The white working class is under the microscope.
Facing bleak economic prospects and opioid overdose, wage-labor rage is alternatively credited and blamed for propelling the Sanders and Trump insurgencies. But a growing number of dissident analyses contend that this new conventional wisdom rests on lazy assumptions: Trump supporters are well to do, Sanders’ advantage is based on age rather than income, and whites aren’t really that poor anyhow compared to black and Latino people.
The debate is an empirical one but emerges from general elite agita over just what to think of these people who many comprehend with the nuance that generally pertains to cartoon characters. From the liberal establishment, it’s about painting Sanders as a phenomenon rooted in white college students. On the right, it’s a plain meltdown over Trump's usurpation. But whether it be derision or dismissal coming from liberals or conservatives the upshot is diminishing the import and possibility of class politics in the United States.
At the National Review, Kevin Williamson unloaded on a “white American underclass…in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.” Eschewing obvious economic and historical explanations, Williamson declared, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”
His colleague David French doubled down, explaining that some poor white people he had known were just plain repugnant. “If they couldn’t find a job in a few days — or perhaps even as little as a few hours — they’d stop looking. If they got angry at teachers or coaches, they’d drop out of school. If they fought with their wife, they had sex with a neighbor. And always — always — there was a sense of entitlement.”
It was a big moment to have so many right-wing elitists frankly admitting that they despised poor whites as much as they do poor blacks.
As for affluent white liberals, they are obliged to profess their affection for poor black people even as they organize their entire lives around avoiding sending their children to school with them. Hating poorer whites, of course, isn’t just about class but about race as well: classy, well-educated white people need to create a white racial identity purged of the trash. People like Jonathan Chait, who wasn't joking but entirely serious when he wrote that “the factor I think everybody missed” about Trump’s surprise victory is that “The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.”
Trump’s “appeal operates not at a low intellectual level but at a sub-intellectual level,” writes Chait, a purported intellectual targeting his argument at the well-heeled geniuses who pledge to move to Canada because Republicans every four years. “I do believe that to watch Donald Trump and see a qualified and plausible president, you probably have some kind of mental shortcoming.”
But it is Jonathan Chait, of course, who after years at America’s finest liberal journals is plainly not just an idiot but a bigot as well. Frankly, Chait's piece reads like the foreword to a eugenics manifesto. As Connor Kilpatrick writes at Jacobin, “The party has established a clear line on the white wage-earning class: they’re all either dying (demographically or literally), irrelevant in an increasingly nonwhite country, or so hopelessly racist they can go off themselves with a Miller High Life-prescription-painkiller cocktail for all they care.”
The Democratic coalition, led by elites and counting on the votes of non-whites, just doesn’t need them.
“Sure, coal country doesn’t love her,” writes The Guardian’s Lucia Graves, downplaying West Virginia’s rejection of Hillary Clinton. “Sure, voters there don’t believe she simply ‘misspoke’ when talking of her clean-energy plan. Sure, states with a 91% white electorate like West Virginia don’t love her. She doesn’t need them to.”
Alternatively hailed as the key to understanding contemporary politics and dismissed as a demographically doomed socio-political backwater, the white working class is everywhere and nowhere at all.
At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver contends that Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, working class. According to his May 3 story, “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000…That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.”
There are important lessons here: for one, nearly one-in-10 Trump households, according to Silver’s data, pull in more than $199,000. This is important to remember because conservative political movements, though typically cloaked in common-man garb, have in fact long derived much support from the relatively affluent. The Nixon revolution, as historian Matthew Lassiter argues, was powered more by middle-class people eager to protect suburban segregation than by Klan-affiliated and George Wallace-enamored rednecks.
The same seems true of the Tea Party whose backers, The New York Times reported in 2010, “are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class.” What got less attention, however, was the caveat that “55 percent are concerned that someone in their household will be out of a job in the next year. And more than two-thirds say the recession has been difficult or caused hardship and major life changes.” Better-off-than average doesn’t always add up to economic security.
Silver’s analysis adds important nuance but ultimately performs a deceptive magic trick: He makes the white working class disappear.
But here they are.
The data Silver relies on shows that Trump voters have the lowest median household income of any Republican candidate. If there are working class Republicans, and there certainly are, the evidence says they have broken for Trump. And since poor people are far less likely to vote than people with more money, the percentage of those poor people voting who do back a given candidate matters.
Some affluent Republicans like Trump. Definitely. But Trump’s focus on xenophobic economic populism has no doubt served him well from Indiana and West Virginia to the General Dynamics old timer sitting across from me yesterday at the Rhode Island DMV.
One finding that’s hard to ignore: Trump support is highly correlated to areas where the death rates of middle-aged white people, fueled by opioid overdoses, are spiking. No doubt xenophobia and white nationalism is driving Trump's rise. But its the admixture of economic populism, however phony, that makes him so potent.
Not only are people in the bottom and middle getting squeezed, many in the middle are falling into the bottom or fear that they will. Wages have been stagnant. Median household income and wealth plummeted during the Great Recession. At the same time, healthcare, childcare, higher education, housing and retirement costs have risen. Since 1979, the share of working-age American households making within 50-percent of the median has steadily declined. Importantly, class self-perception has shifted too, with many fewer Americans identifying as middle class and many more identifying as lower class. In particular, the number of young people identifying as lower or lower-middle class has skyrocketed.
It should be expected that voter incomes exceed those of larger populations including non-voters. Missing that distorts analyses of any given candidates’ class appeal.
At Vox, Jeff Stein had a valuable but, I think, similarly misplaced analysis of Sanders’ working class support. “Sanders's victories aren't being powered by a groundswell of white working-class support, but instead stem from his most reliable base since the start of the primary: young voters,” Stein argues. “Because young voters also tend to have lower incomes, the massive age gap between Sanders and Clinton has sometimes looked to observers like a gap in economic class…But the most salient divide in the primary is not between rich and poor. It's between young and old — and between white and black.”
This, however, is a bit of a straw man: no one that I’m aware of has argued that Sanders is beating Hillary Clinton among older white working class voters. Instead, what is remarkable is that a self-proclaimed democratic socialist bashing the super-rich is winning a surprising share of those voters — and yes, crushing her among youth. This is a big deal for American politics: since Nixon and Reagan, conservative politics exploiting racist sentiment have made the white working class a major obstacle to transformative left-wing change. Sanders has shown that’s no longer as true as it once seemed.
Stein’s analysis also points to a pitfall of the current quantitive fixation: he doesn't take account qualitative data, like the rousing endorsement from the union representing outsourced Carrier workers in Indiana, which suggest that Sanders’ message is connecting with many working class voters in a fairly obvious and commonsense manner.
What’s more, as Stein concedes, it’s wrong to describe youth, looking out at a future of debt and economic precarity, as not working class. It's not just temporarily “poor” college students skewing the numbers. Among white Democrats between the age of 30 and 39 in households making $50,000 or less a year, Sanders polls better than Clinton, according to Reuters/Ipsos polls—and amongst those making less than $25,000 too. Clinton, however, wins that age group among white Democrats making $100,000 or more.
Finally, there is Jamelle Bouie’s critique that “pundits consistently miss the degree to which America is browner and blacker than it’s ever been.” But again: I don’t know anyone who makes an argument to the contrary.
Black and Hispanic people are, on average, much poorer than white people. Centuries of white supremacy have done a very good job of ensuring that American capitalism works that way. Bouie, however, misleads when he states that “many” in the “new” working class “support Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic primary.” In reality, Sanders polls way ahead of Clinton among black and Latino 18 to 34 year olds in households making $50,000 or less.
One big unanswered question underlying this debate is just what it means to be working class. The critiques, I think, rest on a false conflation of “working class” and “poor.” Silver, for unexplained reasons, rules out anyone living in a household making more than $50,000 a year from being working class. That is simply wrong. In reality, working class people can also be middle class thanks to the post-war economic expansion and union movement. A two-earner household making $72,000 a year working in construction and dental hygiene is not destitute, can still afford to take a vacation, and maybe even sends their kids to Catholic school. But they’re still working class.
Simply put, Sanders support cannot be reduced to white college students.
Interpreting voting patters is so complex that it's ultimately impossible to do with precision, including the thorny question of why many black voters didn’t support a left candidate offering more radical solutions to problems that disproportionately harm black people. One convincing and unsurprising explanation, and no single explanation is sufficient, is that black voters are more partisan because of their history of oppression and are thus more likely to rally behind a known Democratic entity ready to take on a clear Republican enemy. This is especially true in the South, where Clinton performed better with black voters, and where Democrats are heavily black and Republicans decidedly white.
As Collier Meyerson wrote in the New Yorker, “Blacks in the South may have a harder time supporting an avowed socialist from Vermont, who only recently embraced the Democratic Party, in part because their identification with the Party brand historically has reigned supreme.”
Zooming out a little, what’s really surprising is that any group outside the small universe of committed leftists backed Sanders in large numbers: even supporters initially assumed that his candidacy was going to be nothing more than a protest irritant. And the Sanders coalition, for all its shortcomings, points toward a possibly bold future for left American politics.
The Democratic Party has experienced two major left-wing revolts in the past four decades. The first was led by Jesse Jackson, who mobilized from a strong black base and tried but mostly failed to reach out to white workers. This year came Sanders, who started from a weak white base, expanded it, and tried but ultimately failed to win over enough black workers. There is no reason to think it unlikely that next time a candidacy with more foresight can be built from a youthful and multi-racial foundation— and then win over large swaths of both constituencies.
“It’s my sisters and brothers who have had their manufacturing jobs taken and pensions cut, who have a perpetual cycle of low wages,” Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and prominent black Sanders supporter told Meyerson. “I heard it from the white middle class, too…A white working-class man has the same concerns as a black working-class man.”
And this, I think, is what explains the elite liberal anxiety. If the Jackson and Sanders coalitions can join forces, the liberal elite become politically expendable. But insulting the white working class or trying to render it invisible won’t make it disappear.