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

At a San Francisco fundraiser on April 6, Obama uttered his now-famous remark about white working-class Pennsylvanians:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

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This theory of white working-class alienation from the Democratic Party derives from Thomas Frank's compellingly argued 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas?To Frank, the proletariat suffers from a form of "derangement" in believing that its woes derive from the decline of traditional values—patriotism, organized religion, self-reliance, the heterosexual two-parent nuclear family, etc.—when the true source of its troubles is a set of economic policies that favors the rich. Republicans have come to win blue-collar votes in elections by portraying Democratic tolerance of racial and cultural diversity as depravity—"abortion, amnesty, and acid," in the famous slogan used against George McGovern in 1972. (This is not a new trick.) GOP officeholders typically set their conservative cultural agenda aside after the election is over to concentrate on cutting taxes, reducing regulation, busting unions, and so forth. But the white working class continues to fall for the bait-and-switch because the demoralized Democratic Party lacks the courage to lure it back with a muscular appeal based on economic justice.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

Frank's is probably the dominant theory today about how the Democrats lost their core working-class constituency. This is in large part because Frank avoids the usual euphemisms and pieties to make his case with clarity, humor, and anger. These qualities render What's the Matter With Kansas? insanely readable, but they also make it unwise for any politician to adopt its diagnosis as his own. Working-class people don't like being told they're deranged (or "bitter," to use Obama's term), even—make that especially—if it's true. Obama will therefore have to either shut up about Democrats' struggle to win working-class votes—that's the usual tack, and the one I'd probably advise—or find himself another theory. Below, three possible candidates:

1) The white working class likes being pandered to even less than it likes being insulted. This is the official line of the Democratic Leadership Council and other party centrists. One heard it a lot after the 2000 election and, to a lesser extent, after the 2004 election. It is the argument that ended the career of Bob Shrum, a political strategist with a penchant for putting left-populist rhetoric into his candidates' mouths; Shrum was a key figure in Gore's 2000 campaign and Kerry's 2004 campaign, and his input was widely blamed for contributing to their losses. Shrum's recent memoir, No Excuses, serves up some evidence that a class-based "on your side" pitch will often work well for Democrats running in Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. That's how Shrum got to be a hot political consultant in the first place. Shrum argues that it can work at the national level, too, and, given recent signs of a leftward drift at the grass roots, that may be truer today than it was in 2000 and 2004. But nobody's ever pulled it off, including Shrum.

Hillary Clinton has been attacking Obama nonstop since his "bitter" remark surfaced, even to the point of boasting that her father taught her to shoot right there in Pennsylvania ("behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton"). This last prompted a reporter to ask when she'd last attended church or fired a gun, a question she refused to answer, and gave Obama an opening to mock her posturing: "Hillary Clinton is out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday." If proles don't like being pandered to, mightn't Clinton's overkill hurt her? The logic is seldom applied to the "values" agenda, but there's no reason it shouldn't be. One possible indicator: A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online poll shows (at this writing) 43 percent of respondents identifying Clinton as the most "out of touch with the voters of Pennsylvania," against 28 percent identifying Obama and 20 percent identifying John McCain.

2) The white working class isn't the problem; Dixie is. This theory has been forwarded by Paul Krugman and Thomas Schaller, among others. It would not be wise for Obama to embrace this theory before he locks up the nomination, lest he forsake Southern superdelegates or primary delegates in North Carolina and West Virginia, whose contests still lie ahead. (Obama has tended to do particularly well in the South in part because African-Americans are well-represented in the Southern Democratic Party base.) But after the convention, Obama, if he is the Democratic nominee, might as well write off the South, because Democrats can't win there. Princeton's Larry Bartels made the case two years ago in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science. According to Bartels, the white voters lacking college degrees who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves are nearly all Southerners. Outside the South, the decline among voters in this group who support Democratic presidential candidates is less than 1 percent. Moreover, if the white working class's interest in "guns or religion" indicates derangement or bitterness, then the white working class isn't very deranged or bitter. According to Bartels, there is no evidence that social issues outweigh economic ones among white voters lacking college degrees. Social issues have admittedly become more important to voters during the past two decades, but the derangement/bitterness index has risen most steeply not for the proles but for the country-club set. For example, white voters with college degrees give more than twice as much weight to the issue of abortion than white voters lacking college degrees. Most devastating to Frank's analysis, "most of his white working-class voters see themselves as closer to the Democratic party on social issues like abortion and gender roles but closer to the Republican party on economic issues" (italics mine).

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.

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.

It's four years since I read Frank's book, and I now I can't find my copy, so I'll take Frank's word for it. Any notion Obama acquired that economic disenchantment intensified the white working class' religiosity would be based not on Frank's analysis but on his wisecracks.

Frank challenges many of Bartels' quantitative findings, but his bottom line is that even if Bartels were right on the particulars, he would be wrong to think they undermined his (i.e., Frank's) thesis. "Does a movement have to be growing in order for it to be the subject of a cultural study?" Frank asks. What's the Matter With Kansas, he continues,

does not require or depend upon a majoritarian argument of any kind; it only requires that the cultural formation in question is significant or is somehow worth examining. ...Even if they are a minority, right-wing populists do exist, and some people really do care about culture-war issues. ...After all, the two major parties are coalitions of groups from all walks of life, and the slightest change in the loyalties of these groups is often enough to determine victory or defeat. Success doesn't require a solid majority from each group, just a majority when all the different components are put together.

This introduces a giant fudge factor, but Frank is certainly right that in the 21st century presidential elections can turn on small changes.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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