That sounds absurd, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to assert than, say, explaining that a small, white aristocracy has spent centuries robbing America, poor whites included. Slavery made a tiny sliver of Southern whites extremely wealthy, while preventing most from making a living. Reconstruction floundered, at least in part, because lawmakers freaked out when white laborers started talking about getting rights, too. A century later, during the Bush years, worker productivity shot up 20 percent, the wealthiest 400 Americans became $670 billion wealthier—and median wages fell.
Webb wants Democrats to finally free the poor white mind from the grip of its self-defeating fear. “If this cultural group could get at the same table with black America, you could rechange populist American politics,” he told Morning Joe viewers. “Because they have so much in common in terms of what they need out of government.”
Webb wasn’t the first to make the point, but he’s been the only one to get away with it. In the 2004 primary, Howard Dean got maligned by fellow Dems for saying it; Obama tried and failed to make the point during the great “bitter” debate of 2008. The anxieties of poor whites have become the third rail of Democratic politics.
But Democrats cannot avoid the conversation. Indeed, poor white anxiety will only grow as the nation becomes ever more demonstrably multiracial. Either profiteering white elites like Limbaugh will whip them into violence, or someone will finally figure out how to build the populist coalition of Webb’s dreams.
Kai Wright is The Root’s senior writer.