What’s the Matter With MSNBC?

by Alec Pruchnicki

In 2004, the book What’s the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank examined the defection of large numbers of Democrats to the Republican party. Many of these were white working class and rural voters who, as a group, had been quite progressive. Although I never read the book, mostly because it might be too depressing or more infuriating than I could stand, I did develop my own theories over the years. Many of the non-Hispanic white working-class voters who abandoned the Democrats did so because they thought the Democrats abandoned them. (The issues of Hispanic whites will have to wait for another day.)

How did this happen? Democrats, liberals, progressives, or whatever term you want to use, began to pay more attention to persecuted or politically under-represented groups such as racial minorities, women, gays, immigrants, and others. This attention, called identity politics, became more prominent over the decades and seemed to entirely take over the priorities of the Democratic party. Paying attention to these groups and the policies important to them is perfectly justified from both a moral and political point of view. But, as more attention was paid to these groups, less attention appeared to be paid to poor and working class non-Hispanic whites. This brings me to MSNBC.

I am addicted to the MSNBC cable station programs. After watching mainline NBC news ending at 7 p.m., I always switch to The Reid Out on MSNBC and stay there until The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell or The Eleventh Hour with Stephanie Ruhl. I watch four to five hours of liberal Democrats and countless never Trump Republicans. The issues and problems of identity politics and these various groups are discussed in detail. But you can go the entire evening and not once hear the term “white working class” or “poor whites” or even any reference to labor unions (the apparent neglect of unions is an issue that will also have to wait for another day). And this happens night after night.

Meanwhile, what have the Republicans done to lure away poor and working-class white Democrats? Despicable appeals to racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia along with anti-reproductive rights of all kinds and pro-gun fetishism are major weapons, but they aren’t the only tools. President Nixon’s appeals to the “silent Americans” and other working-class euphemisms helped to reinforce the lie that Republicans cared about these people. Actually, Republicans don’t care if these white working-class voters live or die, as evidenced by the subversion of the Affordable Care Act Medicaid Expansion and all Covid-related precautions, to name a few, as long as enough people vote to keep them in office. But they fake concern and since Republicans can lie better than Democrats can tell the truth, many people are taken in.

Another problem seems to be that many Democrats have given up on poor and working-class whites possibly thinking that too many are hopeless MAGA Republicans and too difficult to convert. Identity political groups seem much more open to Democratic policies. This is the “put all your eggs in one basket” theory of politics and is very risky when identified groups, like Republican Hispanics or Log-Cabin Republicans, don’t do what we expect them to do. And remember, many elections are very close and we don’t have to get every MAGA follower to see the light, just a few million here or there to swing many national and local elections. The largest demographic group of voters is still white voters and the poor and working class of this group constitutes up to 50 percent of the white population. I’m not talking about suburban soccer moms and young people, but the same older, non-college educated voters that the Republicans have captured.

Can an appeal to poor and working-class white voters be successful? Senators Tester and Fetterman, and President Biden have long identified as having working class backgrounds and they won some difficult contests. Even President Obama appealed to a portion of this voting bloc, although the collapse of the economy in 2008 under a Republican president helped his election. And, there are always the lessons we learned in the 60s.

As a Boomer, I sometimes hesitate mentioning lessons learned in the 60s so as not to make Millennial or Gen-Z eyes roll too much, but this is unavoidable. In the 60s, or the parts of it I remember, many monumental advances were made in governmental policies. This is when Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and many other programs were started or expanded. These all came about with a Democratic president, Congress, and a non-political Supreme Court. The Democrats didn’t just defeat the Republicans, they crushed them. There was plenty of bigotry (look up proto-Trump George Wallace) during the 60s against all the groups previously mentioned, but the Democratic approach was different. When new programs were introduced, they were almost always described as helping various groups but an additional statement was also included. We almost always pointed out that although the War On Poverty, as it was called, helped minorities, the largest actual number of people being helped were poor whites. Books such as The Other America by Michael Harrington pointed out that there were many poor whites who needed help. In other words, all the races and demographic groups would be helped by these new programs, not just minorities. We are all in this together, to some degree or another.

This is still true today. Most people who benefit from Social Security and Medicare are white. The largest demographic group on Medicaid is white. Substantial poor and working-class whites benefit from food stamps (including me at one time), Head Start, and other programs. We are still all in this together, to one degree or another. Democrats want to support and expand these programs and Republicans want to limit or abolish them. Even MAGA Republicans need to provide housing, medical care, college tuition and other supports to their loved ones. And, in the 60s, the overwhelming control of the country by Democrats also helped to pass other bills specifically assisting minorities, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, so identity politics didn’t suffer when the base of support included all races and classes.

So, how can poor and working-class whites be convinced that they have not been neglected? First, what not to do. Don’t think that the benefits of these programs for all races and classes are so self-explanatory that people will realize it without specific mention. One of the criticisms of the Obama administration was that it didn’t brag enough about its accomplishments but thought people would realize the benefits. It must be stated explicitly. Democrats must tell the true facts (“the Affordable Health Act will provide medical care”) as often as the Republicans tell lies (“Death Panels!”), which is pretty often. Have the courage of our convictions that our policies will help and don’t equivocate so much. When our programs are solid, brag about them. When Republican actions hurt, condemn them. Don’t feel guilty about addressing white folks explicitly. Probably a larger number of white women will lose access to abortion and, eventually birth control, if the Republicans have their way. It doesn’t make you a white supremacist to accurately point out that many recipients of Democratic programs are white as are victims of Republican policies. Remember, the Republicans are constantly stating or implying that Democrats only care about minorities and have forgotten “real” (meaning “white”) Americans.

This is for you, MSNBC talking heads. What to do is even clearer and easier. When saying that some local Republican legislation, or national Republican proposal, or some decision of the Republican Supreme Court of the United States does something that disproportionally significantly hurts people of color don’t leave it like that. Also point out that many, maybe even more, poor and working-class whites will be hurt. This doesn’t detract from the damage done to minority communities and is often accurate. It’s often the truth, and the truth will set you free as someone said a long time ago. This must be said explicitly and repeatedly. Remember, we must say the truth as often as the Republicans lie.