Who is the working class, and what makes it vote the way it does?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 14 2008 8:05 PM

Who Is the Working Class, Anyway?

And do the proles really hate the party of the working man?

Timothy Noah chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript

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If this is correct, then Obama should apologize to Pennsylvanians not because his gaffe was condescending but because it was inaccurate.

3) Don't sweat how the white working class votes, because soon it won't exist. Less crudely, the white working class will exist, but it will no longer conform to the familiar definition. It will continue to shrink, but not as fast.

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Bartels defines the white working class as white people who lack college degrees. This notion of the white working class works fine if the setting is 1940, when three-quarters of all adults age 25 and older were high-school dropouts and 95 percent lacked a college degree. Today, however, only about 14 percent of adults 25 and older are high-school dropouts, and only about 70 percent lack a college degree. Fifty-four percent have "at least some college education." These data are included in a new Brookings Institution study by Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira, who further point out that since 1940 the percentage of workers who have white-collar jobs has increased from 32 percent to 60 percent. Nobody knows what to call the newly swollen ranks of people at the low-income end of white-collar America. In the 1980s, a University of Massachusetts journalism professor named Ralph Whitehead floated the term "new collar," but it didn't take. Increasingly, it seems most logical to call these people "working class," even though they often make more money than we once associated with the working class.

In complicating their definition of class, Abramowitz and Teixeira rely on four factors: income, education, occupation, and "subjective class identification," i.e., the class that people think they belong to. This rejiggering has the effect of shoring up Frank and knocking down Bartels to some extent. The trouble with Bartels, they maintain, is that his definition of the white working class includes too many people who aren't working at all because they're disabled, retired, going to school, or raising kids. Most of these people are too poor to categorize as working-class, while some are too wealthy. In addition, Abramowitz and Teixeira prefer to measure working-class allegiance to the Democrats not by presidential votes but by Democratic Party identification, which has plummeted dramatically. By that measure, the Democrats are experiencing their greatest difficulties with working- and middle-class white voters and their least difficulties with upper-class white voters. Abramowitz and Teixeira say it isn't true, as Bartels argues, that white-working-class defection from the Democratic Party is a regional problem almost entirely confined to the South. Using their revised definitions of the white working class and Democratic Party allegiance, the defection remains more dramatic in the South (a 34 percent drop in party identification between the 1960s and the current decade), but it's also substantial in the North (an 11 percent drop).

On the other hand, Abramowitz and Teixeira favor Bartels over Frank on the question of whether working-class whites score higher on the derangement/bitterness index than wealthier whites. Although they found working-class whites more likely to oppose abortion than upper-class whites, for instance, the working-class whites were far less likely than upper-class whites to abandon the Democrats over the abortion issue. Only 57 percent working-class whites opposed to abortion identified with the GOP, compared with 92 percent of upper-class whites opposed to abortion. Abramowitz and Teixeira also lean toward the DLC and away from Frank on the question of whether economic populism can save the Democrats, mainly because working-class Americans, like Americans as a whole, tend to harbor unrealistically grim notions about how bad life is for everyone else while simultaneously harboring unrealistically sunny notions about how good life is for themselves. (This phenomenon, which isn't new, is nicely described in David Whitman's 1998 book, The Optimism Gap, and in Gregg Easterbrook's 2003 book, The Progress Paradox.) "The white working class today is an aspirational class," they write, "not a downtrodden one." In promoting economic security, they conclude, Democrats would do best to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't mess with Mr. In-Between.

Obama, being a quick study, will note that none of these theories suggests that it's ever a good idea to tell a person whose vote you want that you find him "bitter." But the bitterest people, these studies suggest, aren't the proles. They're the very ones who, judging by economic circumstances, have the least to be bitter about.

[Update, April 16: Thomas Frank answers Bartels' criticisms here. One point he makes that's relevant to the Obama flap:

Bartels spends several pages testing whether or not religion is "distracting religious white voters from a hard-headed pursuit of their economic policy views." This is an interesting argument, but it is not one that I make. Although I do indeed use colorful language to establish that religion is a part of the cultural background in Kansas, I do not evaluate its role systematically. Sometimes I wish I had, but I didn't. The brief snippets of mine that Bartels cites, all drawn from different parts of [What's the Matter With Kansas?], are simply not enough to prove anything more than my fondness for sarcasm.