Law and Order Beats Bread and Butter: Politics and the White Working-Class


Published April 26th, 2016 - 04.26.1635


The Rise of the Silent Majority

In 1969, President Richard Nixon read a piece in New York Magazine that heavily influenced his political strategy for the 1972 elections.  Pete Hamill’s The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class argued that the white working-class felt alienated, disrespected, and forgotten—they felt the government did not care about them.  The report went on to state that “[t]he working class white man spends much of his time complaining almost desperately about the way he has become a victim” and “the black man has become the symbol of all the working-class white man’s resentment.”  After reading the article, Nixon “scribbled a note saying, ‘This is very disturbing. What can we do about it?’”  In response, the Department of Labor issued a memorandum titled The Problem of the Blue-Collar Worker (also known as the Rosow Report), described by the Wall Street Journal as “a confidential blueprint designed to help [Nixon] capture the hearts and votes of the nation’s white working men—the traditionally Democratic ‘forgotten Americans’ that the Administration believes are ripe for political plucking.”  At the time, the white working-class primarily identified with the Democratic Party, but the tides were shifting as they voted in considerable numbers for independent candidate George Wallace in 1968.  And, these documents, according to historian Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive, reinforced Nixon’s contention that the white working-class vote was up for grabs, and Nixon subsequently went to work to build the Silent Majority.  Nixon believed he could win over the Wallace voter as well as some northern working-class men who liked Wallace but ended up siding with Democrat Hubert Humphrey, by playing to this group’s racial anxieties. For the most part, he was successful in doing so: “the increases in union and manual votes were some of the largest jumps in any category” from the election four years ago.  (22-point increase in the manual worker vote and 25-point increase in the union vote, although some of these gains can probably be attributed to reasons other than Nixon’s blue-collar strategy.)

Buchanan’s Lesson to Trump

Meanwhile, a young reporter and Nixon aide by the name of Pat Buchanan watched in awe as his boss successfully played to the racial tensions of whites and campaigned against liberal culture: Buchanan claimed Nixon’s win in 1972 was “a victory of the New American Majority over the New Politics, a victory of traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the counter-culture, a victory of the Middle American over the celebrants of Woodstock Nation.”  Buchanan, using strategies resembling those of Nixon to appeal to the white working-class, would go on to compete in the ’92 and ’96 Republican presidential primaries, including an impressive second place finish in the latter.  In 2000, however, Buchanan sought the Reform Party ticket, beating out Donald Trump for the nomination.  As reported by Vox, Trump, unlike Buchanan “declined to pursue a nativist appeal,” telling Meet the Press that “Buchanan has written too many inflammatory, outrageous, and controversial things” and has “systematically bashed Blacks, Mexicans, and Gays.”  Indeed, Buchanan’s campaign focused on opposition to immigration and putting “America first.”  Shortly after the race, Trump acknowledged he had learned from his loss, but did not specify what he learned. It is now clear his lesson was to embrace the politics of the Buchanan wing of the electorate, a faction he once referred to as the “underside” of the Reform Party.

“Law and Order Beats Bread and Butter”

Political scientist Max Grossman, author of the Vox article, argues that current circumstances may lend themselves to Buchanan-style nativist politics.  For example, in a recent paper Michael Tesler argues that voters whose views Tesler describes as “old fashioned racism” have moved towards the GOP.  White grievance politics is growing, along with the rise of racial resentment and anti-immigration attitudes.  Moreover, just as Nixon capitalized politically off of anti-war college protests, Trump seems to be energizing his supporters in opposition to contemporary social justice college protests.  And, Mr. Buchanan seems to agree.  “The chickens have come home to roost,” declared Buchanan in a recent interview with the New York Times, citing widespread economic hardship that he blames on free-trade deals and cheap labor from immigrants.

Like Nixon and Buchanan, Trump has diverged from Republican orthodoxy.  On free-trade and social security, he has moved left, while taking a hard right stance on immigration to match the positions of working class voters.  Like Nixon, he has refrained from attacking labor, and although he has an incoherent healthcare policy, he seems to be positioned to the left of his Republican opponents.  In short, Trump is attempting to give a voice to “the forgotten man,” the one that feels victimized—feels that “nobody gives a shit about [him].”

In theory, Mr. Trump is the voice for many who have felt alienated in their own democratic society.  But Trump, like Nixon, is playing to voters’ insecurities and animus.  As Jefferson Cowie avers, the “blue-collar strategy offered the worst type of identity politics—place of pride but place without economic substance.”  As W.E.B. Du Bois argues, however, “place of pride” may be more valuable to poor whites than Cowie admits.  Indeed, in Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois asserts that poor white workers were willing to accept low wages because they were “compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage”—the satisfaction of being at the top of the racial hierarchy.  As Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg surmised in 1970, in the mind of the white working-class voter, “Law and order beats bread and butter; social beats economic.  Keep your tainted federal dollars if it means putting my kid in school with the colored.”  In accordance with this view, Trump has been engaging in a politics that, even when discussing economic policy, plays to whites’ racial anxiety towards blacks and other minorities.  In particular, Trump’s appeals to law and order “allows [him] to appeal to racial fears without overtly mentioning race at all.”

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