The white working class

by John Quiggin on September 10, 2012

For quite a while now (pre-dating Obama, but more frequently since he was elected), I’ve been reading about the Democrats’ troubles with “the white working class”. In some ways, this is unsurprising. In every country with which I’m familiar, a substantial proportion of the working class votes for the more conservative/rightwing party. And, even compared to the most wishy-washy of social democratic and labor parties elsewhere, the Dems aren’t exactly fervent champions of the worker. Still, the Repubs are even worse, so it seemed surprising to read that they regard the white working class as their base. Other things I read (sorry can’t find links now) made things even more puzzling. On the one hand, in the US as elsewhere, higher incomes are correlated with voting for the conservative/rightwing party, which seems to cut against the thesis. On the other hand, I’ve read that the average income of the US working class is the same as that of the population as a whole, which goes against the whole idea of “working class” as I understand it.

All became clear(or, at least, clearer) when I discovered that US political discussion uses two very different (though correlated) concepts of “working class”. The first is the more or less standard one – people who depend on wage labor (normally in manual or low-status service occupations) for their income. The second, specific to the US, and standard in most political polling, is “people without a 4-year college degree”, a class which includes such horny-handed sons and daughters of toil as Bill Gates and Paris Hilton. More prosaically, it includes lots of small business owners, and (since college graduation rates were rising until relative recently), over-represents the old.

Data on US voting patterns is surprisingly scarce, but Andrew Gelman has a big data set confirming the point that Republican voting rises with income. Andrew kindly sent me the data, which classifies voters by education (5 levels), income (5 categories) and race/ethnicity(4), for a total of 100 categories, and gives, for each group the proportion voting Republican. I’ve used this to look at an income-based definition of working class, encompassing everyone with an income less than $40 000. I’m not sure of the exact definition of this variable, but it seems pretty clear that people with income at this level are unlikely to be living on income from capital or a high-status job. To focus on the claim about the white working class, I’ve divided the 100 categories into four roughly equal-sized groups: working class whites (income less than 40K), middle/high income whites with and without college degrees, and all non-whites. Then I’ve looked at how many votes the Republicans got from each group in 2008.

As the pie chart below illustrates, the biggest group in the Republican voting base, and the group with which they do best is that of middle/high income whites without college degrees (the percentage after the group name gives the Republican share of the vote for that group). There’s nothing surprising in this, since all three variables are correlated with Republican voting. It’s the practice of calling this group “working class” that causes the confusion.

Disaggregating, the extreme case is that of high-school educated whites with incomes over $150K, 81.7 per cent of whom supported the Republicans in 2008. They’re a small group of course, but not negligible at about 1 per cent of the sample (155 out of 19170).

The two remaining groups of white voters are split pretty evenly between Reps and Dems, while, as is well known, non-white voters strongly favor the Dems.

The Republican voting base
(percentages after each group give proportion of that group voting R).

To defend the “white working class problem” thesis, you might argue that the Dems, as the less rightwing party, ought to do better than a 50-50 split among this group if they were voting in line with their own economic interests, and obviously the politics of race and culture are playing a significant role here. But that would require a much more explicitly redistributionist position than the Dems have taken for a long time. The most obvious illustration is Obama’s determination to keep the Bush income tax cuts for the first $250 000 a year of income, a policy that greatly benefits the middle class and the rich, but does little or nothing for those with less than $40 000 a year, whose income is taxed mainly through the payroll tax. Add to that the fact that most politicians of both parties are millionaires and you can see why working class voters aren’t filled with enthusiasm for the Dems.

Note 1: Commentators who want to ride racial/ethnic hobbyhorses will be deleted. You know who you are.

Note 2: If any WP experts can tell me how to make the thumbnail a bit larger, but small enough to fit on the page, I’d be v grateful. Also, if anyone would like to do a proper analysis of the categorical data

{ 144 comments }

1

SamChevre 09.10.12 at 9:10 pm

I’m wondering why, with median family income around $70,000 for a family of 4, you are using $40,000 of family income as the cut-off for low income. (Confusingly, family income and household income are very different statistics.)

2

mdc 09.10.12 at 9:21 pm

It’s really insidious. For example, I don’t think I have ever once seen the term “black working class” in mainstream politics/culture reporting.

3

Luis 09.10.12 at 9:48 pm

All became clear(or, at least, clearer) when I discovered that US political discussion uses two very different (though correlated) concepts of “working class”.

Does it? Or is it simply that pollsters/researchers use the second concept (no secondary education) as a shortcut to create data sets? Because I’ve never heard a real person use it to mean anything other than the obvious meaning about actually working.

4

David Kaib 09.10.12 at 9:49 pm

To defend the “white working class problem” thesis, you might argue that the Dems, as the less rightwing party, ought to do better than a 50-50 split among this group if they were voting in line with their own economic interests

I think that is exactly what a lot of people think – that by being any amount better, Dems own those votes. That is based on a confused sense of how anyone votes, as if we simply calculate such interests and vote accordingly (as if identity and levels of excitement have nothing to do with it).

On the other hand, you might think that it’s the job of a political party to reach out to and connect with the voters they want to vote for them, since that’s their job, and notice that the Dems are doing pretty good with this demographic considering this.

5

shah8 09.10.12 at 9:49 pm

Actually, I think there is a slight error here. I think a better way to divide white preferences is by whether they live in a high or low ginni coefficient local society, divided into counties. There are more liberal rich white people in lower ginni areas while there are fewer working class/poor non-conservatives (in the sense that they don’t vote Republican automatically) in higher ginni areas. The education aspect is purely a function of the supply of jobs that requires such a college education, and the differential in ginni also tends to polarize political societies by pulling people who prefer an equitable society in one place and people who don’t in another.

Think of it this way, take two rural areas–one has the major state land grant college and the other does not (perhaps Athens, Ga with all the professors and garage rock bands, and Dalton, Ga with all the carpets and chicken houses), would education be an equally good means of separating how white people vote in Dalton and Athens? Or would it be the fact that Dalton has enterprises that can be owned and run by people without degrees, and which run on labor exploitation. People who also attempt to dominate the society of lower class whites through various social gatekeeping functions, like what church you belong to. Whereas in Athens has a broader segment of the economy where people make higher wages based on skill aquisition, and where it’s not so easy to exclude undesirables. White people are much safer and and feel more entitled to vote their interests in Athens. This is what that 81.7% support for Republicans among high earning, non-degree’d white folks represent, as an indication of the local industrial/social blend, more than any important connection between education and voting for democratic party members (who aren’t dixiecrats).

6

John Yard 09.10.12 at 9:53 pm

Excellent points. While the major focus of the Democratic Party has been race, gender, and ethnicity, its major constituency are upper middle income professionals . I can’t put it better than you did : ” Obama’s determination to keep the Bush income tax cuts for everyone under $250 000 a year, a policy that greatly benefits the middle and upper-middle classes, but does little or nothing for those with less than $40 000 a year, whose income is taxed mainly through the payroll tax”.
This is the party of Al Smith, not the party of FDR.

7

Substance McGravitas 09.10.12 at 10:09 pm

But that would require a much more explicitly redistributionist position than the Dems have taken for a long time.

Can it be that voters are better than journalists at figuring out what’s going on? I hate to retreat from misanthropy.

Not WP expert but the thumbnail wouldn’t look good bigger, you need a new thumbnail or you use the real pic. If your preferred interface lets you use HTML use and then change the 300 to whatever suits.

8

Substance McGravitas 09.10.12 at 10:10 pm

Ugh. The code tags do not let you insert code. Try this:

<img src="http://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/RepVoters31.jpg" width="300">

9

Mao Cheng Ji 09.10.12 at 10:13 pm

“More prosaically, it includes lots of small business owners”

Even more prosaically, a lot of them aren’t exactly business owners, but simply ‘self-employed’ or quasi self-employed, like salespeople on commissions. Listen to a talk radio station for a couple of days, and you’ll get a sense who they are.

10

Alex 09.10.12 at 10:23 pm

Perhaps time to bring one up from the cellar: 2008 was a very good year for blog posts.

Come to think of it, we could extend it. Thomas Frank (or whoever) is a member of the Democratic party whose political views incline to the conservative, and guess what, he thinks the white working class are at least potential Democrats if only the party was more conservative.

11

hardheaded_liberal 09.10.12 at 10:26 pm

As a native and 60+ year resident of the Carolinas, I wonder what the percentages are if you control for Region. Does the data set allow you to analyze the three groups of white voters by a geographic variable, such as the four geographic regions that are shown in many analyses of public opinion and voting data? (Don’t have any sample reports readily at hand, but I would expect to see at least some difference between white voters in the “South,” compared to “Northeast,” “West,” and whatever category would include the Mountain and Plains States — e.g., “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”)

12

LP 09.10.12 at 10:35 pm

I think income ends up being a confusing thing here, since retirees may not have very high incomes (even if they are higher-net-worth), and likely predated the college explosion such that some of them register as lower-income, lower-education, more-republican.
Secondly, to a large extent the commentariat suffers from class inflation, and you can just substitute upper for middle, and middle for working, whenever they are mentioned. The laborer working classes and the outright poor largely do not exist, except as stereotypes, victims, or bogeymen.

13

blavag 09.10.12 at 10:39 pm

There is actually a well developed if sometimes frustrating literature on all this:

See for example the American National Election series:

http://www.electionstudies.org/

also Gelman et al, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do
http://www.amazon.com/Red-State-Blue-Rich-Poor/dp/069113927X

and Mellow, State of Disunion
http://www.amazon.com/State-Disunion-Regional-American-Partisanship/dp/0801888166

Stonecash, Class and Party in American Politics
http://www.amazon.com/Class-Party-American-Politics-Transforming/dp/0813397561

Fiorina et al, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America
http://www.amazon.com/Culture-Myth-Polarized-America-Edition/dp/0205779883

14

Mark 09.10.12 at 10:41 pm

could you create a similar pie chart of the same shares for the Democratic/Obama coalition in 2008 as a point of comparison? I suppose since we know Obama got about 1.16x the votes as McCain, we could work it out backwards….

15

Andrew Smith 09.10.12 at 10:44 pm

I have some of the oddest conversations with Americans about “working class”. Most of them have absolutely know idea what it means, or at least don’t use it the same way I learned it. A friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist and the president of his hospital told me he was working class because he worked for his money.

16

Omega Centauri 09.10.12 at 10:55 pm

I used to consider myself workingstiff-investor class. Enough income to invest in the market, and collect some rents, but never enough that I could consider quitting work. That sounds a lot like Andrew’s friend. Until recently, many working class professions were unionized and paid solidly middle class wages, so the term lost most of its meaning.

17

Kieran 09.10.12 at 10:58 pm

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to ask Andrew Gelman for data and then go ahead and use it to make a pie chart.

18

James Wimberley 09.10.12 at 11:00 pm

The pie chart doesn’t need to be made bigger, it needs to be deleted. Pie slices add to 100% of the pie. If your categories overlap, use something else. Does somebody offer a multilayer Victoria sponge graph?

19

John Quiggin 09.10.12 at 11:00 pm

I could hear Tufte turning over in his grave (that is, assuming he’s dead), but it works, mate.

20

John Quiggin 09.10.12 at 11:01 pm

OTOH, I was thinking of asking if anyone wanted to do a proper path-analysis with the categorical data, so I’ll ask it now≥

21

John Quiggin 09.10.12 at 11:02 pm

Apologies to Tufte who is still very much alive.

22

Kieran Healy 09.10.12 at 11:03 pm

John—in keeping with the recommendations of many economists, I just increased the size of the pie. I should run for office.

23

John Quiggin 09.10.12 at 11:06 pm

@James W. I’ve tried to explain more clearly what the percentages mean.

24

max 09.10.12 at 11:22 pm

which goes against the whole idea of “working class” as I understand it.

Yes. I think the worst recent example was the story in the NYT defining working class as people who made 30k-100k USD per year sans college degrees. But then, I think that was Matt Bai so there you go.

Andrew Smith: A friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist and the president of his hospital told me he was working class because he worked for his money.

Quite. I’ve heard that one a number of times. Renders the term useless. Certainly a 19th century term used to describe 19th century conditions doesn’t update well. (People with college degrees were rare in the 19th, after all, and wealth disparities were intense. So having a college implied wealth, generally. That relationship doesn’t hold up anymore.)

LP: The laborer working classes and the outright poor largely do not exist, except as stereotypes, victims, or bogeymen.

Uh. No. Maybe in Europe. And there are many fewer of those then there used to be, but I have encountered both many times. And yes, you can have a big TV and not have any money. (Heloise’s Hints for Libertarians: ‘TV is cheaper than other forms of entertainment, except for cheap radio and watching paint dry.’)

I think we should just redefine out terms. The Underclass should be the bottom quintile, the Middle class should be the three middle quintiles (subdivided at the 50% line into lower-middle and middle-middle classes), and the top quintile should be split into the UMC and Upper class. Quintile boundaries to be defined by income and/or net worth, with the greater of the two taking precedence. That would account for the massive expansion of the middle class, and the generally tendency to take better care of the impoverished, without being ridiculous about it. If you wanted to class the lower-middle plus the underclass (the bottom 50% in other words) the working class, that’s fine.

max
[‘College degrees and blue collar versus white collar are just non-monetary status descriptors. Or should be.’]

25

JW Mason 09.10.12 at 11:58 pm

This is good.

So, percentage of “voters” means of voting-eligible population, or registered voters, or actually-show-up-at-the-polls voters? And, income is individual, or household?

Don’t reckon conclusions will change in any case, but would help to be clear what we’re talking about.

26

Kiwanda 09.11.12 at 12:16 am

6: “While the major focus of the Democratic Party has been race, gender, and ethnicity, its major constituency are upper middle income professionals “

Well, after “all non-white”, and just barely ahead of “Working Class, White”.

(Also: yeah, there are so many things wrong with that graphic.)

27

js. 09.11.12 at 12:44 am

I think what LP said is totally right. Wasn’t there a (in)famous instance in 2008 when some journalist interviewing Obama suggested that $250K was at or close to median family income? (Might be misremembering the details here, but it was shocking evidence of their seemingly insular existence.)

What’s weirder though is that sometimes “working class” comes to stand in for “white working class”. So it’s not just that, as someone else suggested, you never really hear about the non-white working class. That is, it’s not just that they’re not explicitly part of the discourse (as carried out by various self- and other-appointed experts, pundits, etc.), it’s that the very category seems to escape notice.

28

Ed 09.11.12 at 1:07 am

Americans who live in low income households and who vote (low income Americans tend not to vote) overwhelming vote for the Democrats if they are African-American or Latino. If they are white, its hard to say. But aggregating both low-income non-whites and low-income whites into the same group says absolutely nothing about the claim that low-income whites tend to vote Republican.

Non-whites make up such a big chunk of the total low-income or working class population in the US that they boost the Democratic percentage for low-income voters as a whole. If you see a statistic that shows some subset of low income voters split equally between the two parties, without adjusting for race, that implies that the low income whites are voting Republican by a sizeable margin.

While I realize its simplistic, a framework where Republicans draw support from low income whites, and high income people with low education, while Democrats draw support from low income non-whites, and educated high income people, makes a good deal of sense. Its consistent with the geographical pattern of the party’s support, and with how they frame their message.

It should be noted that in terms of their policies and records in government neither party has much to offer people with low incomes, who mostly vote for neither party. There is some confusion on this point because Republican politicians, but not Democratic politicians, sometimes make rhetorical attacks on poor people. But these are really coded attacks on non-whites and I think they are understood as such by their low-income white supporters.

29

K. Williams 09.11.12 at 2:36 am

“It should be noted that in terms of their policies and records in government neither party has much to offer people with low incomes, who mostly vote for neither party.”

It’s true. Medicaid doesn’t do much for low-income people, other than ensure that they have reasonable access to health care. Medicare doesn’t do much for the elderly (many of whom, obviously, have low incomes), other than ensure that they can go tot hospital when they’re sick. And Obamacare won’t do much for working-class people, other than ensure that for the first time they’ll actually be able to get health insurance (subsidized by the state) even if they have pre-existing conditions. So the fact that Republicans want to scrap all of these programs doesn’t really matter.

30

Cranky Observer 09.11.12 at 2:48 am

You [1] really need to spend some time out in the semi-rural, semi-industrial US north of the Mason-Dixon line to really understand this. This is where the factories were moved before they were sent to Mexico and then China, where the farms are too small to support families [2], the railroad towns are dying or dead, the jobs that kept the economy going have been picked up and moved (first by the “reengineering” wizards, later by the big investment capital firms), the churching is intense and education is seen as uppity. By “some time” I mean long enough until the people you are working with are sometimes willing to forget you are a college boy [3] and occasionally tell you what they they really think (6-12 months with one group).

This world is a very strange place, even to those of us who have tracked US politics since the 1970s. Many of the stereotyped beliefs you have heard about exist and are strongly felt (particularly the belief that religion and values are under constant attack by “liberals”), but there are contradictions that are very difficult to explain even after you have lived with them for a while. A good example is the simultaneous hatred of work safety standards and nannyism in general; strong dislike of unions; bitterness, distrust, and cynicism toward “the man” who personifies the employer; and hair-trigger willingness to file lawsuits should anyone actually get injured on the job. And of course deep dislike of the other (usually, though not always, racial), combined now with anger at the “political correctness” that stops the open expression of that dislike. It is very hard to hear people you like and enjoy working with suddenly expressing this kind of thinking as you walk to lunch. But you’re not likely to hear it unless you have been there a while [4].

And of course Lee Atwater, Ronald Reagan, Karl Rove, etc have been cultivating this way of life and these contradictions for a long time, and in particular building up the belief that Christian churches are being persecuted. Then they provide a savior, while Democrats just offer a sober figure promising blood, toil, sweat, and tears.

Cranky

[1] By which I mean, ‘One needs to’, but you’d better not use that sentence structure in the areas under discussion.

[2] Unless they go to specialty organic farming, which some in my current state have done. Far more lucrative, but the cognitive dissonance burns.

[3] It helps that I grew up on the dying industrial South Side of Chicago, which actually has a lot of similarities to these dying semi-rural environments.

[4] I only spent a few weeks in industrial Australia, but I’m reasonably sure I saw many of the same ways of thinking. Less overt evangelical Christianity I guess.

31

Cranky Observer 09.11.12 at 2:54 am

= = = It should be noted that in terms of their policies and records in government neither party has much to offer people with low incomes, who mostly vote for neither party. = = =

Well, that’s an issue. The semi-rural, semi-industrial zones I discuss in my 2:48 benefit greatly from and for the most part are heavily subsidized by government programs – federal programs in particular. People couldn’t even live in those areas without the enormous federal subsidies to the oil industry in defense of cheap gasoline (which is not true of more dense areas). Then there are farm support programs, crop insurance, conservation and tourist development programs, disproportionate spending on rural highways compared to population, subsidies for medical clinics, rural doctor subsidies, … The list is as long as the hatred of gub’mint is deep.

Cranky

32

Michael Sullivan 09.11.12 at 2:56 am

I agree with LP@12 that retirees skew things dramatically. They are both very conservative in general, and also tend to have lower incomes than their socio-economic status would suggest, depending a lot on how one defines income.

My parents for instance, are solidly upper middle class with a large paid off house, and assets in 7 figures that they do not draw upon for day to day expenses. Their “income” in most years is social security, and a small pension, which puts them out of John’s 40k category, but below the median family income of 70k. But realistically, they are *far* better off than your typical middle aged worker who makes 70k/year.

And lots of people have social security + pension in the 35-40k range and that is all their “income”, but they have paid up houses and other assets, that make them *far* better off than a typical worker in early or mid life earning 40k/year.

Just living on SS/pension/assets puts you in a rentier condition even if you started out as clearly working class. To get a clearer picture, I think over 65 should be separated out entirely. I predict that if you remove the over 65, that the low income group would be *clearly* democratic, even among whites.

33

MPAVictoria 09.11.12 at 3:41 am

“It should be noted that in terms of their policies and records in government neither party has much to offer people with low incomes”

Besides preserving Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security? Plus food stamps?

34

John Quiggin 09.11.12 at 4:56 am

@Michael Sullivan One reason I used a low cutoff for working class income was to rule out retirees with moderate but not high incomes. I’m not sure low-income SS recipients are much different from working class people in general.

@MPAVictoria It’s obvious to those paying attention that the Repubs threaten real damage. But if you aren’t paying attention, and ignore threats that haven’t yet materialised, like those you mention, the Dems do little to make low income voters see them as being on their side.

35

David J. Littleboy 09.11.12 at 5:51 am

Cranky’s got the right ideas here. Especially:

“It is very hard to hear people you like and enjoy working with suddenly expressing this kind of thinking as you walk to lunch.”

Really. My father was safety officer for the chemistry department at a certain Massachusetts liberal arts college for years, and worked with the physical plant staff every day. He loved those blokes dearly, but was horrified at the “I don’t want my tax money going to them” attitude that he heard from them. (This was more than 10 years ago, though.)

The working class in the US is independent, ornary, and anti-intellectual. The only “working class” sort of thing I do is bowling (my Friday night league average is 210, which isn’t shabby for a 60-year old wimp), and I was really irritated with Obama for even thinking about picking up a bowling ball. He looked like a complete klutz, and it probably lost him votes. And it should have lost him votes, since it showed disrespect for the game and the working class. Sigh. I think that Obama is the best thing that could possibly happen to the working class, but there’s not a lot of love lost between them. Sigh.

36

MQ 09.11.12 at 6:02 am

The Federal welfare state for working families consists of Food Stamps, disability payments, and Medicaid. These are crap programs. Cheap, undignified, impossible to live on alone and diminish rapidly with any earned income. Medicaid is the best of the lot but is mostly limited to single women with children and disabled old people. Obamacare will improve things somewhat but two years after it was passed essentially none of it is implemented.

SS and Medicare, by contrast, are key to a dignified retirement for lots of people, but we have been bombarded with anti-SS propaganda for ages and it can be hard to tell which party is the reliable defender of these programs (although I think at some level most people do know it’s the Ds and this is a big electoral advantage).

JQ is basically right about what the Ds offer the working class — not much. Most of it is that the Ds won’t give away retirement programs in tax breaks to the rich. That’s nice but it’s not something too immediate.

37

Phil 09.11.12 at 6:52 am

simultaneous hatred of work safety standards and nannyism in general; strong dislike of unions; bitterness, distrust, and cynicism toward “the man” who personifies the employer; and hair-trigger willingness to file lawsuits should anyone actually get injured on the job

I nearly fell out with a good online friend of mine over the union thing – he knew where he came from (he told us once), his family survived the Dustbowl, and that was why he was proud to say he always crossed a picket line if he saw one… The only thing that stopped me being furiously angry was the time it took to put my jaw back in place. I know where I come from, as it goes – my father’s father survived the 1926 miners’ strike – and that’s why I never cross a picket line.

I’ll never understand that attitude – particularly if it’s accompanied by hatred of ‘the man’. The union is many things, not all of them good, but it’s not the boss.

38

GiT 09.11.12 at 8:02 am

Separating out high income but no college was interesting; I hadn’t seen that before. I guess the ivory tower really is brainwashing everyone liberal (half-jestingly said).

39

bjk 09.11.12 at 8:46 am

In the words of Winston Churchill:

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=200753\story_3-5-2007_pg3_5

“Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes: those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death and those who are bored to death.”

40

ajay 09.11.12 at 8:58 am

12: LP: The laborer working classes and the outright poor largely do not exist, except as stereotypes, victims, or bogeymen.

If this means “they don’t exist in commentary”, as the context sort of suggests, then fair enough. If it means “they don’t exist in real life” then it’s nuts.

41

ajay 09.11.12 at 8:58 am

39: nowadays you’d probably have to have a “fed to death” category in there.

42

Purple Platypus 09.11.12 at 10:32 am

ajay, I thought it was quite clear comment 12 was talking about the world commenters on blogs like this paint, and I’m very surprised anyone even considered taking that last sentence literally. FWIW I think that comment is absolutely correct; I’ve seen six-figure incomes described as “middle-class” on this very site, which is batshit crazy.

43

Tim Worstall 09.11.12 at 11:46 am

“The Federal welfare state for working families consists of Food Stamps, disability payments, and Medicaid. “

The EITC maybe? It’s something over $100 billion a year now isn’t it, just at the Federal level? Which might not be enough but it’s not quite chump change either, is it?

44

Nich 09.11.12 at 12:08 pm

concepts of “working class”

To better underfstand some US concepts of working class President Abraham Lincoln is your man. He had a vision of social mobility where “mudsills and greasy mechanics” could escape the servitude of wage labour and become businessmen. They would still practice their own trade but they would become a boss.

voting in line with their own economic interests

I’m sure many people do vote in their own economic interest but I’m increasingly convinced that most don’t. (I don’t.) Some of the links provided by blavag @13 may support this. My sense is that in the US someone is just as likely to vote for a candidate based on said candidate’s tsance on abortion as on redistribution. Some voters are drawn to narrative politics more than economic politics.

45

Clubbie 09.11.12 at 12:29 pm

“I’ll never understand that attitude – particularly if it’s accompanied by hatred of ‘the man’. The union is many things, not all of them good, but it’s not the boss.”

No it is a club. A club that you are either “in” or “out”. Try finding an African American in the building trades unions of some large cities in the US. They aren’t there, but they’ll walk the line to keep non-union employers out who do hire blacks. See a fun article:

http://www.phillymag.com/articles/the-last-union-town/

46

Tom Hurka 09.11.12 at 1:15 pm

The left has always ignored the existence of right-wing populism among lower-income working people. It’s individualist, believes in hard work and rewards for hard work, and is against anything big: big corporations and big banks, yes, but also big government and big unions. It’s more closely aligned with right-wing political parties not just on cultural issues but also on economic ones. Though by no means the only view among working people it’s a very common one and illustrated by many of the anecdotes reported upthread. Unfortunately working people don’t always think the way left academics think they ought to think.

47

Matt 09.11.12 at 1:17 pm

To defend the “white working class problem” thesis, you might argue that the Dems, as the less rightwing party, ought to do better than a 50-50 split among this group if they were voting in line with their own economic interests, and obviously the politics of race and culture are playing a significant role here.

No, you just have to realize that historically the Democrats were the working class party and grabbed a much larger share of this vote. It was the backbone of their support. Now they have been hemorrhaging this bloc for years–hence the problem.

The most obvious illustration is Obama’s determination to keep the Bush income tax cuts for the first $250 000 a year of income, a policy that greatly benefits the middle class and the rich, but does little or nothing for those with less than $40 000 a year, whose income is taxed mainly through the payroll tax.

OMG no, it has nothing to do with the freaking Bush tax cuts. You people are so predictable. Get out in the world some, will you. The Dems historically had the support of the white working class because they were seen as being on the WWC’s side. This had nothing to do with any specific policy, but more with the rhetoric employed during the campaigns and off-seasons. The Dems lose with the WWC now because they seem to consider white people as a whole at best distasteful, and at worst the Grand Problem With The Human Race. They also have this problem with Christianity, which most of the WWC considers their religion even if they don’t practice it. They would rather extol the virtues of immigration-fueled diversity (racial and religious only) and Affirmative Action, and WWC types quite reasonably wonder where their party went.

For example, I don’t think I have ever once seen the term “black working class” in mainstream politics/culture reporting.

Could it be because blacks vote as a uniform bloc for the Democrats across the spectrum of class? I think we might be on to something.

48

Matt McIrvin 09.11.12 at 1:18 pm

@Purple Platypus: I think you’re right about LP’s comment, but I had to go back and read it again before I understood it, and the main reason is that in US political discourse, you really do frequently see people seriously arguing that there are no poor people in the US.

49

Uncle Kvetch 09.11.12 at 1:33 pm

It’s individualist, believes in hard work and rewards for hard work, and is against anything big: big corporations and big banks, yes, but also big government and big unions.

That must be why I always hear so many right-wing populists calling for a scaling back of our insanely bloated military.

Oops…

50

Josh G. 09.11.12 at 1:34 pm

Purple Platypus @ 42: “FWIW I think that comment is absolutely correct; I’ve seen six-figure incomes described as “middle-class” on this very site, which is batshit crazy.

A family making $100,000 a year is quite well off, but they have much more in common with families making $60,000 a year than they do with Paris Hilton, Mitt Romney, Bill Gates, or even a random Wall Street trader making $400,000 a year.

51

Josh G. 09.11.12 at 1:42 pm

MQ @ 36: “The Federal welfare state for working families consists of Food Stamps, disability payments, and Medicaid. These are crap programs. Cheap, undignified, impossible to live on alone and diminish rapidly with any earned income. Medicaid is the best of the lot but is mostly limited to single women with children and disabled old people. Obamacare will improve things somewhat but two years after it was passed essentially none of it is implemented.

I think that removing the means testing from food stamps would be a good start towards expanding the American federal welfare state. If that was in place for 5 years, it would be politically impossible to ever repeal it. And it would provide real financial relief to the working class (those who are currently making more than the miserably low threshold for eligibility).

52

rea 09.11.12 at 1:43 pm

It’s a bit of a misnomer to say that the Republican base is the white working class. The base is the fundamentalists ( including some of the Catholic variety) and the bigots. That a lot of those people are chareacterizable as members of the white working class is coincidence.

53

Barry 09.11.12 at 1:55 pm

mdc 09.10.12 at 9:21 pm

“It’s really insidious. For example, I don’t think I have ever once seen the term “black working class” in mainstream politics/culture reporting.”

This might be going into to race/ethnicity/gender, but it’s important – I’ve seen media people make claims about how the Democrats would have lost except for minority votes, or women, etc., but the ‘white working class men’ are never used in the same way. Instead deficiencies there (if they exist) are considered to be deficiencies.

BTW – John, I’ve seen a breakdown somewhere showing white/black differences in some belief, by region. The white southerner group was radically different from the white/NE/MW/MW group.

54

Barry 09.11.12 at 2:03 pm

Phil: “I’ll never understand that attitude – particularly if it’s accompanied by hatred of ‘the man’. The union is many things, not all of them good, but it’s not the boss.”

I think that there’s a servile attitude. ‘The Man’ is of a higher class, and therefore deserves power, subservience and money. Union people are his peers (or worse, inferiors!) who are insubordinate. Think of the times you’ve heard somebody criticizing a professional athlete for getting a high salary, when it’s the result of honest bargaining (as opposed to crony capitalism, like the owners getting a stadium built for them). In my experience, the reaction is usually an open belief that the athlete (worker) is being paid too much. You won’t hear that same attitude expressed by those same people vs. a CEO getting vast amounts for failure, or a Wall St guy getting paid tens of millions.

The class issue in the USA is huge.

55

Witt 09.11.12 at 2:06 pm

The degree to which the general public, the media, and politicians regularly confuse social class with economic class cannot be overstated.

There is an enormous difference between a young person from an UMC family who is earning $30,000 a year and a young person from a LMC family who is earning $30,000 a year.

The differences include but are not limited to:

- the UMC kid’s ability to be on his parents’ health insurance (since they are more likely to have jobs WITH health insurance) — of course, ANY young person can be on his/her parents’ policy until age 26, but it’s a cold benefit to young people whose parents don’t have jobs with health insurance

- the UMC kid’s ability to develop a credit record thanks to his parents’ co-signing for a credit card while he was in college

- the UMC kid’s ability to rent a better (safer, closer to work, more stable, etc.) apartment thanks to his credit record

- the UMC kid’s ownership of a functional, reliable car due to hand-me-down from a parent or relative (thus enabling him to commute to a wider range of better jobs)

- the UMC kid’s ability to have a cell phone contract (as opposed to a prepaid cell phone), thus meaning that potential employers can always reach and/or leave messages for him.*

There are a million more examples, of course, but I think it’s worth spelling out just what a lot of these social class differences are. Of course they overlap with economic issues but are certainly not limited to them.

*I cannot overstate how significant this is. The number of times I have tried to reach poor and working-class people and could not because they didn’t have minutes on their phone is innumerable.

56

Witt 09.11.12 at 2:07 pm

Bleargh. Pretend that giant paragraph of mashed-together information was bullet points.

57

Barry 09.11.12 at 2:08 pm

Tom Hurka 09.11.12 at 1:15 pm

” The left has always ignored the existence of right-wing populism among lower-income working people. It’s individualist, believes in hard work and rewards for hard work, and is against anything big: big corporations and big banks, yes, but also big government and big unions. It’s more closely aligned with right-wing political parties not just on cultural issues but also on economic ones. Though by no means the only view among working people it’s a very common one and illustrated by many of the anecdotes reported upthread. Unfortunately working people don’t always think the way left academics think they ought to think.”

As has been pointed out, this is wrong. The right-wing attitude loves big corporations and big banks – note that even after the Great Financial Collapse, minor efforts towards restoring part of the regulated system under which these people grew up under were bitterly opposed. It loves big government when it comes to big subsidies (for them) and big violence (towards those they hate). As for rewards for hard work, it’s never had a problem with a CEO getting paid richly for f*cking things up, or a team own getting a shiny taxpayer-paid stadium.

58

Barry 09.11.12 at 2:16 pm

Josh G. 09.11.12 at 1:34 pm

” A family making $100,000 a year is quite well off, but they have much more in common with families making $60,000 a year than they do with Paris Hilton, Mitt Romney, Bill Gates, or even a random Wall Street trader making $400,000 a year.”

And I would guess that they have more in common with the $60K family than with the $200K family.

59

ajay 09.11.12 at 2:17 pm

I’ve seen six-figure incomes described as “middle-class” on this very site, which is batshit crazy.

Steady the Buffs. A six-figure household income is plausibly middle-class. That’s, say, a police sergeant and a part-time schoolteacher.

60

James 09.11.12 at 2:19 pm

Barry @54 “As has been pointed out, this is wrong. The right-wing attitude loves big corporations and big banks”

Government in general loves big corporations and big banks, as in both parties. They are easier to work with, easier to regulate, and most importantly, easier to hit up for big campaign donations.

There is an inherent conflict between the environmental wing of the Democratic Party and the natural resource based jobs of many low income workers. These workers are forced to choose between voting pro-union vs. voting pro-job. For other industries, service for example, pro-union and pro-job is the same ticket.

61

Watson Ladd 09.11.12 at 2:55 pm

Let’s not forget the Republican expansion of Medicare. Yes, it was overly expensive and as badly managed as anything in the Bush administration, but it was also the biggest expansion of federal benefit in years. Obamacare actually reduces health care expenditure but covers more people. So if we go by actual policies, the Republicans have massively expanded the welfare state and the Democrats cut it! Neither one is really representing the working class.

rea: It’s not a coincidence. Baptists and Methodists, and also fundamentalists, found a home in the rural, newly industrialising, Midwest and South with small scattered cities. Each new religious movement in the US moved to the frontier. By contrast the moderate mainline faiths stayed in the wealthy areas of New England and spread only to other economic centers.

62

MPAVictoria 09.11.12 at 3:14 pm

“Let’s not forget the Republican expansion of Medicare. Yes, it was overly expensive and as badly managed as anything in the Bush administration, but it was also the biggest expansion of federal benefit in years. Obamacare actually reduces health care expenditure but covers more people. So if we go by actual policies, the Republicans have massively expanded the welfare state and the Democrats cut it! Neither one is really representing the working class.”

So what you are saying is both sides are bad?

63

Metatone 09.11.12 at 3:14 pm

In the UK at least, defining “economic middle class” now needs regional categories because housing (or housing + commuting) costs really do change the thresholds.

Not sure how that stacks up in the USA. Suburban housing seemed largely cheap, if rickety last I looked and petrol (gas) prices were lower all round.

64

Shelley 09.11.12 at 3:33 pm

Very worthwhile topic. Maybe it’s because I have a headache, but I couldn’t get your main point. Is it that the voting split is based on education, not income? Could you put the “take-away” in one sentence for laggards like myself?

65

Phil 09.11.12 at 3:36 pm

That’s, say, a police sergeant and a part-time schoolteacher.

Not unless the police are absolutely coining it these days. An Inspector and a full time head teacher, maybe.

66

Phil 09.11.12 at 3:39 pm

The class issue in the USA is huge.

…but is never named, and in practice mainly takes the form of resentment of other members of the working class. Huge but repressed, maybe.

Or there’s the formulation of a friend of mine, that the US is just as obsessed with class as Britain, only they have a different word for it – they call it ‘race’.

67

ponce 09.11.12 at 3:46 pm

Better to divide the parties into judgemental and welcoming.

And divide the citizens by religious ferver.

Despite the teachings of their various religions, most hard core zealots of all income levels love to judge their fellow citizens, and there’s usually a judgemental party willing to point fingers at the wrong sort of people for them.

68

L2P 09.11.12 at 3:46 pm

” I’m not sure low-income SS recipients are much different from working class people in general.”

They can be. My wife and I have four sets of grandparents. All four live largely on social security and very small pensions. All four own their homes outright, own their cars outright and pay almost nothing in car insurance, have their medical care largely paid for (medicare, yay!), and pay nothing in education and child care.

I think that’s a lot of social security recipients. At least white ones. That’s a very different life-style then for workers with kids.

69

LFC 09.11.12 at 3:56 pm

Re K. Healy upthread:

Yes, the pie chart is actually easy to understand, assuming one reads “percentages after each group give the proportion of that group voting R”. Heaven forfend that data should be visually represented in a way that people can readily grasp. We wouldn’t want the working class to be able to understand it, would we? ;)

p.s. haven’t read Tufte.

70

Watson Ladd 09.11.12 at 3:57 pm

LFC, the numbers add up to two pies. That’s one pie. It’s visually misleading, because the sectors aren’t the size of the numbers we are trying to show.

71

Barry 09.11.12 at 4:07 pm

John, I’d use a bar chart in place of that pie chart.

72

Marc 09.11.12 at 4:07 pm

I think that regional effects are enormous here; virtually all whites in Mississippi are Republicans. The white vote outside of the South is much more evenly balanced. In fact, I’d argue that you can’t understand voting patterns in the US without factoring race into the mix.

Another confounding effect is religion, and a third is the urban / rural divide. Rural and religious voters are conservative almost everywhere, and it isn’t surprising to see that replicated in the US. Isn’t Queensland historically very conservative in Australia?

Add these factors together and the US voting pattern becomes easier to understand, if not easier to agree with.

73

LFC 09.11.12 at 4:09 pm

W. Ladd:
The slices are basically proportional to the percentages given on the right, which is what matters, IMO. The purple slice representing “all non-white” should be a bit smaller, that’s the only problem I see. The numbers really don’t “add up to two pies” — you take the pie as a whole as representing 100 percent of the Republican vote and the slices as representing the relative contributions of the groups to that vote. Works fine, as far as I can see. (But maybe I’m just stupid when it comes to these things.)

74

Bruce Wilder 09.11.12 at 4:11 pm

Barry @ 54 & Tom Hurka @ 44

Here’s the thing about “the right-wing attitude”: there are two of them, in a paired dynamic.

The “working-class”, however you may define it for the purposes of correlating with demographic variables, is composed of people at the lower reaches of the continuum of income, education and status: they are followers. Politically, they tend to get paired with people, who seek to dominate them; that pairing is the formula for right-wing authoritarian politics.

The dominators are responsible for forming most of the desiderata of conservative politics, with their will to dominate defining much of its repulsive style.

The followers do respond best to what in American political parlance is called, populist appeals, which have always been distinct from, and at odds with, what American liberals tend to idealize. Liberals, however, do not achieve political power in the U.S., without substantial populist organization and support. Liberals do not have such support, and currently, are inclined to reflexively turn away from making populist appeals to people they regard as racist.

So, instead we have both political parties competing to appease the worst sociopaths. And, Obama has promised to not cut Social Security to finance tax cuts, he has promised to cut it in exchange for very minor tax increases.

I strongly recommend Bob Altemeyer’s work on the political psychology of authoritarianism.
http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

75

JohnR 09.11.12 at 4:12 pm

@Tom Hurka (44): “The left has always ignored the existence of right-wing populism among lower-income working people. [List of stereotyped beliefs]”. You know, I can only see through my own eyes, but this sort of argument by stereotype seems awfully pointless to me. “The Left”; “The Right”, as if those terms meant anything particularly useful, rather than one thing here and a different thing over there. Stereotypes are helpful for people who want to make snap decisions about someone and are too lazy to actually think about that person as a human being. I’ll pay Mr. Hurka the compliment of assuming that he’s lazy rather than not very bright, but come on, Tom – do you actually know all that many “lower-income working people” about whom you speak so confidently, or are you just blindly accepting whatever you hear from people who have an axe to grind? For that matter, do you know all that many people who are part of that faceless mass you refer to as “The Left”? I’m not counting those people who are “some of your best friends”, either; I mean real people with whom you have real conversations. For what it’s worth, 15 years ago, I thought of myself as solidly middle class, with my family income of about $45K for a family of four. We had enough left over every year to do things like car repairs and house maintenance, and a week’s vacation. Now, my family income of about $48K for a family of four means I’m solidly down in the ‘working poor’. Every month is an exercise in bill-juggling, I haven’t had a week’s vacation in more than 3 years, and we’re just trying to take care of the absolutely desperate repairs because we can’t afford to fix things properly. I’m a crap handyman, but I’m the only one we can afford. Admittedly the Democrats aren’t what Democrats used to be, but the Republicans have spent the past decade and a half looting the country, and all they promise is more of the same. I could hardly care less about ‘gay marriage'; that doesn’t take money out of my pocket or put me out of a job. Goldman Sachs and Bank of America and all the other merry band of Monopoly players did that, and are still doing it. They’ve turned me from a solid Republican into damned close to a Marxist. This “lower-income working person” has discovered to his surprise that he has solidly left-wing populist beliefs, but I can’t say that “The Right” has ignored that sort of phenomenon. Heck, “The Right” seems to be taking it seriously, judging by the widespread efforts by “The Right” to prevent us “lower-income working poor” from voting.

76

LFC 09.11.12 at 4:13 pm

p.s.
Just b.c Gelman apparently prefers bar charts to pie charts doesn’t mean one can never use pie charts. He’s a v. good statistician, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean one has to accept his every pronouncement as if it were the gospel. Just take a look at his blogging some time.

77

ajay 09.11.12 at 4:27 pm

The “working-class”, however you may define it for the purposes of correlating with demographic variables, is composed of people at the lower reaches of the continuum of income, education and status: they are followers. Politically, they tend to get paired with people, who seek to dominate them; that pairing is the formula for right-wing authoritarian politics.

Just because you are low-income and low-status doesn’t actually make you naturally submissive. Trust me on this, I come from the ruling class, and our lives would have been a lot easier over the last few centuries were this the case. (They were pretty sweet all the same, of course.)

78

Metatone 09.11.12 at 4:29 pm

Krugman has a short blog on “The Moving Middle” just today:

So I guess the middle class is an elastic thing: it stretches to 250,000 or more if we’re condemning Democratic plans, but drops to less than 100,000 for Republican plans. Good to know.

79

ajay 09.11.12 at 4:32 pm

62: That’s, say, a police sergeant and a part-time schoolteacher.

Not unless the police are absolutely coining it these days. An Inspector and a full time head teacher, maybe.

I think you’re significantly underestimating how much the police make, yes.

According to the US Department of Labor, a police sergeant earned between $58,739 and $70,349 in 2010. The BLS adds that “For high school teachers, median salaries in 2007 ranged from $35,000 in South Dakota to $71,000 in New York, with a national median of $52,000.” So take a slightly-above-average sergeant on $65k and half an average NY high school teacher, and you’re into six figures.

80

bianca steele 09.11.12 at 4:42 pm

Two comments:
@Bruce Wilder didn’t address the “individualism” part of Tom Hurka’s comment. Am I right that “liberalism” (in most definitions except the popular one where it means the left wing of the Democratic Party) tends to favor individualism, which is one place where it’s often criticized by “the left”?

Combine @Marc and @Phil and you seem to get an argument that white Democrats suffer from false consciousness because the only real opposition to/exclusion from the ruling class are African Americans (other non-whites maybe added upon duress)–which is insane, and since the only argument I’m seeing for it is “Phil’s friend is English and as we all know Brits are uniformly smarter and better informed than Americans,” can easily be dismissed as the product of my being ready for lunch.

81

Tom Hurka 09.11.12 at 5:03 pm

@ John R (72):

I don’t know how it’s stereotyping to say lower-income working people don’t all have the same view but some have a different, more right-wing view.

My comment was directed at JQ’s claim in the OP that if the Dems don’t do better than 50/50 among these voters it’s (i) because of racial and cultural issues and (ii) because the Dems aren’t redistributionist enough. I was saying that a good number of these voters are anti-redistributionist, on philosophical grounds. Not all of them, of course, but enough to help explain the 50/50 split. And that’s what’s being explained, not some uniform voting behaviour that might validate a stereotype but the actual 50/50 split.

82

Marc 09.11.12 at 5:05 pm

@77: You’ve come pretty close to encapsulating the Republican strategy. They’ve made a conscious effort to draw district lines to target white elected Democrats for defeat while ensuring that the few Democratic districts will be represented by minorities. In the face of an increasingly diverse population you can either try to appeal to minority voters or try to suppress and disenfranchise the minority vote and increase your share of the white vote. The choice that they’ve made is extremely clear.

83

Watson Ladd 09.11.12 at 5:12 pm

Tom Hurka: Adorno, Horkheimer? Lots has been written about working class support for fascism and social democracy by leftists.

84

bianca steele 09.11.12 at 5:18 pm

@79
Well, keeping in mind that I still haven’t eaten: It’s not just the Republicans.

It’s the segment of the left that started by objecting to identity politics and multicultural appeals, but exempted African Americans from the objection (like Phil’s friend); and the segment of the left that discovered it couldn’t really get behind a politics for the working class because it couldn’t get behind white populism either (in part because populism does tend to be racist); and the segment of the left–assuming they’re not lying, because in retrospect it seems more statistically likely they were libertarians–that identifies bigotry, etc. with classes lower than their own and thus has difficulty seeing them as other than Republican.

85

Taylor 09.11.12 at 5:19 pm

What I found most interesting about this article was author’s implied conjecture that the uneducated higher wage earning whites would be better served by voting Democrat than Republican. As I imagine, that particular demographic is primarily composed of small business owners, whose businesses are largely niche enterprises. Small businesses can be profitable without the need for a professional job or a high level of education. Additionally, small businesses are particularly vulnerable to tax increases, and conversely profit from tax decreases; a longtime mainstay of the Republican party. Thus, I would be willing to suggest that these higher wage whites with lower education may in fact truly be best served by voting Conservative.

86

piglet 09.11.12 at 5:26 pm

This is an old debate. I remember it most vividly from an exchange between Thomas Frank and Larry Bartels. I’m surprised this hasn’t even been mentioned. Here’s a CT roundup from 2005 (http://crookedtimber.org/2005/12/22/class-dismissed/) and here’s a more recent discussion with longitudinal data (http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/02/17/understanding-the-zombie-confusion-about-class-and-voting/).

87

dB 09.11.12 at 5:41 pm

@TomHurka Very true.

@Uncle Kvetch Well, at least big military doesn’t spend most of its time telling them that everything they do, say or think is wrong. Big business sort of does, big media definitely does and big government sometimes seems to be founded on that premise.

88

piglet 09.11.12 at 5:42 pm

LP12: “The laborer working classes and the outright poor largely do not exist, except as stereotypes, victims, or bogeymen.”

Good point. They don’t exist in public discourse, they are not part of the media reality (remember that when the NYT was reporting on victims of the mortgage crisis, their preferred examples were millionaires complaining that they didn’t qualify for mortgage relief), they are not represented by any political party, and they don’t vote. Partly as a consequence, every political thug can claim the mantle of working class hero. The real working class just has no political voice.

89

Natilo Paennim 09.11.12 at 5:54 pm

54: The right-wing attitude loves big corporations and big banks

Two words, dude: Gordon Kahl.

46: That must be why I always hear so many right-wing populists calling for a scaling back of our insanely bloated military.

I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of militarism in white working-class communities. Yes, the military is responsible for a huge amount of entitlement payments, and yes, many of those weapons systems are too expensive, and the $800 hammers are a scandal. But the military (to these folx) is, (a) a necessary bulwark against Communism, illegal immigrants and terrorists, (b) a chance for young people to prove they are worthwhile members of the community, by doing very hard work for moderate pay, (c) imbued with tradition and honor. Here’s the thing: A lot of those people know first hand that the military is not really so much about those things, as it is about a lot of boredom and goofing off and wastefulness. But like all of us, they’re looking for meaning, for justification, for a sense of community.

90

Substance McGravitas 09.11.12 at 5:58 pm

Here are two papers I picked up on my most recent cross-country drive. They seem to be available at most gas stations and have some national and some local content.

91

Uncle Kvetch 09.11.12 at 6:18 pm

I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the appeal of militarism in white working-class communities.

NP, there’s nothing in your comment that I would disagree with. I was taking issue with Tom Hurka’s characterization of right-wing populism in the US as “anti-big government.” It is only such if you accept that very peculiar Reaganite definition of “government” that excludes the military, law enforcement, and any other governmental function that right-wing populists happen to approve of.

92

piglet 09.11.12 at 6:21 pm

“And lots of people have social security + pension in the 35-40k range and that is all their “income”, but they have paid up houses and other assets, that make them far better off than a typical worker in early or mid life earning 40k/year.”

I like to mention the statistic that 80% of senior-headed households have less than $250k in assets. So yes, a sizable portion do have paid-off houses and a little extra in the bank but only a distinct minority can seriously be counted as “rentier” class. Also, is a retired worker with a paid-off house not working class any more?

93

Phil 09.11.12 at 6:31 pm

ajay – fair enough, I thought you were talking about this country and counting in £s.

94

piglet 09.11.12 at 6:36 pm

67 and 68: The pie slices show the proportion of all R voters that belong to each group, which adds up to 100%. The figures in parentheses are the proportion in that group voting R.

95

LFC 09.11.12 at 6:45 pm

67 and 68: The pie slices show the proportion of all R voters that belong to each group, which adds up to 100%. The figures in parentheses are the proportion in that group voting R.

I made exactly this point, albeit in slightly different language, @70.

96

mijnheer 09.11.12 at 6:46 pm

If “middle class” refers to income level (rather than to one’s relation to the means of production), then middle-class individuals typically are members of the working class (proletariat), in the sense that most of them are wage workers rather than being either capitalists or self-employed (or unemployed). The working class constitutes the majority of the workforce in modern economies, and the equation of “working class” with “blue collar” is misleading. Within the working class, blue-collar jobs often pay better than white-collar or service jobs.

97

piglet 09.11.12 at 6:56 pm

NP 84: I don’t see that you are explaining anything. You could probably sustain the “tradition and honor” show a lot cheaper but I don’t see anybody clamoring for a return to small-government military traditions. Of course, the Military-Industrial Complex is imbued with ideology but the economic fundamentals are still what counts.

98

Chaz 09.11.12 at 7:21 pm

Ajay, a nit:

Maybe it’s different where you live but I’ve never heard of a “part-time” schoolteacher. They’re all full-time. What there are a lot of is substitutes. They receive far lower pay per hour than regular teachers, receive no benefits, only get work when it’s available, and get that work on a last-minute, on-call basis. Therefore they earn way less than half the median teacher’s salary.

At the college level there are “adjunct” part-time, temporary professors (many of whom work full time by commuting to multiple colleges), and they also receive much lower pay per class than the permanent staff, no benefits, and no promise of being “rehired” for a full load or at all beyond the current term.

Your example works if you change part-time schoolteacher to full-time schoolteacher, or to part-time professor working full-time.

99

Chaz 09.11.12 at 7:43 pm

Also, and not just to Ajay,

I personally do not like the use of “six figure income” to mean “just barely above $100,000″. The median number in the six figures is not 100,000, it is 549,999. Someone making $100k is not at all in the same class as someone making $900k. If you mean a little over 100k then say “a little over 100k” or “just barely in the six figures”, or at least “in the one hundred thousands” (but never say “in the hundreds of thousands”).

100

Phil 09.11.12 at 8:10 pm

Thankfully, it is different where ajay and I live; you can have a contract as a schoolteacher which specifies that you get paid every month and also specifies that you’re on a set fraction of the standard hours (and indeed pay). Speaking for myself, I’m currently employed as a part-time university lecturer; before I got this post I worked for several years on what I’d guess you’d call adjunct contracts, the experience of which I’d guess you’d say sucked.

101

MQ 09.11.12 at 8:10 pm

The EITC maybe? It’s something over $100 billion a year now isn’t it, just at the Federal level? Which might not be enough but it’s not quite chump change either, is it?

yes, that’s a good point, sorry I missed it. EITC expansion might be the single best Democratic initiative of the past two decades in this area. But the EITC doesn’t reach very far up the income scale, it’s a working poor program more than a middle-of-the-middle class program. I think for married couples with kids it stops around $40,000, and you’d only be getting $1-2 K up at that income level.

Child care tax credits are useful as well.

Add Obamacare to this package (which really does offer substantial subsidies for insurance) and you have something but it’s still pretty threadbare on the cash end. Doesn’t come close to making up for the larger failure of our economic system.

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scott 09.11.12 at 8:17 pm

The Democracy Corps (D) polling/strategy group recently released a memorandum exploring the less than monolithic political beliefs and values of the white working class that’s pretty interesting. I don’t want to put a bumper sticker thesis on it because the data is pretty rich and deep, but it does suggest that Democrats can make a harder push for the votes of this group because they’re very sympathetic to economic appeals and at least persuadable on foreign policy/military action issues. One of the most interesting points to me is that the divergences in political viewpoints within this group are masked by the fact that they all subscribe to a cultural traditionalism (patriotism, church, the military) and express themselves within that framework. Once you look under the hood, though, you find two groups locked in on either side of the political spectrum with a loose persuadable group of about 30-40% in the middle. The methodology was interesting too because the polling was done less on the black/white, yes/no model, and more so in ways that let the pollsters get a more nuanced view of where the respondents were coming from. Take a look:

http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/wp/2012/09/the_white_working_class_is_a_d.php

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Watson Ladd 09.11.12 at 9:53 pm

piglet, LFC: oof! So the pie slices are scaled proportionally to group size as well as propensity to vote Republican? That pie is total Republican vote? That’s totally odd: usually the numbers you show are the ones you graph.

MQ: Mortgage deduction? We can go back and forth all day on who it helps and hurts, but as it stands someone making $40,000 can live in a much nicer house thanks to paying with pretax dollars for it. I’m also not sure what the salience of this point is: West Virginia and Northern Virginia are both suckling at the federal teat, and yet they have very different politics. Think of all the tea partiers on Medicaid.

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Bruce Wilder 09.11.12 at 11:56 pm

ajay @ 77: “Just because you are low-income and low-status doesn’t actually make you naturally submissive.”

Certainly, that’s not everyone’s response. But, it does tend to make one feel powerless, abused, lied to, cynical and resentful. And, the result may be bloody-minded, passive-aggressive resistance, at best, and a high degree of conventionalism coupled with aggressiveness to deviants and out-groups, rather than legitimate authorities, who may, at least, ostensibly, be both trusted too much, and regarded cynically.

And, goes a long way to explaining the logically incoherent, stereotyped beliefs, that Cranky Observer @ 30 so artfully described. (“My peeps!”, I thought to myself, back in Michigan!)

If you are in a position, where your role, for better or worse, is to do what you are told, and you are dependent on the organization, what, psychologically, you most want, is to be taken care of, and for membership — not just leadership — in the organization to have its privileges, and, above all, protections. A well-functioning army feeds the troops, as job one, and the bottom level of officer-management is dedicated to taking care of the troops. And, the bottom few levels in the Army know perfectly well that they may be killed or maimed for their trouble, and have to defend themselves psychologically from the implications, in ways that may shape what seem to the rest of us, as odd and contradictory political attitudes.

Being a small, lowly and disposable cog in a corporate machine is even more thankless and disspiriting than being in the Army. (Half of the U.S. workforce is employed in organizations with more than 100 employees.) There are no limits on what the top executives may steal, and no patriotic purpose. So, yes, you resent anyone, on your own level, who doesn’t keep step, or shows disloyalty, and you are inured to a certain dull roar of abuse and exploitation by higher ranks, a full acknowledgement of which would be terrifically demoralizing, stripping everything you do, of meaning. But, if an accident, say, changes the power relationship — giving you, say, the chance to sue for wrongful termination or workers’ comp — and you have a rare chance to take revenge, well, then . . . So one of the frontiers of practical politics and the struggle over the distribution of power and income has always been the tort system and the welfare system.

I’m always surprised at how little empathy many liberal Democrats in the U.S. have for the people Barbara Ehrenreich said were being nickled and dimed. The people, who hoped Obama would help them, and whom he failed so completely and thoroughly. Is it really so hard to see Obamacare as a subsidy for rapacious, for-profit insurers and big pharma? Is it so hard to see the EITC as a subsidy for demeaning, low-wage work, which benefits big corporations? Is it so hard to see why people would resent lax and ineffective immigration and border controls?

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piglet 09.11.12 at 11:59 pm

Watson, the pie slices are scaled to the absolute number of R votes out of each group. The figures in parentheses are the relative propensity to vote R within each group. Those two distinct measures scale similarly because JQ chose four groups of roughly equal size. But they are not conceptually the same.

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John Quiggin 09.12.12 at 12:54 am

Taylor @85 You’ve misunderstood me. I entirely agree that high income, low education whites (eg successful small business owners) are voting in line with their interests (though not as much as they think, given the amount creamed off by the 1 per cent), as well as their typical cultural/tribal affiliations, in supporting the Repubs . My point is that these voters are not “working class”.

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Kaleberg 09.12.12 at 4:51 am

I’ve always seen data showing that lower income people tend to vote blue and higher income people tend to vote red. A number of writers have noted the apparent contradiction in which poorer people tend to vote blue, but poorer states tend to vote read. Of course, this is just cause and effect, since blue states have blue policies, and blue policies lead to higher income overall. The reds may dominate the white, male working class, but a lot of this is their dominance of poorer states, not poorer people.

Also, the big class divide in the US is between the exempt and the non-exempt employees. The former are typically better educated, better paid and get a salary. They are sometimes called the middle class or business class. The latter are typically less well educated, more poorly paid and get paid by the hour. They are usually called your working class. Sometimes hourly employees may wind up with higher annual salaries and better benefits than salaried workers, but hourly employees are always vulnerable to getting fewer hours. In contrast, salaried workers are vulnerable to pressure to work longer hours. This shows up in a lot of BLS and hourly time use data.

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bad Jim 09.12.12 at 6:33 am

Just the other day I attempted a crude slicing-and-dicing of the 2008 electoral results to see how well Obama fared among whites outside of the Confederacy. Using a survey of racial percentages by state, and assuming that all Republicans are white, I calculated that Obama got 53% of non-Southern whites, about the same as his share of the total vote. By the way, Southern white Democrats turn out to be rather scarce.

As Rea and others above have said, any attempt to understand electoral demographics without taking geography into account is going to be skewed.

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Phil 09.12.12 at 6:53 am

Certainly, that’s not everyone’s response. But, it does tend to make one feel powerless, abused, lied to, cynical and resentful. And, the result may be bloody-minded, passive-aggressive resistance, at best, and a high degree of conventionalism coupled with aggressiveness to deviants and out-groups, rather than legitimate authorities, who may, at least, ostensibly, be both trusted too much, and regarded cynically.

I think there’s a cultural – and, more importantly, a historical – difference here. In the US, overtly political labour organisation was tried and failed – or rather, it was defeated, repeatedly, most recently I guess around the time of Wilson’s Red Scare. In Britain, not so much. Even in 2012 we’ve got a union congress talking about a general strike (I fell off my chair when I heard that, admittedly).

The kind of passive-aggressive mentality you describe (“we know our place… those bastards don’t appreciate us…”) is familiar to me from British experience, but it’s patchily distributed. Anecdotally, I think it’s much commoner down South, where work was much less thoroughly proletarianised in the 19th century, and hence much less thoroughly unionised in the 20th – a lot of people’s grandparents would have been in domestic service or shop work rather than in factories.

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Maggie 09.12.12 at 8:09 am

A lot of the reason lower-income people are anti-union is simple ignorance. They don’t understand how powerful the rich are, because they don’t have a good grasp of the sums of money involved. They measure status by consumption, have rarely witnessed really high levels of consumption (the rich don’t live in their town), have no concept of the difference between the rich and the upper middle class. They rarely, if ever, have the relevant figures put to them squarely, and if they do they don’t really understand them. If their employer is a proprietor they know personally he probably works twice as hard as his employees and is not doing all that great since markets where they live are not robust. Questioning his deservingness is not on. If in a big company they don’t see owners vs. labor, they see lower management vs. low-level union leadership. They see personalities. They conceptualize all economic success as career success, and all career success as based on hard work (union rules only hamper their ability to compete on this metric), because they have never had opportunities to distinguish themselves on ability (the schools in rural districts are almost as bad, academically, as in inner cities – they’re just better at hiding it), and they don’t understand the value of rich folks’social connections and so forth. (Or even saving; a lot of them think their small-proprietor bosses are worse off than they are because they don’t see them indulge in flashy personal consumption. Convenient enough for the bosses, who are also not above going around falsely lamenting that the business – whose books the laborers do not see – is on the brink of failure.) If you were poorly schooled on the whole “powers of ten” concept, and schooled not at all in economics, and the only “rich” people you see are diligent small businessfolk, whose advantages are all construed as virtues (for example, inheritance is sacred), it’s easy enough to believe that if Mitt can afford that car elevator, he must have worked really REALLY hard for it.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.12 at 10:24 am

106 “I entirely agree that high income, low education whites (eg successful small business owners) are voting in line with their interests…”

They don’t have to be high income and successful; they could be poor, they could be struggling. You may not be doing well as a petite bourgeoisie, but, as long as you are not a wage worker in the private sector, you are not a part of the working class. Not in the marxist sense, anyway. Also, of course, the government employees, all those revered cops and teachers, they are not a part of the working class either. Nothing’s wrong with that, they just aren’t.

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ajay 09.12.12 at 10:33 am

111: which really demonstrates why that kind of analysis is only of limited use here.

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Matt McIrvin 09.12.12 at 11:04 am

“By the way, Southern white Democrats turn out to be rather scarce.”

Except in some places where remnants of the pre-Civil-Rights-era order still persist, and all the white people are nominal registered Democrats who vote Republican in federal elections.

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Random Lurker 09.12.12 at 11:08 am

@Mao Cheng Ji

If you don’t own the “means of production”, that means capital goods aka stuff you can get some profit from (including buildings, bonds and expensive degrees) you are part of the “working class” in a marxist sense.
This surely includes government workers, unemployed people withouth relevant assets, self employed people whose income doesn’t dipend that much on their assets.

If your income mostly comes from the ownership of assets, you are a “capitalist”.

If your income comes more or less at the same level from assets and labor you are “middle class”.

It makes no sense to say that someone employed as a nurse in a private hospital is working class, but when employed by a state-owned hospital isn’t.

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ajay 09.12.12 at 12:01 pm

If you don’t own the “means of production”, that means capital goods aka stuff you can get some profit from (including buildings, bonds and expensive degrees) you are part of the “working class” in a marxist sense.

Degrees? Really? Well, virtually no white collar workers are working class, then, because they have expensive degrees. Even plumbers aren’t working class, because you need to be trained to be a plumber, and that costs money.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.12 at 12:38 pm

“It makes no sense to say that someone employed as a nurse in a private hospital is working class, but when employed by a state-owned hospital isn’t.”

Well, if the one in the second scenario is a government employee, clearly her political economy is different: her employer has no profit motive, there is no surplus value. Different economic and social relations. Consequently, she is not, at least not directly, involved in the same class struggle as the first one; capitalist is not her enemy. I don’t see how they can – equally – belong to the same class, a-la Marx. Perhaps it’s a new class, one that didn’t exist back then, in the 19th century.

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GiT 09.12.12 at 12:55 pm

State employees and bureaucrats most certainly existed in the 19th century and were a topic of interest for Marx…

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Random Lurker 09.12.12 at 1:10 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji 116

They are in the same class in the sense that they compete for the same jobs: for example, think of a teacher in a private school; if state-owned school fire a lot of teachers, it is likely that he will face more competition for his job, so that his wage is likely to fall; in this sense it is also in his political interest that public schools hire more teachers and pay them better.
The same logic applies also to other jobs, with the caveat that traditionally most government jobs require some higer education, which leads me to

@Ajay 115

Please notice that I spoke of very expensive (that is, that pose significant barriers to entry) degrees, and not of all degrees. The idea is that the higer wages that come from better jobs are a sort of rent, or profit, from the capital invested in education. Now if a certain degree of education is very common, it might happen that:
a) many people with, say, a degree, can’t find an adequate job, so they don’t get the rent from it. Hence they are working class, while people with the same degree who get a nice job are not working class, but this depends on other forms of “capital”, such as better connections, or either sheer luck.
b) there is an inflation of education. For example, in the time of my grandparents, many people were still analphapets, so people with high school titles usually got very good jobs; today in Italy most people have high school titles so it is very hard to find a job without an high school diploma. In this situation the cost of the diploma becomes part of the “cost of reproduction” of the working class, while people who don’t have the diploma become a sort of underclass, in pratice shut out from the “normal” economic process.

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bianca steele 09.12.12 at 1:33 pm

Maggie@110
How cynical!

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ajay 09.12.12 at 1:43 pm

118: you’re just making a distinction of degree into one of kind. And plumbing qualifications aren’t cheap – £7k or more, which is £7k more than it costs to take an undergraduate degree in Scotland. Saying that someone is a capitalist because they have had to invest money (or indeed someone else has had to invest money for them – eg a sponsor, a bank, a student loan company, or the state) in order to be able to work for a living is, I think, a very odd way of looking at it.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.12 at 1:48 pm

” in this sense it is also in his political interest that public schools hire more teachers and pay them better”

I don’t think this is an example of class interest, this is just a tactical calculation. By the same token, it would be in his interests to limit the number people who can obtain a teacher’s diploma.

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ajay 09.12.12 at 2:32 pm

…and if he has a diploma, he’s a capitalist anyway and therefore can’t be working class. Apparently.

It may be that an economic theory invented to explain why 1860s Manchester millworkers were poised to overthrow the British government and bring in a new order of things any day now may not be the best tool for explaining 21st century America.

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piglet 09.12.12 at 2:34 pm

Maggie 110: “They [lower-income people] don’t understand how powerful the rich are, because they don’t have a good grasp of the sums of money involved.”

To expand on that, Americans consistently and vastly underestimate the wealth of the rich and the degree of inequality.
http://www.salon.com/2012/06/14/weve_been_brainwashed/
http://www.ucimc.org/content/americans-vastly-underestimate-wealth-inequality-support-more-equal-distribution-wealth-stud

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Watson Ladd 09.12.12 at 2:40 pm

Everyone is at once capitalist and worker. A worker is a capitalist over his own labor power, whether that capital is nothing more then his body or an entire set of certificates.

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Random Lurker 09.12.12 at 3:19 pm

@ajay 122

First, he would not be “a capitalist”, but middle class, because he would have his income due in a big part from labor; second, apparently we have very different ideas of what “expensive” means. I stated quite clearly that, once a certain level of education becomes widespread enough, it ceases to give “rents” and it becomes a “cost of reproduction”, so that neither high school diplomas nor most degrees are anymore a form of capital in the whealty quarter of the world – but they were capital in 1860, when only children of whealty families could afford them.

Or, if you prefer this formulation:
There are differentials in wages between “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, due to the fact that skilled labor is less easily substituted so that skilled workers have a better bargaining position.
But the term “skilled labor” doesn’t really refer to a particular set of skill, but to the rarity of those skills VS demand: for example if A is very good at latin, while B is very good at ancient Greek, but there is high demand for latin teachers but not for greek teachers, A will count as “skilled” and will have a nice wage, while B will count as “unskilled” and have a sucky wage.
Thuse the value of “skill” depends on the proportion between the supply of this skill, usually due to education, and the “demand” for the same skill.
Hence, if there is a substantial barrier of entry to a certain title, such that most people can’t get it, those who get that title will count as “more skilled” and thus enjoy a rent, counting as capital, whereas if some other title has small barriers of entry it usually won’t give a rent, and thus won’t count as capital.
If some set of skills, like reading and writing, become ubiquitous, they don’t even count as skills, so that a job that requires the ability of read/write will be counted as “unskilled labor”, and people who cannot read or write will not be “working class” but “undersocialized” (at least from this point of view), so that the cost of learning to read and write becomes part of the normal “cost of reproduction” of the working class (ie, working class parents will usually refrain to have kids if they think that it will be impossible to teach them to read and write).

Owning a lot of capital makes you a “capitalist”, but usually even a very good title is not “a lot of capital”, it is small capital that makes you “middle class”, since to become “a capitalist” you need capital in the thousands of times the average monthly pay.

Also – I don’t know in other countries, but I’d definitely say that italian plumbers (the ones who own their shop) are higer middle class or more.

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Random Lurker 09.12.12 at 3:25 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji 121
“I don’t think this is an example of class interest, this is just a tactical calculation. By the same token, it would be in his interests to limit the number people who can obtain a teacher’s diploma.”

Ok I get the point but I think that, in general, the labor market is fluid enough that if the government employs teachers, for example, the number of the unemployed is reduced enough to rise the bargaining power of blue collar workers in the auto industry.

How do you define “class interest” if not in economic terms?

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LFC 09.12.12 at 3:28 pm

The OP classifies people according to income and education. Neither measure has any direct or necessary connection to Marx’s definition of a proletarian, which is someone who owns no ‘capital’ and has to sell his labor power to an employer in order to survive. You can try to ‘update’ (i.e., change) Marx’s definition by, e.g., calling expensive degrees ‘capital’, but I think the end result is just to muddy the waters of the discussion.

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bianca steele 09.12.12 at 4:23 pm

What does Marx say about the previously accumulated skills of workers who were moved from craft to industrial production? Presumably those same workers were proletarianized; or were their skills somehow routinized and moved into the tools of production in all cases; or what?

Arguably, not even only according to Marx, a bookkeeper at a coal mine is management, however I think a high-school educated bookkeeper in a government office with dozens of bookkeepers is a worker.

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bob mcmanus 09.12.12 at 4:56 pm

or were their skills somehow routinized and moved into the tools of production in all cases; or what?

I suppose everybody has their own Marx, and mine is as wrong as anyone else, but a lot of this thread seems to me to have too much methodological individualism.

It’s social labor, a commodity, and not really attached to a person. A CEO, a bookkeeper, a lathe-operator, these are positions, not people. Labour-power is abstracted in order to be commodified. To me a CEO, to the extent he performs general duties for a salary is a worker, and as a shareholder or serves capital he is a capitalist. Management wears two hats. But to be honest, I don’t think of capitalists and proletarians, as I understand it, the proletariat becomes such only at the point and to the degree it becomes self-aware of itself as proletariat instead of sellers of a commodity, and dialectically aware of labour-power as a commodity and freedom, at which point it becomes revolutionary.

The “class struggle” is a dynamic process in historical materialism, not a static disequilibrium.

Etc.

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bob mcmanus 09.12.12 at 5:10 pm

We don’t “sell skills”, that’s old craft-era economy, we instead “fill a slot” socially created by capitalism. And oh is it a buyer’s market.

In the same way, to me, the “white working class” even the “Southern racist white working class” is filling a slot, playing a role needed by the bourgeois liberal capitalist system, just as the subaltern plays its part in this big play, this creaky machine.

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Bruce Wilder 09.12.12 at 7:50 pm

Phil @ 109: “In the US, overtly political labour organisation was tried and failed – or rather, it was defeated, repeatedly, most recently I guess around the time of Wilson’s Red Scare.”

If by “overtly political”, you mean the Wobblies and organizing politically around an expectation of overthrowing capitalism in a socialist or Marxist revolution, I suppose that’s sorta kinda true, but obscures vastly more about American political (and labor) history than it reveals. Broadly, organized labor has won some and lost some, with the deregulation of transportation under Carter and the fights over globalization of trade under Clinton marking some very big losses. The National Labor Relations Board, under Bush, was almost comically determined to deny basic fairness to labor.

Historically, labor organization has spanned a pretty broad spectrum in the U.S., ranging from the “unskilled” industrial unions (CIO) and service sector unions (e.g., grocery clerks or hotel workers) through the “skilled” trade unions (AFL) up through the “professional” associations, like the American Association of University Professors or the American Medical Association.

Woodrow Wilson, you may recall, was a Democrat, and, as a thorough-going authoritarian, he was hostile to the Wobblies, but he delivered for labor, generally. During the 18 months of war-time control of the economy, Wilson chose to resolve the previous 15 years of labor unrest in favor of the workers, and real wages rose in the U.S by around 50%, a fantastic gain for so short a period. Which gain, of course, was largely reversed in the Harding deflation. In the 1930s, under FDR’s benign gaze, industrial unions managed to reverse the pattern of all previous depressions, and steadily raised real wages. Some of the most successful unions were radical ones — most notably the west coast Longshoremen.

Culturally, of course, the U.S., unlike the U.K., did not have a centuries-old hereditary, landed aristocracy dominating its elite, and the national ideologies of republicanism and popular democracy, which gave names to the two great political parties might suggest a different sort of cultural division than the division of whigs and tories, which clearly excluded the common working man.

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Bruce Wilder 09.12.12 at 8:21 pm

Karl Marx is long dead and Gary Becker is alive (I think?).

Of course, all talk of “skills” as an explanation for income inequality is b.s. “Skills” disappeared with craft production more than a century ago. But, why is it so much easier for people to see that in a thread that skews toward references to Marx, than when considering the ill-founded opinions of “nice” apologists for the status quo, like Mark Thoma or Brad DeLong?

And, yes, when a professional guild, like the lawyer’s bar association, is successful in restricting entry, with a credential or a license, maybe education will earn a rent, and therefore motivate investment in legal education. (And, when they fail, as American lawyers have failed in the last decade or two, something else happens. See LGM.) There was a time, when this intuition was commonplace.

The allied analysis is that the benefits of investment in education normally will diffuse through the economy, and not accrue in rent to only the particular, educated individual. An educated people will increase productivity and incomes in the whole economy, and, in the classical analysis, much of the benefit in rents will end up flowing to urban landlords. Which is why it seemed sensible to use land rents to finance education, in the form of property taxes.

This little rant might seem far afield from the OP, but I will assert that it is, in fact, directly relevant to why the category, “(white [male]) working class” is the subject of so much confusion and (sometimes deliberate?) misunderstanding.

The cliche is the condescending presumption that much of the “working class”, however defined, votes against its own economic interests. But, where is the common understanding — the economic theory — of what that interest is, and how that interest arises in the functional architecture of the political economy?

You can have a cultural understanding, see it as a political self-identification, or associate “working class”, as I did in an earlier comment, with the psychology of certain political attitudes, which commonly arise from playing subordinate roles. It seems to me, though, that we need some kind of understanding of the place, called “working class”, in the functional architecture of the economy, before we can even say whether there is sense in saying what the material class interest of its members might be.

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Bruce Wilder 09.12.12 at 9:20 pm

“playing subordinate roles” — an ill-considered phrase, since it isn’t subordination, per se, that feeds “class consciousness” or any other stunted, cracked awareness of shared political self-interest, but the narrow horizons and precarious passivity of both the follower and many leader (“management”) niches in the industrial/post-industrial honeycomb — something vaguely like, but broader and more diffuse than alienation from the product of one’s labor.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.12 at 9:34 pm

I guess the “class interest”, in the nutshell, has to mean something like this:
1. to organize as a class, and then
2. to subjugate as much as possible (or, as the case may be, to eliminate) the other classes.

What else can it be?

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Phil 09.12.12 at 9:58 pm

If by “overtly political”, you mean the Wobblies and organizing politically around an expectation of overthrowing capitalism in a socialist or Marxist revolution, I suppose that’s sorta kinda true

I see the suppression of the Wobs as the very last gasp of the political unionism that never really took root in the US (going back to the Knights of Labour) – some socialists held out hope for Lewis and the CIO, but I think they were quite rapidly disappointed.

I think you hugely underestimate the difference between British and American society in this respect. Under Labour, trade unionists consistently criticise the government’s failure to give real power to the working class and talk about socialism. Under the Tories, trade unionists consistently attack the government’s anti-working-class policies and talk about socialism. Most union members aren’t socialists, but that level of political confidence and defiance is symbolic of – and rests on – a much broader sense that we, collectively, don’t have to take what they give us. A defeated union movement and a pro-business union bureaucracy set a very different tone for working people.

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Random Lurker 09.12.12 at 11:13 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji 134

In my opinion, what you describe is “class consciousness” and is a step further than class interest. Also if you keep a Marxist approach “subjugate” is a bit too much, “absorb” would be better imho.

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bianca steele 09.12.12 at 11:45 pm

bob mcmanus:
Somehow what I visualized when I read that was some kind of special chair or room where workers can sit for some specified period of time to be fitted out with the “skills” (call them what you like) they’re to need for their new position. Is the complaint that schools aren’t turning out qualified workers that the kids who took bookkeeping can’t sit long enough in the room, they think what employers need is something a little different? I mean, come on. That sounds like exactly the Clintonesque “just send them back to the community colleges, we can retrain them” policy that’s worked so well up to now. This is supposed to be Marxism you’re talking about?

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.13.12 at 6:07 am

Random Lurker: “class consciousness” is an attribute of an individual; “class interest” is that of a class. Different category. Similarly, with “absorb” you must be thinking of absorbing individuals (which may or may not be the case: aristocracy is not interested in absorbing serfs), and that’s, again, a category mistake.

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Dr. Hilarius 09.13.12 at 9:06 am

Maggie and Tom Hurka make excellent points about the contradictory, often incoherent beliefs in the American working class. The low-paid, hourly worker who bitches about his/her powerless while hating unions is so common as to be unremarkable. Anti-union sentiment has always been particularly strong in the South. It’s a combination of extreme individualism (I’ve worked for everything I’ve got), general ignorance, and dislike of educated elites. The fact that their family may get government benefits doesn’t enter into the equation. The strongly held idea of a work ethic, whether it’s actually practiced or not, lends itself to racist stereotypes of urban blacks on welfare being the core of the Democratic party.

As for the military, it’s the only vehicle of upward mobility for many in job-poor areas. Being a enlisted man is an envied position. It also ties into the Southern military tradition and patriotism, mostly blind, in general. Liberal disdain for the military is widespread and further alienates the working class. The anti-war activities of the Vietnam era were taken personally among rural whites and working stiffs. These are people who are proud to send their kids off to war. What the war is about is irrelevant, it’s Support Our Troops without qualification.

The above is pretty scattered but it’s very late at night and a glass of wine didn’t help. But like Mr. Hurka I do get frustrated by academics trying to analyze a population they have never spend much time with.

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etbnc 09.13.12 at 1:31 pm

The late Joe Bageant, in his blog and his book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, covered this subject from a close personal perspective.

That book grew out of some blog essays, so it remains a good starting point:
joebageant.com.

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Roy 09.13.12 at 4:17 pm

I have lived in rural Idaho, Colorado, and Northern Minnesota. Only in MN was there any noticable chunknof the white working class that voted Democrat, everywhere though the working class whites over the age of forty had started out voting for Democrats and then stopped. In ID and CO they hated the Democratic party and “Liberals” in general for being against their jobs, these were all people in Forestry, Mining, and Agriculture. In almost every ine of these cases they were sadly correct on local matters. In Northern Minnesota they found that the DFL was generally becoming more hostile to their culture, and in particular leisure activities and hunting and fishing, not always a leisure activity. In both Idaho and Minnesota many had family memories of actual violent labor clashes in which they were on losing side, but they now rationalized their political shift by claiming that the modern Democratic Party had betrayed them and now represented the “Bosses.” I am in mining, but not coal, myself so I can completely relate to fury at environmental regulation though I do actually understand the need for such things. But I am also a red diaper baby, and I was raised on the proverbial treachery of the bourgoise. I really don’t see a national Democratic Party that has much interest in the fate of the Western proletariat at all. The Republicans might not seem any better but they are far more eager to issue a mining permit, to build a needed road, and much less likely to revoke a fifty year old grazing permit.

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Phil 09.13.12 at 4:24 pm

I really don’t see a national Democratic Party that has much interest in the fate of the Western proletariat at all.

I think this is the key point – we know that the Dems are to the Left of the Republicans, but we can’t assume from that that there are class reasons to vote Democrat. And if there aren’t, working class votes are there to be captured by cultural appeals and marketing, just like everyone else’s.

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Mary 09.16.12 at 12:08 am

@Maggie #110 Yours is the smartest thing I’ve read in this whole discussion. I’m white working class (originally) but educated and professional (editor). Most of my relatives never left our small town and have no idea what’s going on in the wider world. Their politics are knee-jerk racist and they’re prone to believe what they hear when it’s couched in terms heavy on the patriotic, pro-military (troops), anti-outsider groups (gay), and anti-union (because they only see the part where “they [the unions] take your money,” they have no concept of banding together with others for better benefits, etc., and they’re ahistorical in their thinking… about everything). On the issue of money, they’re proud to make as much as $36,000. People making $60,000 are “rich.” “$Millions” has no meaning.

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Mayson 09.16.12 at 7:07 am

I like Walter Mosley’s definition of working class: you’re working class if losing your job would force you to change your consumption patterns within a year.

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