Features » May 14, 2008
Winning the White Working Class (cont’d)
The National Election Study survey from 2004 shows strong voter sympathy for “working-class people” and for greater equality, even though many voters have no idea how rapidly the disparity in incomes and wealth has grown over the past two decades. The rise of conservative ideology has fed that misperception, since conservatives who pay more attention to the news are much less likely to acknowledge inequality than less-“informed” conservatives, according to research Bartels cites from political scientist John Zaller.
Bartels concludes that, despite many progressive values, Americans have a shortsighted view of their own economic interests, which has diproportionately helped Republicans win presidential elections. Although average Americans fare better economically under Democratic administrations, they often vote on the basis of election-year economic cues that mislead about broader trends. And even though Americans favor many redistributive policies, they also support tax cuts – which typically skew toward the rich.
Using different definitions, political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz argue in “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class,” a Brookings Institution paper, that the white working class has abandoned the Democratic Party. But never fear, a new upper-middle class is expanding and is more favorable to Democrats, while the white working class is disappearing.
They rely on a more complex but shifting definition that includes occupation, income and education, but their definition still has serious problems. For example, the authors define people out of the working class simply by virtue of their earning more as the country became more affluent or by virtue of having a college degree. More money or education may make a difference in people’s outlook without necessarily moving them out of the working class (which Tom Lewandowski defines as “anyone who has to sell time for money”). More accurately, the working class has become broadly varied by income, ethnicity, education, occupation and consumption patterns – and with fewer institutions, like unions, to create a cohesive class identity.
By combining voter survey information occupation, education, income and self-identification, Teixeira and Abramowitz suggest that voter identification with the Democratic Party has dropped much more rapidly among lower socioeconomic status voters than among middle- or upper-status voters, even though lower-status voters are still much more Democratic. And even at the same income level, they write, voters with a college education are more likely than voters without a college degree to have voted for Al Gore or John Kerry.
They conclude that Republicans haven’t won over these lower-class whites with cultural issues like abortion. Rather, conservative working-class whites have abandoned Democrats as the parties became more ideologically polarized (and as African Americans challenged old racial politics). But even though their picture of the white working class seems less favorable to Democrats than Bartels’, Teixeira and Abramowitz conclude that the same issues that favored Democrats in 2006 will continue to help them reduce the GOP advantage among white working-class voters.
Similarly, according to Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville, Democrats can prevail with a message of “middle-class populism,” focusing on attacking corporate interests, addressing rising health and gasoline costs, speaking about the outsourcing of jobs, advocating middle-class tax cuts, and breaking the congressional gridlock. Teixeira and Abramowitz would fine-tune that message to emphasize not just the squeeze on workers but also their hope for opportunity. Such “aspirational populism,” they argue, could also appeal to what they describe as the growing upper-middle class.
But it is also true that all levels of the working class and middle class are either treading water – or outright drowning – as the top 1 percent’s wave of economic fortunes rises – and as the influence of corporations, financial markets and the very rich has grown dramatically.
If Obama ever gives the speech that Tom Lewandowski wants, he will have to acknowledge the experiences of a broadly defined working class. He will need to take on the extreme inequalities of wealth, income and power that undermine the potential for shared prosperity, security and opportunity. And he will have to make clear how he would lead a government committed to giving all working people concrete, believable reasons for the hope he has been promising.
“It seems like nobody makes a change, no matter who you elect,” retired Fort Wayne autoworker Larry Johnston says. “We elected Democrats, and they didn’t change anything. But we need a change, and I don’t think McCain will make a change.”
After weighing Clinton, who he thought exaggerates her experience, and Obama, Johnston – like his wife and 99-year-old mother – decided to vote for Obama.
Can Obama ultimately win over disillusioned working-class whites? Yes, he can … maybe.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.