek to include working-class whites in the coalition.148 Those advocates are wrong: progressives who seek to boost minority turnout (in part through economic populism) will probably not succeed without also appealing to the white working class, which remains “the largest race/education group in the country,” as Robert Griffin, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress note.149 A new analysis finds that non-college-educated white voters constituted 45 percent of voters in 2016, dwarfing the 29 percent of white voters with college educations.150 Their predominance in American politics helps explain why researcher Lee Drutman finds that the combination of economically liberal and socially conservative positions represents the sweet spot in American electoral politics: 73 percent of voters are economically liberal, while 52 percent are socially conservative.151
Fundamentally, the history of the past fifty years is that, when working-class white voters vote their race, conservatives win, and when enough vote their class, progressives do. Victorious candidates such as Bill Clinton won a plurality of white working-class voters in both 1992 and 1996.152 And Barack Obama did better among such voters in his successful campaigns than Hillary Clinton did in her losing effort. According to Ruy Teixeira, if Clinton had done as well as Obama with white working-class voters, she would have won the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. By contrast, if Clinton has replicated Obama’s turnout among black voters, she still would have lost the 2016 election because the white working-class defections were so strong.153
Moreover, the white working-class constituency has outsized influence in congressional races because it is more evenly distributed throughout the country than any other group. Griffin, Halpin and Teixeira note: “while 43 percent of the age 25-or-older population in the United States is WWC [white working class], the median congressional district is just a little over 60 percent WWC.” They continue, “Only 26 percent of congressional districts have 25+ populations that are less than half WWC, a striking disparity given the nation’s overall composition.”154 Likewise, in U.S. Senate races, it will be impossible for progressives to win in states like Ohio unless they win some former Trump voters.
3. The Class-Based Progressive Coalition Is Desirable.
Finally, the progressive coalition of people of color and working-class whites is not only possible and necessary, it is desirable, if one’s goal is economic justice and social cohesion.
If one wants to address economic inequality head-on, a coalition of self-interest is far more potent than an alliance of minorities and educated whites who have different sets of priorities. That is why the great dream of labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph was to create a cross-racial class-based coalition rather than a race-based cross-class coalition.155 In a class-based coalition, the fight for economic equality is front and center. As former Economic Policy Institute scholar Max Sawicky notes, Martin Luther King Jr. realized that allying with working-class whites “doesn’t neglect the black working class. It magnifies its political salience.”156
It’s also critical for progressives to ally working-class whites with African Americans and Latinos, because if they don’t, demagogues will, as we have seen, fill the vacuum and wreak havoc on American society. When working-class people feel alienated and are not given credible answers to their economic plight, they are vulnerable to appeal from hucksters who scapegoat religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. Failing to address legitimate anger about economic dislocation in a number of societies has allowed the rise of “white nationalism,” that, one observer noted, is “destroying the West.”157 Authoritarian regimes thrive on social division, and when it ensues, democratic norms are discarded. Minorities end up paying the biggest price of all.
How to get there?
If a class-based, multi-racial progressive coalition is possible, necessary and desirable, what kind of policies could progressives pursue to begin the effort to recreate the Kennedy coalition? The balance of this report outlines four ideas: (1) Stay committed to progressive principles of inclusion for marginalized groups; (2) consistently emphasize common class interests; (3) signal the inclusion of working-class whites by extending civil rights remedies to class inequality; and (4) respect the legitimate values of working-class people.
1. Stand up for Progressive Principles for Inclusion for Marginalized Communities
To appeal to a sizeable number of white working-class voters in 1968, Kennedy did not forfeit his basic principles or change his positions on civil rights, or war and peace. Throwing women, gay people, and people of color under the bus is both wrong and politically stupid if one’s aspiration is an inclusive populism that is multiracial and includes marginalized groups. Progressives need to boost funding for enforcement of anti-discrimination laws (including those that attack “disparate impact”), to stand for women’s rights, marriage equality, voting rights, gun safety, and a woman’s right to choose. Hillary Clinton was right when she said, in a debate with Bernie Sanders, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” The advancement of civil rights is one of America’s great accomplishments of the second half of the twentieth century, and progressives must remain strong defenders in the twenty-first century.
2. Progressives Can Consistently Emphasize Common Class Interests
Coupled with a commitment to civil rights, progressives can fight for economic justice—more jobs and infrastructure, better health care, a more robust minimum wage, strong funding of public schools and the like. These types of commitments are central to the identity of progressives. But the liberal message could be sharpened in several ways.
Over the years, as progressives embraced free trade, globalization, and economic deregulation, they have increasingly been viewed as similar to conservatives.158 The Bernie Sanders insurgency pushed Hillary Clinton toward economic populism, but not as consistently as it could have. Polling evidence suggests that many working-class whites were torn over whom to support and did not break Trump’s way until the fall of 2016. Between August and November, Trump’s support among white non-college voters rose 23 points during a time when “the Clinton campaign stopped talking about economic change,” according to a report of the Democracy Corps and the Roosevelt Institute.159
Critically, talking more about economic issues not only helps progressives appeal to working-class whites, it also boosts minority turnout.160 An insufficiently populist campaign in 2016—coupled with the absence of Barack Obama on the ticket—may help explain why black turnout declined from four years earlier.161
Be Willing to Drain the Swamp
For many years, reforms to campaign financing and clean government initiatives were seen as upper-middle class concerns, but new research questions that idea. White working-class people are deeply cynical about the funding of campaigns by special interests, a fact that undermines progressives and conservatives alike.162 That’s why Trump’s (false) claim that he was self-funding his campaign and would “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C. had so much resonance.
Go after Wall Street on Taxes and the Fraud
In 1968, RFK’s populist campaign talked constantly about wealthy individuals who abused the system, and the candidate didn’t hesitate to name names. But in recent years, the progressive discussion of Wall Street abuse has been more cerebral. Substantively, progressives have been far tougher on Wall Street, championing the Dodd-Frank legislation that conservatives are now seeking to undo. But as Stanley Greenberg notes, white working-class voters surely noticed that during the Obama administration, “no executive was punished for criminal malfeasance” stemming from wrongdoing that triggered the Great Recession.163 It is hard to imagine RFK, a tough prosecutor, would have argued that some companies are “too big to jail.”164
Rethink trade policy
Progressives also need to do a better job of talking about the unbalanced impact of globalization. Trump made his opposition to the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a central feature of his campaign on behalf of “forgotten Americans,” outflanking Hillary Clinton on the left.165 On a related point, Harold Meyerson notes, the economic recovery has been very uneven as large regions of the country have been left out. In the economic recovery of 2010-14, Meyerson says, half of new businesses were located in just twenty counties. Progressives are acutely familiar with economic underdevelopment in predominantly minority communities within metropolitan areas—as they should be—but Meyerson says they have failed to fully appreciate a second type of underdevelopment found in “non-metropolitan America, a land of decaying factories, abandoned mill towns, and depopulated farms.”166
Prioritize the right to organize unions
Fundamentally, political parties win when they enact policies to raise the living standards of citizens. Economic growth is the engine for that, but we have seen that growth by itself no longer guarantees wage increases. Progressives also need to find ways to increase worker power, which requires updating antiquated laws so that employees will have a genuine right to organize in the workplace. Unfortunately, labor law reform has not been prioritized, even when progressives have held the presidency and both houses of Congress—under Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.167 Strengthening labor will not only raise the wages of Americans but also strengthen the single most important force for educating working-class voters about the dangers of authoritarianism and racist ideologies. (See more details below on a proposal to strengthen labor unions.)
But even if progressives consistently talk about common class interests, they won’t break through with working-class whites unless they do two other things much better: (a) signal that they are concerned about working-class people of all colors; and (b) demonstrate that they will respect their legitimate values, not just their interests.
3. Signal Concerns by Extending Civil Rights Remedies to Class Inequality
After the 2016 election debacle, Matt Morrison, political director of Working America, spoke in a forum about the importance of “signaling” to voters. Donald Trump wasn’t going to do much, if anything, for coal miners, Morrison says, but it was nevertheless important that he talked about their plight and signaled that he cared about them.168
How could progressives signal in a meaningful way to white working-class voters that just as liberals properly care about the plight of struggling people of color, they also care about the struggles of working-class whites? To reunite “the Bobby Kennedy coalition,” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, has talked about the need to “knit together a civil rights strategy with an economic strategy.”169 One powerful approach would be to literally extend tried-and-true civil rights remedies—which have made our country better in innumerable ways—to tackle the issues of class inequality that affect working-class people of all colors.
Below, I suggest that progressives do just that by backing four ideas in such areas as education, housing, and employment law: (1) an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against workers engaged in labor organizing; (2) a Brown v. Board of Education-type policy to promote economic school integration of low-income pupils; (3) an Economic Fair Housing Act to combat discrimination against working-class people of all races; and (4) an affirmative action program in higher education for economically disadvantaged students of every color. These examples are by no means exhaustive; they focus on areas I’ve written about in the past and are merely illustrative of a larger theme. Elsewhere, I have explained why, on the merits, these four ideas constitute sound social policy that will promote greater social mobility and equality.170 But here, I emphasize the political framing value of extending civil rights remedies to combat economic inequality (without cutting back on the commitment of these policies to combat racial discrimination as well.)171 These new economic policies will disproportionately help people of color but will also be inclusive of working-class whites.
Labor Organizing as a Civil Right
Before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, open and flagrant employment discrimination against African Americans was common. While racial discrimination in employment remains a problem, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam notes, “controlling for education, racial gaps in income are modest.”172
By contrast, class-based discrimination against workers trying to unionize has been on the rise, and average wage earners as a group are paying the price. In the 1950s, organized labor represented one-third of private sector workers and America enjoyed broadly shared prosperity, as workers were able to win a fair share of productivity gains.173 Over time, businesses began to openly discriminate against employees trying to organize a union, a practice that has essentially stopped labor organizing in its tracks. Although firing an employee for asserting his or her right to unionize is technically illegal under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the penalties are so weak that firms routinely flout the law.174 Globalization has caused unions to suffer throughout the world, but the fall of organized labor in the United States has been much steeper than in other countries also subject to the forces of globalization. Routine employer discrimination against union organizing has caused Freedom House to rate the United States as far less free on labor rights than forty-one other countries.175
This is important because labor unions are essential to creating a middle class. Just as labor unions have declined, so has the proportion of income going to the American middle-class. (See Figure 4).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (updated in 1991) outlawed racial discrimination in the workplace and in other facets of life, and helped delegitimize racial prejudice. The act needs to be vigorously enforced to address ongoing racial discrimination.176 But as Moshe Z. Marvit and I explain in our 2012 book, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, Congress should also amend the Civil Rights Act to extend protections against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and the like to include individuals trying to organize a union. Doing so would give employees a much more powerful tool to combat discrimination than are available under the National Labor Relations Act. Whereas the NLRA gives employees wrongfully terminated the right to back pay and reinstatement, the Civil Rights Act gives employees the right to sue in federal court, engage in legal discovery, and win compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. Representatives Keith Ellison and John Lewis have introduced this type of legislation in Congress and progressives need to prioritize this idea at the federal, state, and local levels.177 Along the same lines, Representative Bobby Scott and Senator Patty Murray have proposed the WAGE Act (Workplace Action for a Growing Economy), which would give employees the right to sue if they are fired for trying to start a union at work.178
Socioeconomic School Integration
Racial integration of schools was—and is—an important objective to provide social mobility for students of color and social cohesion for the country. But today, a growing number of school districts are also focused on integration by socioeconomic status, bringing students from different economic classes together, whatever their racial backgrounds.179 As I explain in my book, All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice, the framing of integration primarily in terms of socioeconomic status offers legal advantages (because the Supreme Court disfavors the use of race in assigning students to schools) and it is backed by research (which suggests that the socioeconomic status of classmates has a bigger impact on achievement than the race of peers.) But there is also an important signaling advantage to the economic approach: it acknowledges that disadvantages whites, too, suffer from socioeconomic segregation.
Racial integration, by itself, doesn’t guarantee equal opportunity. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, a racial desegregation plan produced a school—Roosevelt Perry Elementary—that was half black, half white, and virtually all poor, and that school struggled mightily. When the school superintendent said he wanted to take steps to integrate by socioeconomic status as well as race, the principal, J. Back, told the local paper that it made him feel “like leaping from his chair and cheering” because that was what was needed for kids.180
Likewise, when Boston schools were desegregated in the 1970s, wealthy whites fled to the suburbs, leaving working-class white and black students in schools with concentrated poverty that failed to provide equal opportunity. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles saw the deep unfairness of the situation. “I think the busing is a scandal,” Coles told the Boston Globe. “I don’t think it should be imposed like this on working-class people exclusively. It should cross these lines and people in the suburbs should share in it.” Working-class whites and blacks, he said, have “gotten a raw deal. . . . Both groups have been ignored. Both of them are looked down upon by the well-to-do white people.”181
A focus on socioeconomic integration, ideally crossing school district lines, recognizes that working-class whites and blacks have a common interest in attending school with, and having the same opportunities as, wealthier students. J. Anthony Lukas, in his Pulitzer-prize winning account of the Boston school desegregation crisis, Common Ground, noted that the Boston working-class white and black families he profiled had far more in common with each other than either did with wealthier whites in the suburbs. “What kind of alliance could be cobbled together from people who feel equally excluded by class, or by some combination of class and race?” he asked.182 A focus on socioeconomic integration makes clear the shared common ground of these groups.
Today, one hundred school districts and charter schools, educating some four million students, make conscious efforts to integrate schools by socioeconomic status.183 Unlike compulsory busing programs from the 1970s, these programs tend to rely on voluntary school choice programs and incentives such as special magnet school themes to achieve integration. Districts pursuing socioeconomic integration range from mid-size towns (such as La Crosse, Wisconsin) to major urban areas (such as Chicago, which integrates a subset of its schools) and range from the South (Raleigh and Louisville) to the North (Cambridge, Massachusetts and Champaign, Illinois). Using public school choice to give working-class students of all races access to better schools is good social policy and also serves to remind the Bobby Kennedy constituencies of their common interests.
An Economic Fair Housing Act
America’s residential areas have long been segregated by race, and continue to be so today. But a new class-based segregation is emerging. Income segregation by neighborhood, Robert Putnam says, “was significantly higher in 2010 than it was in 1970.”184 He suggests, “While race-based segregation has been slowly declining,” we have seen the rise of “a kind of incipient class apartheid.”185 This matters because living in a poor neighborhood is associated with reduced educational opportunities, diminished health outcomes, and lower levels of civic engagement.186
As I explain in my 2017 report, “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” America needs a federal law (and state and local analogues) to protect low-income and working-class people of all races against government discrimination.187 Just as it is illegal to discriminate in housing based on race, it should be illegal for municipalities to employ exclusionary zoning policies (such as minimum lot sizes) that discriminate based on income.188 At the individual housing unit level, free market forces set housing prices in a way that makes some homes unaffordable to many people. But on top of that, government zoning policies discriminate based on income by rendering off limits entire communities where it is impossible to rent an apartment or purchase a home on a small plot of land.
An Economic Fair Housing Act would make clear that, just as it is unacceptable for neighborhoods or individuals to discriminate based on race, it should also be unacceptable for government policies to exclude low-income and working-class families from entire neighborhoods. Poor and working-class black and Latino families would benefit most, because they are more likely to live in concentrated poverty than poor whites.189 But disadvantaged white communities would also benefit. As Paul Jargowsky, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, notes, since 2000, there has been a 145 percent increase among non-Hispanic whites living in high-poverty neighborhoods.190 As J. D. Vance notes in Hillbilly Elegy, disadvantaged whites are acutely aware that they, too, are increasingly “socially isolated” and excluded from middle-class neighborhoods.191
Class-based affirmative action
Finally, the most powerful signal of inclusion to working-class would involve a refashioning of affirmative action policies in higher education along lines of class rather than race. Race-based affirmative action programs in higher education, first introduced in the 1960s, have opened the doors of selective colleges for thousands of African American and Hispanic students. But today, racial preferences are under intense legal and political attack, and they have not fully addressed issues of economic inequality. Even with affirmative action programs in place, at selective colleges, rich kids outnumber poor kids by twenty-four to one.192
As traditional race-based affirmative action programs come under increasing assault, America need new paths to diversity that emphasize economic disadvantage broadly defined. In ten states where the use of race has been eliminated by voter initiative or other means at leading universities, several creative steps have been taken. Six states have spent money to create new partnerships with disadvantaged schools to improve the pipeline of low-income and minority students. Eight states have provided new admissions preferences to low-income and working-class students of all races. Eight states have expanded financial-aid budgets to support the needs of economically disadvantaged students. In three states, individual universities have dropped legacy preferences for the generally privileged—and disproportionately white—children of alumni. In three states, colleges created policies to admit students who graduated at the top of their high-school classes. And in two states, stronger programs have been created to facilitate transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions.193
Survey data find that these types of approaches—which tend to benefit economically disadvantaged students of all races—garner far stronger political support than race-specific programs.194 In his 2008 campaign for president, candidate Barack Obama understood this perfectly. In his well-regarded speech on race in Philadelphia, then-Senator Obama built the case for some kind of affirmative action to address our nation’s history of discrimination, but then acknowledged, “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel they have been particularly privileged by their race. . . . As far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything.” Resentment builds, Obama said, “when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.” These resentments, he said are not “misguided or even racist,” but rather are “grounded in legitimate concerns.”195
When asked during that campaign whether his own daughters deserve a preference in college admissions, Obama said, “I think that my daughters should be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” Then, he went further, “I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”196 (President Obama took a different path, once in office, and backed racial preferences in the Fisher v. University of Texas litigation.)
Candidate Obama’s position was consistent with Martin Luther King Jr., who, saw that white workers would feel unfairly excluded from a Bill of Rights for the Negro.197 Fifty years later, sociologist Arlie Hochschild says racial preferences remain widely unpopular with working-class whites who see them as a form of “cutting in line.”198 Indeed, a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, more than half (52 percent) of working-class whites (compared with 30 percent of college educated white) believed discrimination against whites had become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In a society where African Americans continue to suffer racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, housing, employment, even catching a taxicab, the only plausible reading of these results is that working-class whites equate affirmative action in education and employment with discrimination against them.199 While white liberals are likely to see policies such as race-based affirmative action as altruistic, many white working-class voters may instead see it as a spoils system meant to bribe people of color for their votes.200
Of the four policies I’ve outlined, class-based affirmative action is most controversial among liberals because it replaces racial preferences with class preferences. On the merits, I have concluded that, while university officials say they care about both racial and socioeconomic diversity, they rarely address economic disparities, except when the ability to use race is eliminated (in which case, universities adopt class-based policies as an indirect way of promoting racial diversity.)201 Moreover, if structured properly, class-based policies can achieve robust levels of racial diversity. My colleague Halley Potter and I found that seven of ten elite public colleges that stopped using race were able to replicate or exceed the level of both black and Latino representation using a variety of strategies, such as providing a leg up to economically disadvantaged students.202 And those universities not meeting previous targets could use new metrics of socioeconomic disadvantage—such as wealth/net worth or living in concentrated poverty– to increase the racial dividend of class-based affirmative action.
Parental wealth, which is handed down from generation to generation, and is connected to real estate holdings, better captures the legacy of racial discrimination than does parental income.203 Place-based approaches, which give a leg up to students in segregated high schools, can also be effective in boosting racial and economic diversity. And they are fairer. As Georgetown University Law Professor Sheryll Cashin notes, place-based approaches help “those who are actually disadvantaged by structural barriers” rather than enabling “high-income, advantaged blacks to claim the legacy of American apartheid.”204
Approaches that emphasize class will be much more popular with working-class whites, and signal that they are included compared with the current race-based policies that struggling white people find difficult to stomach. Political commentator Van Jones tells the story of a 55-year-old white working-class father in a red state who has lost his job and is embarrassed to go to church or the V.F.W. because he hasn’t found a new job. His older son struggles with opioid addiction and dies of an overdose. His daughter is his pride and joy. She is the great success of the family and goes off to college. But when she comes home for a school break, she starts lecturing her father about his white, male heterosexual privilege.205 Says Robert Kuttner, “It is hard to tell white hillbillies, residents of Lake Charles or of rural Wisconsin, to ‘check your privilege,’ when they are far less privileged than their parents or grandparents.”206
When progressives frame affirmative action in terms of race, they make working-class whites even more susceptible to Donald Trump’s brand of white identity politics. By contrast, class-based affirmative action reinforces a class identity which underlines the importance of making common cause with working-class people of color.
4. Policies that Respect the Legitimate Values of Working-Class People of All Races
Finally, in order to attract more white working-class voters, progressives could not only represent their interests, and make clear they are included in the party; progressives could also respect their legitimate (non-bigoted) values. As outlined below, progressives should be for law and order and justice; be pro-immigrant but respectful of borders and rules; honor patriotism, religious faith in the civic square and free speech rights on campus, and above all, avoid condescension and disrespect.
Be for Justice and Law and Order.
In 2016, liberal pundits constantly reassured progressives during the campaign that Trump’s call for “law and order” was anachronistic. It might have worked for Richard Nixon when crime was climbing, but not in 2016, when crime rates were hitting lows. It wouldn’t work, people were told—until it apparently did.
On the one hand, Hillary Clinton’s renunciation of her husband’s tough on crime approach and her full-throated embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement was understandable.207 BLM—and a slew of phones equipped with video cameras—put a powerful spotlight on what had long been well-known in the black community: police officers were (and are) gunning down unarmed black men with impunity. Particularly painful was the 2014 killing of a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a Cleveland police officer.
But Clinton could have conveyed—as Kennedy did—the powerful need to take steps to curtail outrageous police behavior while also supporting officers who risked their lives every day to maintain “law and order.” Like patriotism, being for law and order should never have been ceded to the right wing. Black Lives Matter, a movement Clinton embraced, is a righteous cause meant to convey that black lives matter in addition to Latino lives, Asian lives, and white lives. Black lives are understandably singled out because the problem of mistreatment by police is particularly acute for African Americans. But it should also be recognized that there were political costs. A 2015 Rasmussen poll found that by 78 percent to 11 percent, U.S. voters preferred the phrase “all lives matter” to “black lives matter.”208 Martin Luther King, it should be remembered, favored the idea of increasing the power that black people have in American society, but he studiously avoided the Black Power slogan in favor of universalistic appeals to justice that could not be misinterpreted.209
Be Pro-Immigrant and Pro-Citizen
One of the great strengths of progressivism is its embrace of immigrants, who improve and enrich our country in immeasurable ways. Progressives’ support for Dreamers, in particular, resonates with 86 percent of Americans who value the contributions of young people who in coming to this country themselves broke no rules.210
At the same time, there is a reason that no society has completely open borders—reasons having nothing to do with the skin color of those immigrants. As Paul Krugman has noted, to open one’s borders to anyone and everyone for unlimited amounts of time would mean, for relatively wealthy societies, the depression of wages for citizens, particularly for the most vulnerable citizens who are competing for unskilled jobs.211 Moreover, because all societies have borders, they have set up rules for limited spots and people broadly recognize that is unfair to allow some to cheat and jump the line. Finally, because America is a society bound together by certain ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, it is reasonable to expect newcomers to learn the common principles and language of our democratic society.
Progressives need to strike this balance. They need to reject as abhorrent the racist and classist notion advanced by President Trump that we should not take immigrants from “shit hole countries.” Progressives should celebrate the vitality that immigrants of all races and religious backgrounds bring to our shores. And compassion requires a recognition that even those who have come to this country illegally become, over time, woven into our society when they work hard, avoid crime, and pay taxes.
But, as Stanley Greenberg has noted, progressives are too often seen as “seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens.’”212 For some conservatives, progressive support for immigrants seems driven by the idea that more immigration with strengthen the progressive voting bloc.213
Working-class people (of all races) also realize that the benefits and costs of illegal immigration and unskilled labor are not borne equally. Wealthy people get cheaper labor to tend their gardens and their children, while working-class people see downward pressure on wages. Conservative writer R. R. Reno notes in the New York Times, “It’s a telling paradox that the most ardent supporters of a “borderless world” live in gated communities and channel their children toward a narrow set of elite educational institutions with stiff admissions standards that do the work of “border control.” The airport executive lounges are not open and inclusive.”214
On the enforcement side, one way forward would be to impose meaningful penalties on employers who violate the law by employing workers not in the United States legally. Rather than punishing the struggling immigrant who just wants a better life, go after the employer who exploits cheap labor.215 Once immigrants are in this country, progressives need to strike the right balance between respecting immigrant cultures and embracing social cohesion around commonly shared values. The great Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who chaired an Immigration Commission in the 1990s, called for “Americanization” of immigrants. “That word,” Jordan noted, “earned a bad reputation when it was stolen by racists and xenophobes in the 1920s. But it is our word, and we are taking it back.” She suggested the term refer to “the cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity.”216 Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) rightly rejected President Trump’s determining the legitimacy of immigrants based on race or the economic conditions of their home countries. He told the President, “I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”217 Those ideals must be taught to each and every generation of native-born and immigrant students alike.
Honor Patriotism, American Leadership, and a Common American Identity
The issue of immigration is closely connected with the issue of patriotism. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel asks: “What is the moral significance of national borders? Do we owe more to our fellow citizens than we owe citizens of other countries?”218 For Americans who are struggling, in particular, patriotism may take a prized place in the psyche, says Chris Matthews, because “America’s all you’ve got.”219 Along the same lines, J. D. Vance, writing in Hillbilly Elegy, suggests he is “the kind of patriot whom people on the Acela corridor laugh at.” But growing up under very difficult circumstances, he came to believe that living in “the best and greatest country on earth” helped give “meaning to my childhood.”220
Proponents of diversity and inclusion may be hesitant to embrace this sentiment, but a cultivated American identity around shared values is much to be preferred to the most likely alternative for many Americans—a white nationalism that excludes by race and religion. The unfortunate reality is that animus between different identity groups has been the norm throughout human history. As E.D. Hirsch notes, “The American experiment, which now seems so natural to us, is a thoroughly artificial device designed to counterbalance the natural impulses of group suspicions and hatreds.”221 Taking pride in being American and in American ideals is a healthy counter to chauvinism based on race.
Progressives should not discount this strong yearning for community. The progressive appeal to working-class people primarily based on material interests—rather than deeper feelings about democratic citizenship—is too transactional, as Michael Sandel notes.222 Progressives need to nourish the sense of American identity, as President Obama masterfully did in his speeches that acknowledged America’s struggles with issues like racial injustice, but also celebrated America’s great progress in that arena. “There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there is the United States of America,” Obama famously declared in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention. That speech and others resonated because he honored diversity, but unity as well.
How can progressive public policies strike the balance Obama did in coming years? Consider the history we teach our children in public schools. When one-quarter of American young people say democracy is a bad or very bad system of government, we are doing something wrong. In our public schools, we should teach American history (warts and all) and also that the genius of democracy is that when there is free speech and the right to assemble, slavery gives way to the abolition movement, segregation to the civil rights movement, the oppression of women to the feminist movement, and on and on. We also need to do a better job of teaching what it is like to live in non-democratic societies so children can realize what they have as Americans.223
Could the yearning for patriotism, which was at the center of John Kennedy’s Peace Corps and mission to the moon, today be manifested in new national service programs? Could necessary investments in improving our roads and subways be sold not only as a way to create jobs and improve economic efficiency, but also as a point of national pride?224
On the international front, Trump’s retreat from the great ideals that made America a leader in the world for decades suggests an enormous opportunity for progressives. They can articulate a new patriotism that celebrates America’s best ideals in a way that inspires not only fledgling democratic movements abroad but also enkindles a desire for Americans to do better at home.
Honor Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech
Progressives should also be seen as consistent champions of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Americans take great nourishment from religious faith of all types—sentiments that secular progressives cannot be seen as disrespecting. Liberals have made good progress in this area, recognizing that the abolitionists and the civil rights movements alike drew sustenance from religious wellsprings. Hillary Clinton was right to give Reverend William J. Barber II, who communicates in powerful moral tones, a key speaking role at the Democratic National Convention. But progressives must go further. As Michael Tomasky notes, “Elite liberals are fine with expressions of faith among African Americans and Latinos, but we often seem to assume that white people who are religious are conservative. It’s not remotely the case.”225
In an age when Donald Trump is calling the press “the enemy of the people” and saying football players protesting racial injustice should be fired, progressives are right to stand up for free speech. But they must stand up for conservative speech on campus as well as liberal speech on the football field. At William and Mary, left-wing protesters shouted down the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, preventing her from speaking. The chants included: “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too”; “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution”; and “Liberalism is white supremacy.”226 It is hard to imagine Robert Kennedy, who took a tough line on rioters, tolerating such behavior.
Care about Relational Inequality as Well as Material Inequality
Finally, progressives do a very good job of championing greater material equality and political equality, to their enduring credit, but they could do a much better job of supporting “relational equality.” As Brookings scholar Richard Reeves explains, relational equality means you respect people and don’t look down on them. Relational equality means, as philosopher Philip Pettit said, every individual can “speak their minds, walk tall among their fellows, and look each other squarely in the eye.”227
Progressives are vulnerable on this issue. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, if the primary sin of the right is racism, the cardinal sin of the left is elitism.228 Part of the problem, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan notes, is that meritocrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talk so much about the need to get a college education that the two-thirds of Americans who lack a bachelor’s degree begin to wonder if these politicians believe they are deficient. Voters wonder: “Am I one of the “Left Behind”? Geoghegan says. As a political strategy, he asks, “Why beat up your base for not having BAs?”229
That is why Hillary Clinton’s gaffe of suggesting that half of Trump supporters fall into “the basket of deplorables” had such terrible resonance with white working-class people, who were used to being held in contempt by wealthier, college-educated whites. The problem with her statement isn’t that racism, sexism, and Islamophobia aren’t deplorable attitudes; of course, they are. But Clinton switched from using deplorable as an adjective to deplorables as a noun. Before a group of donors whom she described as “successful people,” and on several other occasions, she said that millions of Americans were themselves “deplorables.”230 Not only had they lost out in the meritocracy (which, unlike a rigid class system, is allegedly their own fault); but they were beneath respect. White working-class voters may have noticed, as Harold Meyerson has noted, that “deplorables” is a term Hillary Clinton ascribed to many working-class people but never to the wealthy and successful Wall Street bankers whose chicanery threw millions of their fellow citizens out of work in the Great Recession.231 Trump pounced, and his supporters appropriated the deplorables label.
During the 2016 campaign, many commentators noted the two types of populism evident—Bernie Sanders populism on the left and Donald Trump’s populism on the right. But Robert Kennedy showed there was a third type of populism, that synthesized what would become Sanders economic message with Trump’s ability to convey respect for working-class people without a college degree. Kennedy’s populism was far more inclusive of racial minorities than Trump’s, but it was also tougher on domestic and national security than Sanders’s, and more inclusive of white working-class people than is today’s progressive movement. The good news is that there are emerging leaders seeking to rebuild multiracial class-based progressive coalitions—think William Barber and Ben Jealous, for example—just as Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King did a half century ago.
If the campaign of Robert Kennedy fifty years ago showed that the progressive coalition of working-class whites and minorities is possible, the election of Donald Trump showed that efforts to renew the progressive coalition are vitally necessary. Trump has governed as Kennedy’s segregationist opposite George Wallace might have, absent Wallace’s leavening of liberal economic policy. We have seen the disaster that transpires when progressives ignore or condescend to white-working class voters and allow a demagogue to fill the vacuum. A half century after Robert Kennedy’s remarkable campaign, his approach deserves a second look. As Kennedy himself often said: “We can do better.”
Cover Photo: Robert Kennedy campaigns in Los Angeles in 1968. Source: Evan Freed (Personal collection) via Wikimedia Commons.
- Michael Tomasky, “Elitism is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem,” New Republic, May 30, 2017.
- Laura Meckler and Aaron Zitner, “How Donald Trump’s Winning Coalition Came Together,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-donald-trumps-winning-coalition-came-together-1478740299.
- Thomas Edsall, “How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump,” New York Times, July 20, 2017.
- This report draws upon my 1985 thesis at Harvard College, “Electoral Coalition Building and Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Campaign,” written under the supervision of Richard E. Neustadt, as well as subsequent research.
- See, e.g., Darryl Pinckney, “By the Book,” New York Times Book Review, February 21, 2016 (recommending W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America for the argument that “capital used race to re-enslave everyone, white and black.”); and Courtland Milloy, “How American oligarchs created the concept of race to divide and conquer the poor,” Washington Post, April 19, 2016 (quoting Thomas and Mary Edsall’s Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes in American Politics on the way in which “race was used, between 1880 and 1964, by the planter-textile-banking elite of the South to rupture class solidarity at the bottom of the economic ladder.”)
- C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: MacMillan, 1938), 220–21, 240–41, and 399.
- Leo Casey, “The Perils of Universalism,” Dissent (Winter 2018): 46.
- Seymour Martin-Lipset and Earl Rabb, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America 1790–1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 358.
- See Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class,” Brookings Institution Working Paper, April 2008, 9–10, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/04_demographics_teixeira.pdf.
- King, quoted in Richard D. Kahlenberg, The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 190.
- David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey or Robert Kennedy (New York: Random House, 1968), 41.
- Lewis Chester, Geoffrey, Hodgson and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 98, 116 and 139.
- Ibid., 164.
- Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon (New York: Random House, 2016), xx–xxi.
- Paul E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, Jerrold G. Rusk, and Arthur C. Wolfe, “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review 63 (1969): 1088.
- May 1968 Harris Poll, cited in Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg, The Real Majority (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1970), 98.
- Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington D.C: Government Printing Office, 1968).
- Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 135; Theodore White, The Making of the Presidency 1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969), 216.
- Gallup poll, April 1967, cited in Lipset and Raab, Politics of Unreason, 360.
- Lipset and Raab, Politics of Unreason, 363 (citing Robert T. Riley and Thomas F. Pettigrew, “Relative Deprivation of Wallace’s Northern Support,” paper presented at the meeting of the American Sociological Association, 1969, San Francisco, California).
- Halberstam, Unfinished Odyssey, 36; Nelson Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 18.
- Scammon and Wattenberg, The Real Majority, 20 and 39.
- Halberstam, Unfinished Odyssey, 82.
- Gallup Poll, August 16, 1967.
- Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), 875.
- Halberstam, Unfinished Odyssey, 87.
- Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 262.
- See Mark Shields, “And Blue-Collar Wannabes,” Washington Post, June 7, 1995, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1995/06/07/and-blue-collar-wannabes/e154e8d1-c403-4395-ab49-37b0963ef4be/?utm_term=.0d3a048dff03.
- Halberstam, Unfinished Odyssey, 128–29.
- Jack Newfield, Robert Kennedy: A Memoir (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), 287–88.
- Editorial, “Soak the Rich,” Wall Street Journal, May 21, 1968, 16.
- Author interview with Lewis Kaden, New York, N.Y., December 17, 1984.
- Robert Kennedy, “A Program for a Sound Economy,” May 12, 1968, in Douglas Ross, Robert Kennedy: Apostle for Change (New York: Trident Press, 1968), 547–48.
- Author interview with Jeff Greenfield, New York, January 30, 1985.
- Fortune magazine, May 1968.
- Theodore C. Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy (New York: MacMillan, 1969), 282.
- White, The Making of the President, 236.
- Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 364.
- Jack Newfield, The Education of Jack Newfield (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 93–94.
- Chris Matthews, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), 327.
- White, The Making of the President, 212–13; John Barlow Martin, “Memoirs,” unpublished manuscript, 448.
- Author interview with Gerard Doherty, Boston, February 11, 1985.
- Donald Wilson, recorded interview with Roberta W. Greene, June 19, 1970, 37 and 28, RFK Oral History Program, John F. Kennedy Memorial Library.
- Papert, Koenig, and Louis Television Spots at John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, Ads #7, 22-60-P, and 26-60-M.
- White, Making of the President, 169.
- Papert, Koenig, and Louis Television Spot #7.
- Robert Kennedy, Address, Cleveland Ohio, April 5, 1968, quoted in Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 283.
- Author interview with Gerard Doherty.
- Kennedy, “A Program for a Sound Economy,” May 12, 1968, in Ross, Robert Kennedy, 553–54.
- Papert, Koenig and Louis Television Spot 24-30-P.
- Kennedy, “A Program for A Sound Economy,” My 12, 1968, in Ross, Robert Kennedy, 553–54.
- Author interview with Jeff Greenfield.
- Kahlenberg, The Remedy, 11–12. See also Mathews, Bobby Kennedy, 215.
- Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: New American Library, 1964), 138.
- King, quoted in Kahlenberg, The Remedy, 15.
- Quoted in Schlesinger Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 862.
- Theodore White, Making of the President, 212–13.
- Robert Kennedy, To Seek a Newer World (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1967), 193–94.
- Author interview with Jeff Greenfield.
- Benjamin I. Page, Choice and Echoes in Presidential Elections: Rational Man and the Electoral Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 36.
- Jerry Bruno and Jeff Greenfield, The Advance Man (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1971), 165.
- Papert, Koenig and Louis Television Spot 8-60-360.
- Ronald Steel, In Love with the Night: The American Romance of Robert Kennedy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 173.
- Papert, Koenig and Louis Television Spot #16.
- Papert, Koenig and Louis Television Spot #3.
- Author interview with Robert Coles, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 25, 1985..
- Sorensen, Legacy, 137.
- Chris Matthews, Remarks at John F. Kennedy School of Government, November 27, 2017, http://iop.harvard.edu/forum/fifty-years-later-what-american-politics-today-can-learn-legacy-robert-kennedy.
- Author interview with Robert Coles.
- Papert, Koenig and Louis Television Spot 18-60-N.
- Matthews, Bobby Kennedy 141–43.
- Robert F. Kennedy, Speech to Sigma Delta Chi, April 18, 1968, Portland, Oregon, 7. See Paul Duke Jr., “Seeking the Newer World: Robert Kennedy and His Advisors in the 1968 Presidential Campaign,” Senior Honors Thesis, Harvard College, March 1985.
- Harris Poll, 1968, 201.
- Author interview with Adam Walinsky.
- Robert Coles, “Ordinary Hopes, Ordinary Fears” in Conspiracy: The Implications of the Harrisburg Trial for the Democratic Tradition, ed. John C. Raines (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 100.
- Author interview with Robert Coles.
- Author interview with Justin Feldman, New York, January 29, 1985.
- Anthony Lewis, “The Land of Becoming,” New York Times, June 9, 1985.
- White, Making of the President, 215.
- Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970), 350.
- Author interview with Jeff Greenfield. See also Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 296.
- Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1969), 173 and 176.
- Author interview with Robert Coles.
- Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 82.
- Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Kennedy’s Indiana Victory Proves His Appeal Defuses Backlash Voting,” Washington Post, May 9, 1968.
- William vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman, On His Own: RFK 1964–1968 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970), 348–49.
- Steel, In Love with Night, 175.
- Gary Wills, “Waiting for Bobby,” New York Review of Books, February 10, 2000, 18.
- Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 376 (citing “Analysis of Indiana Primary Results,” May 8, 1968, Schlesinger Papers, John F. Kennedy Library).
- Thomas, Robert Kennedy, 376 (citing Stanley Greenberg, “Voting Prediction Model: Kennedy and McCarthy in Indiana,” May 14, 1968, RFK 1968 Papers).
- Harris Poll, Newsweek, May 20, 1968, 35. See also Thomas, Robert Kennedy, 376; and Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 220.
- New York Times, quoted in Clarke, The Last Campaign, 219.
- South Bend Tribune, May 8, 1968, 11.
- Robert E. Boomhower, Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary (Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2008), 116.
- Terre Haute Star, May 9, 1968.
- Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 177; Gary Post-Tribune, May 9, 1968.
- Perry L. Weed, The White Ethnic Movement and Ethnic Politics (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), 103; and Joseph Kraft, “Appeal to Opposing Groups Was Key to RFK Victory,” Washington Post, May 9, 1968.
- Clarke, The Last Campaign, 221.
- See Evans and Novak, “Kennedy’s Indiana Victory,”; Gary Post Tribune, May 1968; David Broder, “Kennedy’s Indiana Victory was More Impressive than It Looked,” Washington Post, May 9, 1968.
- Gary Post Tribune, May 1964, November 1967, and May 1968.
- Michael S. Kramer and Mark R. Levy, The Ethnic Factor: How Minorities Decide Elections (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 151.
- Vanden Heuvel and Gwirtzman, On His Own, 84.
- Steel, In Love with Night, 173.
- Ibid., 176.
- Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 305.
- Witcover, 85 Days, 197; Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 300.
- Halberstam, Odyssey, 176.
- Witcover, 85 Days, 209.
- Halberstam, Odyssey, 58.
- Herbert Alexander, Financing the 1968 Election (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1971), 70; Newfield, Robert Kennedy, 331 and 340; Halberstam, Odyssey, 201.
- Jeff Greenfield and Jack Newfield, A Populist Manifesto (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 209; Gregory Stone and Douglas Lowenstein (eds), Lowenstein: Acts of Courage and Belief (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 172.
- Paul E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, Jerrold G. Rusk, and Arthur C. Wolfe, “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, 1969, 1088.
- Patrick Caddell, quoted in Sidney Blumenthal, The Permanent Campaign (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 48.
- Louis Harris, The Anguish of Change (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1973), 208.
- Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 163.
- Theodore White, Making of the President, 431.
- Marilyn Potter, Roper Institute at the University of Connecticut, cross tabulation of Gallup poll: AIP0761 Voter Ratings of Robert Kennedy and George Wallace, April 1968, conducted August 28, 1986.
- Paul Cowan, “Wallace in Yankeeland,” Village Voice, July 18, 1968.
- Halberstam, Odyssey, 173–74 and 195.
- George Nash, “After RFK, What?” New York, July 29, 1968, 61.
- Matthews, Bobby Kennedy, 8 and 341.
- Author interview with Richard Neustadt, Cambridge Massachusetts, February 15, 1985.
- John Kenneth Galbraith, quoted in American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, ed. Jean Stein and George Plimpton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970), 32.
- See Kahlenberg, The Remedy, 190–203.
- Andrew Levison, “What Working Class Voters Different Not Just in ‘What They Think’ But How They Think,’” in Democrats and the White Working Class (Washington, D.C.: Democratic Strategist Press, 2017).
- Stanley Greenberg, Ruy Teixeira, Karen Nussbaum and Harold Meyerson, “Facing the Challenge: Regaining the Trust and Winning Back the Support of White Working Class Democrats and Independents Who Defected to Trump in 2016,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 1.
- Guy Molyneux, “Mapping White Working-Class Voters,” American Prospect, December 20, 2016, http://prospect.org/article/mapping-white-working-class.
- Jeff Greenfield and Jack Newfield, A Populist Manifesto (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 11.
- “Trends in Racial Attitudes,” University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, http://igpa.uillinois.edu/programs/racial-attitudes.
- Gretchen Livingston and Anna Brown, “Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia: One-in-six newlyweds are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity,” Pew Research Center, May 18, 2017, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/05/18/intermarriage-in-the-u-s-50-years-after-loving-v-virginia/.
- See, e.g. David Leonhardt, “Time to Say It: Trump is a Racist,” New York Times, January 12, 2018 (cataloging Trump’s history of racism).
- Ruy Teixeira, “Things look bleak for liberals now. But they’ll beat Trump in the end,” Washington Post, March 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/03/optimistic-leftist/?utm_term=.ebdfb70dc3b0.
- See Sean Reardon, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap between Rich and Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations,” in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, ed. Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (New York: Russell Sage Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, 2011), 93 and 98.
- Arelis R. Hernandez, “Jealous delivers economic message in speech to Pr. George’s Democrats,” Washington Post, June 7, 2017.
- Salvatore Babones, “U.S. Income Distribution: Just How Unequal?” Inequality, February 14, 2012, https://inequality.org/research/unequal-americas-income-distribution/; see also “The Changing Shape of the Nation’s Income Distribution, 1947–1998 (June 2000),” U.S. Census Bureau, 2, Figure 1, https://www2.census.gov/prod2/popscan/p60-204.pdf.
- Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016,” U.S. Census Bureau, September 12, 2017, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html.
- Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie, “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 List and the Rest of Us,” Institute for Policy Studies, November 8, 2017, http://www.ips-dc.org/report-billionaire-bonanza-2017/.
- E. J. Dionne, “How Trump Wins,” Washington Post, February 25, 2016, A17.
- Thomas Edsall, “How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump,” New York Times, July 20, 2017.
- Fareed Zakaria, “America’s self-destructive whites,” Washington Post, January 1, 2016, A17.
- Sarah Leonard, “Why Young Voters Love Old Socialists,” New York Times, June 16, 2017.
- Peter Dreier, “Most Americans Are Liberal, Even if They Don’t Know It,” American Prospect, November 10, 2017.
- Katrina vanden Heuvel, “A new Poor People’s Campaign wants to change how society defines morality,” Washington Post, December 5, 2017.
- Thomas B. Edsall, “The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought,” New York Times, June 8, 2017 (21 percent thought Trump favored the wealthy, while 42 percent thought congressional Democrats favored the wealthy).
- James Hohmann, “10 reasons Democrats think the tax bill will be a political loser for Trump’s GOP in the midterms,” Washington Post, December 21, 2017.
- William A. Galston, “Base to Trump: Start listening to experienced Republicans,” Brookings FixGov blog, August 30, 2017.
- Gerald F. Seib, “Democrats Seek Openings in Trump Country,” Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2017, A4.
- See e.g. Steve Phillips, “The Democratic Party’s Billion-Dollar Mistake,” New York Times, July 20, 2017.
- Robert Griffin, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, “Democrats Need to be the Party of and for Working People—of All Races,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 32.
- Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, “Voter Trends in 2016,” Center for American Progress, November 2014, 4.
- F. H. Buckley, “How Trump Won, In Two Dimensions,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2017, A15 (citing Lee Drutman, Voter Study Group).
- Celinda Lake, Daniel Gotoff, and Olivia Myszkowski, “The Democratic Party and the White Working Class,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 73.
- Ruy Teixeira, “The math is clear: Democrats need to win more working-class whites,” Vox, January 29, 2018.
- Griffin, Halpin and Teixeira, “Democrats Need,” 35.
- See Richard D. Kahlenberg, “A Civil Rights Movement for Working-Class People,” Roundtable on the White Working Class (citing Leo Casey), http://thedemocraticstrategist-roundtables.com/a-civil-rights-movement-for-working-class-people/.
- Max Sawicky, “Notes on Coates,” MaxSpeaks blog, September 18, 2017.
- Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “White Nationalism Is Destroying the West,” New York Times, October 12, 2017.
- Thomas Edsall, “How Did the Democrats Become Favorites of the Rich?” New York Times, October 7, 2015. See also Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal (Metropolitan Books, 2016).
- Stan Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, “The unheard winning and bold economic agenda: Findings from Roosevelt Institute’s Election night survey,” November 15, 2016, http://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Dcor_PE_RTR_Ealert_11.15.2016_for-release.pdf.
- A majority of unmarried women say they cannot handle an unexpected expense of $500. Stanley Greenberg, “The Democrats’ ‘Working Class Problem’” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 15 and 28.
- Edsall, “The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape than You Thought,” New York Times, June 8, 2017.
- Greenberg, Teixeira, Nussbaum and Meyerson, “Facing the Challenge,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 2.
- Greenberg, “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem,’” 17.
- James Kwak, “Getting Away with It: Why America’s top prosecutors no longer go after corporations or their executives,” New York Times Book Review, July 9, 2017, 10.
- Greenberg, “The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem,’” 19. Clinton opposed TPP, but only belatedly, and with less intensity than Trump.
- Meyerson, “The White Working-Class,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 8–10. For remedies, see Joel S. Yudken, Thomas Croft, and Andrew Stettner, “Revitalizing America’s Manufacturing Communities,” The Century Foundation, October 16, 2017, https://tcf.org/content/report/revitalizing-americas-manufacturing-communities/.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice (New York: Century Foundation Press, 2012), 5.
- Matt Morrison, “Democrats and the White Working Class” Forum, Washington, D.C. June 23, 2017.
- Graham Vice, “How Democrats Can Bridge Identity Politics and Economic Populism,” New Republic, December 13, 2016.
- See Kahlenberg and Marvit, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right; Richard D. Kahlenberg, All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001); Richard D. Kahlenberg, “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” The Century Foundation, August 3, 2017, https://tcf.org/content/report/economic-fair-housing-act/; and Kahlenberg, The Remedy.
- In the first three proposals—labor organizing as a civil right, socioeconomic school integration, and an Economic Fair Housing Act—I propose leaving underlying civil rights protections in place precisely as they are and supplementing them with new economic policies. In the fourth instance, affirmative action in higher education, I advocate replacing race-based preferences with class-based preferences, but even in that circumstance, I propose that class-based preferences be structured in such a way that will preserve robust levels of racial diversity on campuses—the intended result of racial preferences. See further discussion below.
- Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York Simon and Schuster, 2015), 19.
- Putnam, Our Kids, 34. See also Kahlenberg and Marvit, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, 24, Figure 2.1 (using data provided by Lawrence Mishel, Economic Policy Institute).
- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, “Want to Realize the Civil Rights Act’s Dream? Apply It to Union Rights, Too,” New Republic, February 16, 2014.
- The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World (New York: Freedom House, August 2010), 10.
- See Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” NBER Working Paper No. 9873 (July 2003) (finding that job applicants with stereotypically black names are less likely to receive interviews than similar applicants with white-sounding names). Such discrimination also exists against economically disadvantaged white applicants. In another study, Joan Williams reports, “sociologists Lauren A. Rivera and Andras Tilcsik sent 316 law firms resumes with identical and impressive work and academic credentials, but different cues about social class. The study found that men who listed hobbies like sailing and listening to classical music had a callback rate 12 times higher than those who signaled working-class origins by mentioning country music, for example.” See Joan C. Williams, “The Dumb Politics of Elite Condescension,” New York Times, May 28, 2017.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, “Labor at a Crossroads: Can Broadened Civil Rights Law Offer Workers a True Right to Organize?” American Prospect, January 12, 2015, http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-can-broadened-civil-rights-law-offer-workers-true-right-organize.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, “The power of a lawsuit: Inside a new labor bill, a simple change that could be crucial to fighting inequality,” Politico, September 26, 2015, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/a-new-approach-to-attacking-inequality-000230.
- Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick and Elizabeth Davies, “A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity,” Then Century Foundation, February 9, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/a-new-wave-of-school-integration/.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, “The New Look of School Integration,” American Prospect, June 2, 2008, http://prospect.org/article/new-look-school-integration.
- Robert Coles, “Busing Puts Burden on Working Class, Black and White,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1974.
- Lukas, quoted in Kahlenberg, The Remedy, 191.
- Halley Potter, “Updated Inventory of Socioeconomic Integration Plans,” The Century Foundation, October 14, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/updated-inventory-socioeconomic-integration-policies-fall-2016/.
- Putnam, Our Kids, 38. See also Kendra Bischoff and Sean F. Reardon, “Residential Segregation by Income, 1970–2009,” Russell Sage Foundation, October 16, 2013.
- Putnam, Our Kids, 38–39.
- Ibid., 217.
- See Kahlenberg, “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” https://tcf.org/content/report/economic-fair-housing-act/.
- I am currently working on a project to develop this idea further. I want to thank Paul Jargowsky, whose comments at an Economic Policy Institute panel on April 10, 2014, triggered my thinking on this issue. See “Neighborhoods with Concentrated Poverty, with Paul Jargowsky, Patrick Sharkey, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Sherrilyn Ifill,” Economic Policy Institute, http://www.epi.org/event/patrick-sharkes-paul-jargowskys-work-neighborhoods/.
- Patrick Sharkey, “Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap,” Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009, 2.
- Paul Jargowsky, “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” The Century Foundation, August 7, 2015, 4, https://tcf.org/content/report/architecture-of-segregation/.
- J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 4, 51–52.
- See Jennifer Giancola and Richard D. Kahlenberg, “True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges,” Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, January 2016, 5.
- Halley Potter, “Transitioning to Race-Neutral Admissions,” in The Future of Affirmative Action, 75–90; and Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Introduction,” 9.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, “A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences,” The Century Foundation, 2012, 6, Figure 2.
- Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 18, 2008, https://constitutioncenter.org/amoreperfectunion/.
- Obama, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, ABC, May 13, 2007, quoted in Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Obama’s RFK Moment,” Slate, February 4, 2008, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2008/02/obamas_rfk_moment.html.
- King, Why We Can’t Wait, 138.
- Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016), 137–39.
- Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, and Robert Jones, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump” PRRI/The Atlantic Report, May 9, 2017, https://www.prri.org/research/white-working-class-attitudes-economy-trade-immigration-election-donald-trump/. See also Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Roundtable on the White Working Class,” The Democratic Strategist, http://thedemocraticstrategist-roundtables.com/pages/richard-d-kahlenberg/ (re similar finding in 2012 poll).
- Levison, “White Working Class Voters,” 141.
- See, e.g. Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Should affirmative action be based on income instead of race? Yes,” Congressional Quarterly Researcher, November 17, 2017, 985.
- Kahlenberg and Potter, “A Better Affirmative Action.”
- See Dalton Conley, “The Why, What and How of Class-Based Admissions Policy,” in The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas, ed. Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2014), 203–12.
- Sheryll Cashin, Place Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in American (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 78.
- “Love & Resistance: Van Jones on his Progressive Path Forward,” John F. Kennedy School Institute of Politics Forum, October 13, 2017, http://iop.harvard.edu/forum/love-resistance-van-jones-his-progressive-path-forward.
- Robert Kuttner, “A review of two important sociological field studies of white working class Americans: Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment,” in Democrats and the White Working Class, 121.
- Michael Lind, “Trumpism and Clintonism Are the Future,” New York Times, April 16, 2016.
- “Black Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter?” Rasmussen Reports, August 20, 2015, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/august_2015/black_lives_matter_or_all_lives_matter.
- King, Where Do We Go From Here? 51–52, cited in Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 95.
- Rebecca Savaransky, “Poll: 86 percent support Dreamers staying in the country,” The Hill, September 25, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/news/352210-poll-86-percent-support-dreamers-staying-in-the-country.
- Paul Krugman wrote in 2006 that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants.” Quoted in Peter Beinart, “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration,” Atlantic, July/August 2017. See also John J. Judis, “The Two Sides of Immigration Policy,” American Prospect, February 1, 2018.
- Greenberg, “The Democrats’ ‘Working Class Problem,’” 16.
- Jason Richwine, “More Immigration Would Mean More Democrats,” National Review, October 3, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/452140/democrats-immigration-more-it-helps-them.
- R. R. Reno, “Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party,” New York Times, April 28, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/sunday/republicans-are-now-the-america-first-party.html?_r=0.
- See e.g. Kevin Drum, “Forget the Wall. If you Want Less Illegal Immigration, Go After Employers,” Mother Jones, November 30, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/11/forget-wall-if-you-want-less-illegal-immigration-go-after-employers/.
- “Becoming an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy, Final Report,” U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, September 1997, 26.
- Politico Staff, “Graham: ‘My memory hasn’t evolved’ on Trump ‘shithole’ meeting,” Politico, January 15, 2018.
- Michael Sandel, “Why Trump? What Now?” Harvard Law Forum, February 22, 2017; and Brett Milano, “To understand Trump, learn from his voters: They’re concerned with inequality, the hubris of the elites, the dignity of work, and patriotism, Sandel says,” Harvard Gazette, February 22, 2017.
- Matthews, Remarks at John F. Kennedy School of Government, November 27, 2017, http://iop.harvard.edu/forum/fifty-years-later-what-american-politics-today-can-learn-legacy-robert-kennedy.
- Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 189–90.
- E.D. Hirsch Jr., The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 85.
- See Sandel, on “’A Better Deal’ for Democrats?” On Point, National Public Radio, July 25, 2017, http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2017/07/25/a-better-deal-for-democrats.
- See Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education,” The Century Foundation, November 10, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/putting-democracy-back-public-education/.
- See Jonathan Mahler, “The Case for the Subway,” New York Times Magazine, January 7, 2018, 36.
- Tomasky, “Elitism is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem.”
- Walter Olson, “The ACLU Yields to the Heckler’s Veto,” Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2017.
- Philip Pettit, quoted in Richard V. Reeves, “Classless America, Still?” Brookings Institution Social Mobility Memos, August 27, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2014/08/27/classless-america-still/. See also Richard V. Reeves, “A Little Respect? Can We Restore Relational Equality?” Paper presented at William T. Grant Foundation Grantees Convening, November 13, 2017, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 24.
- Fareed Zakaria, “The two sins that defined this election,” Washington Post, November 10, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-two-sins-that-defined-this-election/2016/11/10/97fdfcf2-a78b-11e6-ba59-a7d93165c6d4_story.html?utm_term=.3655f52d2f02.
- Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (New York: The New Press, 2014), 112–13.
- For example, in an interview with an Israeli television station, a day before the fundraiser, Clinton said, “I’d say you can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets. There are what I would call the deplorables—you know, the racists and the haters and the people who are drawn because they think somehow he’s going to restore an America that no longer exists.” See Adam Kelsey, “Behind Hillary Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ Line,” ABC News, September 13, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/hillary-clintons-basket-deplorables-line/story?id=42069200.
- Harold Meyerson, “The Democrats in Opposition: They not only need to resist Trump. They need to build power wherever they can,” American Prospect, January 18, 2017, http://prospect.org/article/democrats-opposition-0.