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Mitchell: White Working Class in a Corner, and It’s Getting Lonely

Republicans who want to stay in office in Mississippi this election year have no worries — if they are conservative enough.

If any are seriously challenged, it will likely be from the right, not from the left. That’s where we are in the ever-swinging pendulum of politics.

Nationally, voting trends from November illustrate this. Closer to home, it may be fair to say Mississippi is the epicenter of a deeply disenchanted white working class. No longer a Tea Party “fringe,” this is a reformist group demanding to be heard.

The marquee example is last year’s race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel.

Cochran had served four decades — four decades! — in federal office without anyone accusing him of not being conservative until McDaniel came along. The little known lawyer from Laurel actually beat “big spender” Cochran in the Republican Primary.

Here’s the nut of it, though: Their conflict was not issues-centered. Cochran and McDaniel agree on almost everything. The election was a manifesto in the war the white working class has on social and economic progressives (who like that term better than liberals) or, more broadly, any who would even associate with non-conservatives. Mention Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid to this group and there is instant and visceral disdain. Every smidge of nonsense that takes place in America — social media photos of people holding $600 cell phones while paying for groceries with EBT cards — is laid at the feet of those seen to be killing the country, destroying the work ethic, enticing us to sacrifice our personal freedoms and become slaves to government.

The newly minted U.S. Congress is evidence that Americans are not real happy with how things are going.

A key number in this trend is 30.

That’s the percentage point spread in November nationally between white working class voters who supported the Democratic Party and those who did not.

That’s a big spread.

For context, the total vote spread was a mere 18 percentage points when Ronald Reagan stomped Walter Mondale, carried 49 states.

For additional context, remember that the Democratic Party has valued itself and identified itself as the party of working people.

But white men and women, nationally and perhaps moreso in Mississippi, abandoned the party. These voters feel their values are ignored and they are being forced to support those who are able but prefer not to support themselves.

One view is that establishment Republicans have sucked these voters in — that the Legislature in Mississippi is passing one corporate giveaway after another, giving only lip service to helping the little guy while twisting a knife deeper and deeper into his back.

Others have concluded the emergence of a vocal far right is wholly a reaction to a president who is black. These observers shrug their shoulders, label the disaffected as racists and disregard them.

Indeed, some would-be advisers to the Democratic Party say winning the White House in 2016 elections should be a breeze because the Republican Party is destroying itself.

That could be exactly what happens.

Or not.

White working class people who vote are not a majority in America. Trends indicate they will increasingly be marginalized. The determining factor will be if and how any coalition-building emerges across today’s political landscape.

In other nations where there are more political parties, folks who do not speak to each other during campaigns find the common ground needed for a governing majority.

While wounds from the Cochran-McDaniel fiasco appear to be a long way from healed, it must be pointed out that there is a recent history of coalition governance in Mississippi — by Democrats. Before a Republican majority was reached in the state House of Representatives, former Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, held together a voting bloc of black representatives, many from urban areas, and white representatives, many of them farmers. To the surprise of many, this group got a lot of “conservative” things done, such as limits on lawsuits, and a lot of “liberal” things done such as a six-year package of teacher pay raises and health-care expansion. The state made common sense progress on a several fronts.

So the situation is this: In Mississippi and nationally, two-thirds of white working class voters are feeling abandoned and backed into a corner.

They can hiss and spit all they want, but anger alone will not get them out. They don’t have the numbers.

It will get lonelier and lonelier until and unless they figure out the necessity of conversation and, yes, compromise.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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