The Agenda

The White Working Class Matters

Henry Olsen draws on Andrew Levison’s new book on the white working class to analyze how conservatives ought to think about this constituency, which represents 40 percent of the national electorate. Rather frustratingly, Levison’s book is not available in the Kindle format. But Levison did write a memo for The Democratic Strategist on some of the themes covered in the book. The memo addresses the question of how we should define the white working class. While some define the working class in educational terms (e.g., the non-college-educated or people who have completed high school yet who don’t have an undergraduate degree) and other rely on income levels, Levison relies on occupational categories to identify blue-collar workers, separating traditional blue-collar occupations for women and men.

The bottom line result is simple: close to half of white men and 35-40% of white women in the labor force are still essentially “working class.” Their occupations are basically blue collar rather than white collar and their earnings fall far below their white collar counterparts.

In one respect, this seems a new and startling conclusion. In another sense, however, it is something most people really suspected all along. The data that has been presented here dramatically illustrates that in the real world white blue-collar workers are a far more important social group than is generally recognized. They are not the desperate and jobless workers who “shaped up” in front of the factory gates every day to beg for work as factory workers did during the great depression. Many make decent money and vast numbers work as small independent contractors rather than hired employees. Nor do most working class men still talk or act like the inarticulate, hulking laborers portrayed by Marlon Brando in the 1950’s and Sylvester Stallone in the 1970’s. But they are united by sociological traits and cultural values that define many aspects of their social identity. Unlike the affluent or highly educated they see themselves as “real Americans” who are “just getting by,” They are “hard-working” “practical” and “realistic.” They believe in “old-fashioned traditional values” and trust in “character” and real-world experience rather than advanced education. They rely on “common sense” not abstract theories. These characteristics have not basically changed since the 1950’s when these workers considered themselves good Democrats and they remain important determinants of their political outlook today.

Levison’s analysis suggests that white workers represent “a far larger and more politically important group than the common wisdom of recent years has suggested.” He also notes that though there is substantial overlap between blue-collar workers and the non-college-educated, it’s not seamless, e.g., 14 percent of white men with a college degree work in blue collar jobs.

Olsen highlights the economic vulnerability of working class white women, and how it might shape their political outlook:

Census data, for example, demonstrates that white working class voters earn less and work more in physically demanding jobs than do more educated whites. Working class men and women are very likely to work in jobs that pay them an average of $21,000 (women) to $31,000 (men) a year. At these wages, it would take two full-time average jobs for a family to earn the median American family income, which perhaps explains why divorce rates are much higher among working class couples today. A single working class mother, however, must be under even greater stress. With her meager earnings, she is highly likely to require government aid to pay for medical care and child care, which places the Obama campaign’s Julia film (and his electoral success among single women) in its proper context.

He differentiates between the southern and the non-southern white working class, and also between evangelical and non-evangelicals. Moderate, non-evangelical working class whites are a fairly Democratic-friendly constituency, and Olsen argues that the GOP strategy for reaching these voters has been lacking:

Conservatives currently rely on three primary messages to reach these non-evangelical white working class voters. First, delegitimize government by arguing that it is unable to help them get ahead and raise their families whereas the private sector can. Second, argue that when government does act, it too often does so on behalf of undeserving groups, usually illegal immigrants and those who refuse to work. Third, emphasize that conservatives stand on the side of religious liberty and traditional moral values. However, data show that the white working class is not nearly as receptive to these messages as many conservatives hope.

1. While white working class voters aren’t pro-government, they are anxious about their deteriorating labor market position, and so they’re not necessarily inclined to celebrate entrepreneurship and the free market. 

2. These voters are skeptical about the virtues of large companies and Wall Street, a fact that the Tea Party movement often emphasizes. They are also hostile to free trade and the prospect of increased immigration. Olsen suggests that Republicans can’t capitalize on their skepticism about immigration “because their free trade views convince working class whites that conservatives are not on their side.” 

3. Half of working class whites, including a large share of evangelicals, believe both that “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough and that government should go deeper into debt to help needy Americans.” These views are less in tune with the Tea Party consensus. And in a related vein, 82 percent of GOP-leaning ”Disaffected” voters in the Pew Research Center’s 2011 “Beyond Red and Blue” oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare to reduce the budget deficit. 

But the most fascinating aspect of Olsen’s, and by extension Levison’s, analysis is its take on how white working class voters approach identity and ambition:

Conservatives ought to be worried about these findings, but they ought to be more worried about the moral consensus that animates them. Today’s conservative movement increasingly emphasizes “getting ahead,” “owning your own business,” and economic dynamism as essential to the American dream. That’s what “you built that” was all about. For whites without any college education, however, these are largely alien concepts.

Levinson does a great job in outlining the moral worldview of these voters. They aren’t simply not attracted to these goals; they define themselves in opposition to these goals.

Levinson draws on ethnographic studies to show that for the typical white working class person, family and stability are more important than career and upward mobility. They saw their middle-class bosses as people who “worried all the time,” were “cold and snobbish,” and as “arrogant, very arrogant people.” They saw their work as “just a job,” not a rewarding activity of itself. As befits people who work in teams and do heavy labor, they saw collegiality and practical knowledge to be of greater worth than individual striving and theoretical knowledge. Levinson describes this combination as a “distinct combination of viewing work, family, friends, and good character as central values in life while according a much lower value to wealth, achievement, and ambition.”

This brings to mind our recent discussions of geographical mobility and upward mobility. When viewed through an economistic lens, the apparent decline in geographical mobility is a puzzle. But when we consider that a period of rapid economic and social change might prompt a desire for more continuity and stability in family life, it makes far more sense. 

Olsen concludes with a prescription for Republicans that I find congenial – the right should appeal to working class voters by embracing their moral sensibilities and by offering a vision of a government that rewards work:

That moral view places emphasis on hard work and effort and gives respect to those who perform it, regardless of how much money is directly earned. It is one that emphasizes that life is about much more than making money or getting ahead: it’s about family, friends, and experiencing the time we have on Earth. Such views cannot be derided as “whiling away the time”; they are central to the working class world and must be respected.

This worldview lends itself to a role for government in people’s lives, but a government that operates in a distinctive way:

A conservative approach would emphasize that help would only go to those who help themselves and to those who need it. That means strong work and behavior conditions attached to entitlements and welfare policies, and sharply reducing corporate welfare and tax deductions for the well-to-do. A conservative approach would reduce where possible government’s monopoly provision of services and let people choose from among providers competing for their favor. A conservative approach would recognize that citizenship means more than voting, and accordingly do more to help people whose lives are unduly stressed because of economic dislocation.

This kind of conservatism is obviously in tension with egalitarian liberalism, which is less moralistic, more cosmopolitan, and (usually) more invested in centralized public provision. But it is also in tension with libertarian strains of conservatism, which emphasize shrinking government’s footprint.



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