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Why GOP Candidates—and Everyone Else—Need the Working Class

Tamara Draut

Politicians, especially during presidential election cycles, routinely attempt to appeal and relate to middle-class Americans. Indeed, during tonight’s Republican presidential debate, it’s a safe bet that several candidates will attempt to speak their financial concerns and anxieties.  

Unfortunately, sometimes this empathy doesn’t quite hit the mark.

For instance, in a recent New Hampshire town hall, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said "My whole life really has been a 'no' and I fought through it. It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars." Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton similarly noted that she and President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House--though, as Politifact notes, they did manage to buy a seven-bedroom, $2.7 million house around that time.  

Of course, the vast majority of Americans will never come close to earning a million dollars. Perhaps more tellingly, many of the people politicians think they’re speaking to by talking about the “middle class,” don’t define themselves. They view themselves as working class, and basically hear none of the candidates reflecting their lived experiences.   

As I explain in my upcoming book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America, the working class--people without college degrees, most of whom work for hourly wages, with little or no benefits. Many even have to ask permission to use the bathroom. These workers--our home health aids, janitors, fast food cashiers and retail sales people--outnumber middle class professional by about 3 to 1. And yet, in the last Democratic debate, the working class was mentioned just once.

These families don’t worry about wealth inheritance or interest rates on the loans they give to their children. They’re fighting for the most basic of job requirements:  a decent paycheck, a stable schedule with enough hours, and paid time-off when they or their children are sick. They’re the 4 out of 10 workers who earn less than $15 an hour today. But that’s if they can get a full 40 hours a week—nearly 15 percent of the working class today are in part-time jobs, with nearly 40 percent of those workers seeking a full-time job.

So when Republican candidates take the stage tonight to talk about economic policy, see if they call for policies that will benefit working-class Americans—the sleeping giant that has catapulted onto the national stage the demand for higher wages, better schedules and yes, the right to form a union--that most basic building block of working class power.

But I don’t think we’ll hear proposals from the candidates tonight about raising the minimum wage or guaranteeing paid sick time off. We probably won’t hear either about how these candidates plan to help ensure a new generation of working class kids--the most racially diverse in our nation’s history--can attend public college without leaving with a mountain of debt.

Instead, the Republican candidates appear to be doubling-down on the party’s platform spawned nearly two generations ago—the anti-everything-platform, call it. Anti-union, anti-regulation, anti-government, anti-taxes, anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights and anti-women’s rights.

The candidates debating tonight have argued that they’re not part of the establishment GOP--that grand party of anti-everything. Many consider themselves outsiders, hungry to set themselves apart from the party line and anti-everything platform.

This debate will be focused on economics--plenty of time for one of the candidates to break away from the pack with a platform focused squarely the gave economic anxiety and insecurity confronting today’s working class.

I hope someone does just that. 

But let’s just say I wouldn’t bet a small loan on it.