Lance Selfa wrote a prescient article with that title in Socialist Worker over a year ago (1-13-16). The following is an abridged and slightly edited version:
“Writing in the conservative-leaning Real Clear Politics, political scientists David Brady and Douglas Rivers described Trump’s supporters as: ‘a bit older, less educated and earning less than the average Republican. Slightly over half are women. About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34% over 65 years old and less than 2% younger than 30. One half of his voters have a high school education or less, compared to 19% with a college or post-graduate degree. Slightly over a third of his supporters earn less than $50,000 per year, while 11% earn over $100,000 per year.’
It appears that white people are doing what they’ve often done when times are tough: blame brown people. Trump’s happy to fan those flames if it keeps his circus rolling another day or two. Conservatives also win over some members of the working class with conservative positions on abortion and gay rights and concerns about Muslim terrorism.
Is the ‘white working class’ really the main base of reaction in this country?
For pundits and scholars alike, the most common definition of the ‘white working class’ is whites who didn’t obtain a bachelor’s degree or higher. While education level is certainly related to the types of jobs people do, the main reason for adopting education level as a proxy for class is one of convenience, according to Andrew Levison in his The White Working Class Today. It’s far easier to capture education level than occupation on surveys. By this definition, ‘working class whites’ make up about 44% of the 18-and-over U.S. population.
Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed no difference among whites possessing a bachelor’s degree or less in terms of voting for Barack Obama – all groups came in around 37-38%. Only whites holding more advanced degrees than a bachelor’s voted in their majority (52%) for Obama.
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes that non-college-educated whites in the lowest third of income distribution have been more likely to vote Democratic over the past few decades. Bartels concludes that most of the shift to Republicans that did take place among non-college-educated whites took place in the South, which was also true among those in the middle and upper ends of the income spectrum.
The non-college-degreed part of the population also overlaps more heavily with older people, who tend to be more culturally traditional.
Beltway pundits talk about all white working class people as the conservative ‘base,’ with all the gun-toting, Rush Limbaugh-listening stereotypes that image implies. But when you look beyond the caricature, you find a more varied reality.
Just as there are liberal billionaires like George Soros, there are workers who identify as conservatives. Even in the heyday of Democratic Party liberalism, a solid 35-40% of workers, including unionized workers, supported Republicans in election after election. What’s more, the Republicans’ ‘Southern strategy’ of using coded appeals to racism, pioneered in the late 1960s and ’70s, was aimed at least in part in winning layers of white workers to support the Republican opposition to government spending on the undeserving (black) poor.
Non-college whites not identifying as Hispanic or Latino amount to more than 104 million people 18 years old and older, according to U.S. Census figures from 2014. The group includes the full range of occupational experiences. According to Levison’s calculations, half of white non-college men work in blue-collar jobs, while the other half work in white-collar jobs. For white women without a bachelor’s degree, the split is about 3-to-1 in favor of white collar jobs. And, adds Levison: ‘Many workers are now also small businessmen. In large cities one can still walk by large construction sites where hundreds of unionized hard-hat workers are employed, but in single-family-home and small commercial construction, you’ll see instead a collection of pickup trucks and vans with the signs of independent contractors stenciled on their sides.’
Such occupational distinctions within the broad category of ‘non-Hispanic whites without a bachelor’s degree’ means that significant numbers of people in this group may see political issues not from the perspective of a worker, but from that of a small businessperson. Even given that, however, as Levison writes in analyzing research on this group’s attitudes towards religion, immigration, and military intervention, attitudes are sharply polarized between an intolerant and militaristic minority numbering 25% or less and a much more tolerant and open-minded majority.
Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community outreach arm, regularly canvases working-class Americans on political and social issues. According to one of its internal memos, quoted by Levison, ‘One-third of the people we talk to are with us. One-third will never be with us. The challenge is to reach the middle third.’ In 2016 terms, the one-third ‘with us’ are likely to be supporters of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, while the one-third that will ‘never be with us’ might be part of the GOP base, with the middle third being up for grabs.
So the ‘white working class’ has a greater diversity of political opinions than the standard media stereotypes allow. But it’s nevertheless true that at least a section of that group has apparently gravitated towards Trump’s reactionary and xenophobic candidacy. Why would working-class voters support a blowhard billionaire and a party whose economic policies are crafted to serve Corporate America and the very rich? To many liberals, this phenomenon is either unfathomable or another piece of evidence to confirm their suspicion that much of the American electorate is easily duped.
Trump appeals to his supporters’ sense that the U.S. is in decline, and that the main culprits for this are immigrants, Muslims, the Chinese government, and those in the U.S. who aren’t ‘strong’ enough to stand up to these supposed villains. This narrative resonates with a large section of the U.S. population that’s endured several decades of stagnating or declining living standards and dashed expectations. Between 1970 and 2014, the aggregate income of households defined as middle-income has declined from 62% of total income to 43%, and the groups that have experienced the greatest downward mobility are all people without four-year college degrees. The occupations falling downward are traditionally thought of as ‘blue-collar’ or ‘pink-collar’ jobs that mostly require a high-school diploma or a two-year college degree: sales, administrative services, transportation, mechanics and repairers, operators, and transportation. Latinos and immigrants also struggled, which exposes the error of blaming them (instead of managers and executives, who made out like bandits) for declining working-class living standards.
On the eve of his inauguration as president in January 2009, Barack Obama’s popularity had reached 80%, and large numbers of Americans had high expectations for his administration. A majority of those surveyed by USA Today believed the new president would be able to achieve every one of 10 major campaign promises, from doubling the production of alternative energy to ensuring that all children have health insurance coverage. Two years later, the formerly discredited and out-of-touch Republicans scored a historic landslide victory in the 2010 midterm election. After Obama’s re-election in 2012 and another setback for the GOP, the Republicans increased their hold on Congress and statehouses again in 2014.
The Republican sweep has been so broad that the party won a wide majority of governors and the largest percentage of state legislative seats since 1928. From these positions, the GOP has been able to carry out a counter-revolution against union rights, reproductive rights, and aid to the poor at the state level. Meanwhile, Obama’s term in office will be remembered for policies that saved the economy from a Great Depression-like meltdown in a way that prioritized saving the banks, pushing an austerity agenda, and deepening neoliberal economic policies of the last 40 years. These methods have prevented living standards for the working-class majority from returning to pre-recession levels. Despite giving election-year lip service to trade union organization and calling income inequality ‘the challenge of our times,’ Obama and the Democrats have done little to change either one for the better.
It’s well documented that trade union households are much more likely to support liberal economic policies, and that union members are more likely to embrace solidarity across race and ethnic lines than non-union households. Thus, in key states like Ohio and Wisconsin in 2012, white trade union households went overwhelmingly for Obama, while non-union households voted for the Republican Mitt Romney. The long-term decline of unions – not just in terms of collective organization, but in labor’s inability to resist the neoliberal onslaught – has contributed to atomization among workers and a sense that ‘nothing can be done,’ which characters like Trump can exploit. And while the Democrats would seem to have an interest in promoting unions and policies (like single-payer health care) that reinforce a sense that ‘we’re all in this together,’ they’ve proven that they’d rather chase after Wall Street dollars.
Another clear piece of evidence of this: When the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement injected into mass consciousness the powerful idea that the richest and most powerful ‘1%’ were the enemy of the ‘99%,’ the Obama administration didn’t embrace it. Instead, its Department of Homeland Security coordinated the effort to sweep it off the streets. This shouldn’t be any surprise. The Democrats are, after all, as former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips called them, ‘history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.’
For the left, the biggest challenge may not be that it’s losing the working class to the right, but that the Democrats’ bias to the status quo is encouraging more and more working people to conclude that since nothing will really change, it doesn’t matter what they do, in the voting booth or anywhere else. An analysis of voters and non-voters in the 2014 midterm elections showed that the poorest people, who support a social safety net, were more likely to be non-voters. People who were slightly better off – and more likely to agree with the conservative view that government gives benefits to the undeserving, with the obvious racial component involved in that view – were more likely to make it to the polls. This skew in the electorate is a much more compelling explanation for why states with poor populations have elected conservative political leaders and officeholders than the simple-minded liberal view that sees working-class people as fools who will now ‘get what they deserve.’
Bernie Sanders realizes that there’s a problem with Obama’s approach, and his frankly left-wing message is winning over millions of people. Unfortunately, he’s already promised to support whoever the Democrats nominate for president, and the odds are overwhelming that it will be the Obama-like neoliberal Hillary Clinton.
The Democrats may win the presidency, but if they continue to carry out policies that further hollow out living standards for millions of workers, and if the liberal organizations that mobilize support for the Democrats refuse to challenge those policies, the Trump phenomenon may be a signal of worse to come.”