07/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Can Win the Sam's Club Vote without Losing His Soul

How can Obama "move towards the center" without losing his chief appeal: our sense that he is principled and sincere? The Clinton DLC roadmap was to get into bed with the powers that be in oh-so-many ways, from siding with big business on NAFTA, to welfare "reform" that abolished an important safety net for the neediest.

There's another way.

Young turk political scientists document that workers have high expectations for government. They are neither libertarian nor hostile to redistribution, according to John McTague of the University of Maryland. Today, though, workers are so convinced that the Democrats will not deliver on the economic issues they care about that they prefer to take their tax cuts from the Republicans.

To capture working class votes, Obama doesn't need to cozy up to the powers-that-be a la DLC. There is another way.

The first step, discussed before in this blog, is to show genuine respect for working class sensibilities. This requires us to face an uncomfortable fact: reform-minded Democrats were the original values voters. The New Deal Coalition was based on economic priorities that promised a better life for all workers -- Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Federal Housing Administration. Reform-minded Democrats are the ones who, circa 1970, shifted attention away from economics onto cultural issues such as women's and civil rights.

Don't get me wrong: I have written for two decades as a feminist. But the constant shift of this country to the right is not helping women or anyone else. To avoid once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Democrats need to notice that the white working class just plumb disagrees with the reform-minded elite on a variety of cultural issues - affirmative action, gay marriage, "women's lib." The Republicans are all over this, as David Brooks' recent column in The New York Times reminds us.

How does one deal with a coalition partner when one disagrees on very basic issues - issues each side sees as ethical litmus tests? A crucial first step is to stop signaling that our beliefs are morally right and that theirs are pathetically ignorant. (Aren't we supposed to be tolerant? Postmodern?) Think about it: maybe the conservative cultural values that predominate in the white working class make as much sense in their social context as our folkways do in ours.

Signaling respect for working class values is a vital first step towards regaining the white working class vote. The second step is to focus on economic issues in a way that signals that we are thinking about the Missing Middle, to use Theda Skocpol's term. How? For one thing, we need to avoid social programs targeted to "the neediest." Sounds counterintuitive. But a social program targeted to the neediest gives the poorest families benefits it denies the working class. This makes the working class testy, leaves it asking why should some lady who has had children she can't support get health insurance, while a hard-working Ordinary Joe like me gets nothing?

We need to move beyond a mindset I call the problem of the poor and the privileged. This mindset is a dead end, as John Edwards' campaign illustrated. Edwards' focus on "the poor" once again left the Sam's Club vote asking why reformers didn't care about them,

The Sam's Club vote needs help. At the time of the first oil shocks of the 1970s, the typical working class man had a unionized blue-collar job that allowed him to provide the house, the car, the washing machine--the basics of middle class life--with, at most, intermittent part-time work by his wife. Today's generation grew up with a very specific image of what to expect from life: the typical working class household in 1973 was more than twice as well off as the equivalent household in 1947.

This trend stopped abruptly in 1973. While the typical family's income rose 104% in the 25 years before 1973, the same family's income fell 12% in real dollars in the 25 years after 1973. The only reason why the typical family's income did not fall further was because of the sharp rise in the working hours of wives: working class men's wages actually fell 15% after 1979.

Workers who grew up on an escalator to the middle class are left feeling inadequate, cheated, and confused. "I know she doesn't mind working, but it shouldn't be that way," said a 30-year-old white working class forklift operator. "A guy should be able to support his wife and kids. But that's not he way it is these days, is it? Well, I guess those rich guys can, but not some ordinary Joe like me."

These are the people we need to connect with. Not only is it the only way to avoid once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It's the only way to help the poor. "A program for the poor is a poor program": compare Medicare, alive and thriving, with Medicaid, stumbling and starving.

Just think of the possibilities. Maybe the U.S. lacks a European-style safety net not because our culture is somehow defective, but because we designed social programs in a way that ignores the large mass of voters.

(Refs: .Kenworthy, Barringer, Duerr & Schneider, 2008 (unpublished); Teixeira & Rogers, 2000, p. 11; Rubin, 1994)