The Obama Coalition, The White Working Class, And RFK

This is part 2 of a series on RFK and the Obama coalition. Part 1 is here.

The potential of the new Obama coalition is truly impressive, given its 2012 performance and how many of its constituent parts are likely to grow in numbers over the course of the decade. But the word “potential” should be stressed. There is no guarantee that turnout and support levels will stay as high as they have been going forward. And there is definitely no guarantee that these constituencies will remain active and involved in the legislative battles that must be fought to turn progressive policies into law. Thus, implementing a progressive agenda will, to a large extent, be dependent on the mobilization level of the Obama coalition both in future elections and between those elections.

This is a big challenge, but Obama and his team have taken some significant steps to address it. These steps have been driven by the recognition that the best way to maintain enthusiasm and support is to deliver for the groups that put you in office. Thus, the administration has been aggressively pushing a number of policy priorities that resonate with the concerns of different groups in the coalition: immigration reform, curbing gun violence, same sex marriage, climate change and universal pre-K.

This strategy is a good one. These fights are all substantively important in policy terms and may, with luck, result in some important victories. And they should indeed pump up enthusiasm levels as different groups in the coalition see how strongly Obama is willing to fight for their priorities. Nor does it seem likely that a big political price will be paid for touching on issues that have a social dimension; the country has moved rapidly in a progressive direction on most of these issues and these issues lack the power they once had to elicit a backlash.


However, the strategy has to be supplemented by efforts not just to mobilize the Obama coalition but to expand it. And among the chief targets here is the white working class, just as it was for Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

The white working class was the key force behind the Republican landslide in 2010 — Democrats lost the group by 30 points. And they were a glaring weakness for Obama in 2012, when he lost them by only a slightly more modest 26 points. These voters, despite their declining numbers, will be an ever-present threat to progressives in elections and to progressive governance as long as they remain so hostile to progressive principles and policies.

The solution is to bring a significant segment of these voters over to the progressive side. It does not have to be a majority of these voters. The Bobby Kennedy coalition can be dominant with a strong minority of the white working class, but one that is committed to progressive policies and large enough to derail the super-majorities among the voters that conservatives rely on.

Such a coalition would make the task of progressive governance far easier by breaking up the mass base for conservative counter-mobilization. And it should greatly reduce the threat white working class voters pose to progressive fortunes when rising constituencies falter or fail to turn out at high levels.

But how can this be done? It is no doubt a substantial challenge, but one that can and must be addressed. At CAP, we are launching a project — the Bobby Kennedy Project — to do just that. The goal is to figure out how to reach both the white working class and more progressive-leaning demographic groups through unifying values, policies and messages.


Our initial work suggests that a successful approach will require a relentless focus on social opportunity for all people and an economic agenda that puts the interests of working- and middle-class families first. In particular, the burgeoning research and policy agenda around “equity and growth” provides a good model for policies that can successfully unite a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition. The evidence is increasingly strong that rising inequality has inhibited growth and that higher growth in the future is more likely with policies that broadly diffuse opportunity. These policies are America’s future and also perhaps the glue that can finally join a critical segment of the white working class to America’s rising demographic groups.

The rise of the Obama coalition has already changed American politics. Expanding this rising coalition into a Bobby Kennedy coalition could transform our politics for a generation.