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The Working Class Goes Missing From Yet Another Debate

In the final presidential debate, a handful of perfunctory appeals to working people got lost in a storm of personal attacks and allegations of corruption.

Jim Bourg/Getty Images

Earlier this month on the stump, Joe Biden tried some Bernie-style class war on for size. “If every investment banker in New York went on strike, nothing would much change in America,” he said at a union hall event in Erie, Pennsylvania. “If every plumber decided to stop work, every electrician, the country comes to a halt.” For a politician who’s happily rubbed elbows with that same investor class (and once told them “I need you very badly!”), there seemed to be a bit of cognitive dissonance at work. But it was nevertheless a turn in the right direction for a Democratic Party that increasingly ignored its working-class wing for decades and was rebuked for that neglect four years ago.

As William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis, the co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, wrote on Wednesday, “63 million poor and low-income people are eligible voters, but many of their main concerns have not been addressed by either political party.” The second and final presidential debate in Nashville was the last chance for Trump and Biden to make a public appeal to working people—and particularly those struggling to stay afloat during a serious economic downturn—on a shared stage before the election. Though whites without a college degree helped carry Trump over the line in the Rust Belt in 2016, this year, polling suggests that their support for the president has dropped precipitously, including by a staggering 20 points in Pennsylvania. Biden, in other words, has a chance to woo back working-class voters of all races to the Democrats. But throughout the bulk of Thursday’s debate, the working class went largely unnoticed by the candidates yet again.

During the first presidential debate, issues like poverty (currently on the rise) and a second stimulus package (all but guaranteed to die in the Republican-led Senate) were swallowed by Trump’s unrestrained bellowing over Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. In the second, despite the addition of a mute function on the candidates’ microphones to keep Trump’s tantrums in check, the candidates offered only limited comments on unemployment, wages, and housing.

There was a small window reserved in the debate for the candidates to discuss jobs and the economy (designated “American Families” on the event’s official table of contents), in which Biden criticized the president’s inability to wrest another stimulus bill from Congress, referred to health care as a right while pledging to institute a public option, and advocated a $15 minimum wage. But most of the bread-and-butter talk quickly vanished in the froth over whose overseas business dealings were sleazier, how China might best be vanquished, and whether Trump was the least—or, in fact, the most—racist person in the room. There was no proposal to reinstate the weekly $600 unemployment insurance boost, even though the unemployment rate remains around 8 percent, no mention of the still-spiking opioid deaths or the shortcomings of the Purdue Pharma settlement. At one point, Trump lambasted Biden for invoking “worried families sitting around the kitchen table”; the crassness of that particular sting was only somewhat lightened by that fact that Trump’s accusation—that Biden had mentioned working families as a cynical ploy to change the subject from his son’s sundry controversies—appeared to be true.

Thursday night’s proceedings were all the more dispiriting given that both candidates’ appeals to the working class on the campaign trail this year have frequently been lifeless. While Trump has famously dabbled in empty blue-collar pageantry—arranging photo ops on factory floors or in truck cabs, for instance—his administration has been an outright disaster for working people. Biden occasionally flicked at the truth that working-class fortunes have declined under Trump as a result of ill-conceived trade policies and the like, but he didn’t quite shed the skin of a fair-weather class warrior. Prior to Thursday, Biden managed to ruffle the feathers of the better-heeled by saying, “I view this as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue”—a sentiment he revived at the last debate in order to skewer the president as a mean-spirited billionaire. But Biden also represents almost no threat whatsoever to Wall Street (at least, that’s what Wall Streeters say), which naturally leads one to wonder how much of a champion for Scranton he’s actually prepared to be.

With a record number of ballots already cast and less than two weeks to Election Day itself, neither candidate has much time left on the clock to widen their coalitions significantly. But in the remaining stretch to November 3, Biden’s best hope of clinching the states that abandoned the Democratic Party last time around is probably to find a way to dismount the fence he’s been straddling and cement his appeal with those who work for a living. The most salient reminder of the continued importance of working-class support came prior to the debate on Thursday from the politician who’s made a name for himself trying to win that very group back to the Democrats. “The people are giving us an opportunity now,” Bernie Sanders said in an interview on The Hill’s show Rising. “If we blow it by not being bold and aggressive, the next Trump who comes along will be worse than this one.” As the implacable economic realities of Trump’s failure to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic deepen their hold on the lives of most Americans, there may be no other option than the boldest possible.