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"Why we are troubled": White working-class politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980

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posted on 2023-09-06, 03:03 authored by Kenneth D. Durr

Since the 1960s, white working-class politics has been explained in terms of backlash: because of black civil rights gains, once "liberal" voters became conservative and abandoned the Democratic Party. But there was more continuity than change in postwar blue-collar political consciousness. Working whites were New Deal liberals only in the most limited sense: they valued New Deal promises of blue-collar economic security but suspected broader goals of social equality. This study of white working-class institutions, electoral politics, and community protest finds that blue-collar allegiance to the Democratic Party stemmed from a distinctive white working-class political consciousness rooted in the community rather than the workplace. This political consciousness emphasized community obligations and responsibilities over rights, although rights became increasingly important. In 1940s Baltimore, Democratic politicians upheld blue-collar institutions--industrial employment and white neighborhoods--while leaving racial exclusion unchallenged. Blue-collar anticommunism, shaped by local experience, redirected populist attacks away from business elites toward political and intellectual liberals. When, in the 1950s, residential and school desegregation grew threatening, working whites expressed their discontent in racial terms. This political language of "white rights" was, however, both indefensible and inaccurate. During the 1960s, as crime rates rose and public institutions increasingly seemed responsive to minorities and indifferent toward working whites, blue-collar discontent focused more on liberal elites who fostered social change than on blacks. Working whites' political consciousness remained rooted in the white community, but their political language now emphasized populist claims to the rights of "working" people--claims difficult to discredit on racist grounds. Most blue-collar Baltimore voters remained loyal to the Democratic party up to 1980, not because it was the party of liberalism but because they considered it the party of the blue-collar city. This vision likely weakened thereafter, but white working-class convictions regarding the value of majoritarian democracy and the inherent limits of political solutions remained to reshape the politics of the 1980s and 1990s.







Ph.D. American University 1998.


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