Race, Income, and Elections: The White (Male?) Working Class

In my last post before the election, I quibbled with Peter Levine’s strategic argument that Trump’s supporters might be momentarily richer than average, but only because they were older, maler, and whiter. I worried that it was a kind of mistake, even if it’s perhaps an analytic effort designed to enhance our ability and willingness to achieve strategic ends. Since the surprising election results last week, many more people are returning to questions about the working class, and specifically the “white working class.” I have been trying to think about this for a while, and I’m still coming up short.

So I’m returning to that argument, especially given his follow-up, “To beat Trump, invest in organizing:”

Meanwhile, we also need organizations in red states and red counties, in rural areas and exurbs. The point of organizing there is not to show empathy to Trump voters or to honor their concerns. The point is to win. Particularly in 2018, anti-Trump votes will be very poorly distributed–far too concentrated in the great cities to win the House and Senate back. Every extra vote in a white non-urban county will matter, and that requires organizations to change minds, to empower the disenfranchised, and to offer real benefits. By the way, although I think the Democratic Party is a necessary component of the opposition, it is not sufficient. Electing or reelecting responsible and caring Republicans in red districts is also essential.

This is very much of a piece with what he wrote before the election, when he tried to distinguish the strategic argument from the analytic one (emphasis mine):

If you have no organizations behind you, you’ll typically feel powerless. If that’s how you feel, you are unlikely to want to participate in a difficult conversation, make sacrifices and tradeoffs, acknowledge any unfair advantages, or negotiate. Again, to use Trump voters as an example: they are overwhelmingly White, and it would be appropriate for them to acknowledge White privilege when issues of racial injustice arise. But I think they are very unlikely to acknowledge their own privilege, let alone agree to concessions, as long as their overwhelming experience is one of powerlessness. And I think they are powerless if they are unorganized and represented only by unaccountable celebrities. This implies, by the way, that one of the most important tasks confronting us today is organizing the White working class.

Just who is the white working class? Levine defines it as white people without college degrees working blue collar jobs and living in counties with increasing white male mortality. This is remarkably precise, and perhaps it does indicate a set of shared interests that must be organized. And yet…

Depending on the way of measuring, as few as 1/5 of workers or as many as 2/3 of workers are in the working class. When economists use the term, it gets precisely defined, but then glossed by others in a confusing way. Are all jobs that don’t require a college degree blue collar? Does the working class include the service sector, or manufacturing only? Are we talking about all non-agricultural low skill manual labor? What about medium- and high-skill manual labor? That variation from 23% of workers to 66% of workers provides a massive opportunity for equivocation, and suggests that the term is well beyond anything that tracks a specific group. It reminds me of the way we talk about the “middle-class,” with precise definitions on offer in such variety that almost anyone can find one that they fit. With that much equivocation, the term lends itself to rhetorical manipulation or propaganda. 

But the most important question is this: why “white?” Why assume that–whatever the working class is–its interests are racialized? I wonder to what extent the “White Working Class” formulation merely reproduces the actual racism of a group of people who share thereby share a sense a pride and solidarity even if their material interests are not always aligned. Something that can be a social identity, a racial identity, and a class identity all at once.

I don’t fully know where I stand as I watch the dizzying play of free association. Just because a concept is ideological doesn’t mean it doesn’t call out a group of people who are interpellated by it and then cathect it themselves. Just the opposite, I think: we imbue arbitrary conceptual constellations with meaning in order to make our world liveable and loveable.

And there’s a triptych of books out recently trying to figure this out: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land.

Each picks up a different group, but in the first and last case I don’t know if they would fit the standard Labor Department’s classification of the blue collar worker. The Politics of Resentment does, though: using Wisconsin rural and exurban voters whose work is primarily physical and does not require a college degree, but are well-enough paid that they’d qualify as middle-class, yet have not seen their standards of living increase. This group in particular found Barack Obama’s campaign initially promising yet soured when he made comments about them clinging to God and guns. After years of field work, Kathy Cramer diagnoses three causes of their resentment:

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.

So it’s all three of these things — the power, the money, the respect. People are feeling like they’re not getting their fair share of any of that.

This makes some sense: everyone wants power, money, and respect! These are the three hands: the invisible hand of the market, the intangible hand of esteem, and the iron hand of state coercion. And yet everyone always feels as if they are getting the back of these hands to some extent.

I still worry that this analysis makes a mistake about the relationship between race and class in support of a strategic point. To what extent is there a group of people called the “white working class” that is particularly injured by the ways that the political economy is organized? Remember that my position is that we ought to be wary about racialized organizations of white people. Indeed, I followed Arendt in worrying that the primary form of organization towards which such a group would be prone would be a racist or imperialistic one. That is, it’s precisely the effort to organize the disorganized that creates a populist nationalism. But this is not a popular view!

Yet this is a mainstay of American demographics: we cannot understand our country easily through income or education unless we add the racial coefficient. Once we’ve demographically controlled for race, only class remains:

[This conclusion] requires us to divvy up the working class into whites and non-whites. Having done this, we then find that non-white working class members strongly support Hillary Clinton, and white working class members strongly support Donald Trump. Thus something called “social class” predicts candidate support!

I still think this is right. That is, we can’t fruitfully rebut claims about race by dividing the working class into racial groups. It’s certainly true that these groups live and work in different places and may well have different cultures, although I do think that the Black Jeopardy SNL sketch captured something impressive about their shared outlooks:

Yet that’s quite clearly not enough to justify the overall claim that they belong to the same class. To do that, one has to ignore race. For instance, Levine concludes that:

[I]f class means social status, and status involves occupation and education, then Trump voters tend to be downscale Whites in downscale White areas.

Here’s what best predicted Trump support before the election: occupation, education, mortality level, gender, and age. Trump’s voters tend to be blue collar, to lack a college degree, and to live in those counties driving the white lifespan downward. Yet none of these explains Trump support as well as race. And indeed, after the election we have reason (although we must be careful of exit polls) to believe that whites with college degrees joined less educated whites to support Trump!

It’s clearly true that many of Trump’s voters are “downscale” compared to other whites. But they are equally “upscale” compared to non-whites. So the extent to which we can accept the class analysis of their support is the extent to which we can both assume whiteness (to capture the group that is not African-American and Latino and supports Clinton) and erase that whiteness. That’s the extent to which there is a group of people with a distinct class interest we can call “the white working class,” preserving and erasing whiteness at once. So what worries me is that we seem–for strategic reasons I mostly share–to want to deny that white nationalism is about race.

After all, by analyzing away their whiteness we miss one of their primary concerns: the relative loss of prestige associated with older white males.

I feel like I am being uncharitable to Levine and other class-first analysts of this election cycle, so let me ask some questions that might help me understand the position:

  1.  Are there non-strategic reasons to analyze the white working class separately from the non-white working class? For instance: in presidential elections, poor white voters vote in much higher numbers than poor Black and Latino voters. They seem more like white people than like poor people. Why does cutting the working class at the racial joint seem so smooth to you (and not to me)? Can you help me see my error?
  2. Is there a sense in which the white working class really is worse off than their incomes suggest? We often talk about this group’s recent surprising decline in lifespan, and I would add that they are uniquely threatened by the new college credentialism craze. But the white working class lifespan is still higher than for non-whites of the same class (or even much higher classes!) Perhaps the loss of status is measurably worse the the perpetual lack of it is: certainly non-whites have more optimism than whites in this income group.
  3. Put simply: is the racial division of the working class warranted? Can we cut the pie into racial pieces without eliminating our ability to rebut racial resentment explanations?

One last thing: since I wrote my last post, I have read this very interesting Monkey Cage post on research by Wayne, Valentino, and Oceno supporting the claim that sexism (and anger) is a better explanation of Trump support than racism (and fear.) Here’s a Vox gloss of the study. Though the Monkey Cage post is older, I had already been thinking about this because of the work of the philosopher Kate Manne (here, here, and here, for instance).

I think it’s difficult to see whether sexism causes voters to support Trump or Trump support causes voters to become more sexist. That is: how many of these misogynistic voters would vote for the Democrat if the Republicans had selected a woman candidate? It’s notable that sexist voters strongly preferred Romney to Obama in 2012, though less so than they prefer Trump. So it could be that when a man runs against a woman, sexists support the man, or it could just be that sexists tend to vote Republican. The fact that sexists are more likely to support Trump than Romney suggests the former. But there’s a third possibility: when a woman runs, her opponents become more sexist. They reach for reasons to oppose her, as we all do when we have a position to defend, and in a misogynistic culture the reasons closest to hand will tend to be gendered, misogynistic ones.

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