Monthly Archives: March 2009

Two Cheers for the Decline of White Working-Class Voters

Ruy Teixeira, the progressive political scientist who has most consistently pushed the argument that a Democratic majority would not be possible unless Dems paid more attention to white working-class voters and won a larger portion of their vote, has changed his mind.  Co-author in 2000 of The Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, Teixeira has been tracking the intersections of race, class, and gender in electoral politics with increasing persistence and rigor, looking for combinations that would provide the basis for a new New Deal.  His latest effort, New Progressive America, argues that demographic, geographic, and attitudinal changes in the past 20 years make a new long-lasting progressive era not only possible, but highly likely.

Teixeira’s new study walks us through a dizzying array of census and exit poll data, considering the rise of “millennials” (those born between 1978 and 2000), the proliferation of “fast-growing dynamic metropolitan areas,” and the long march of women into the work force and the professions.  But key to his rosy progressive scenario is a creeping progressivism among middle-class whites, a rapid increase in minorities as a proportion of the electorate, and the “rapid decline” of the white working class as a percentage of both the population and the electorate.  As the percentage of voters who are working class and white declines, America is becoming more progressive.  Here’s why.

The single most important part of the Republican Party’s political base today is the white working class.  There are all sorts of controversies and quibbles about how to define both class and race. And dividing the entire electorate (125 million voters) into any four categories is going to grossly simplify reality by abstracting from a maze of other important variables.  (See the national CNN Exit Polls, from which the table below is derived.) But if we use the possession or absence of a bachelor’s degree as the divider between middle class and working class, here’s the basic racial and class breakdown of McCain voters in 2008:

Race & Class

% of all voters

% who voted for John McCain

White Working Class

39

58

White Middle Class

35

51

Nonwhite Middle Class

9

22

Nonwhite Working Class

16

16

As these statistics show, amidst all the talk about America now being a “post-racial society,” there is a huge gap in the way whites and minorities vote, and this gap is largest within the multiracial American working class.

The white working class is the largest racial-class grouping, and it is the only one that gave John McCain a substantial majority.  If white workers had merely split their vote, as the white middle class did in 2008, the Republican Party would no longer be competitive.  It could no longer be a force for opposing increases in the minimum wage, universal national health insurance with a Medicare-like public option, the Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier for workers to form a union, a Making Work Pay tax credit, the creation of “green” manufacturing and construction jobs to fight global warming – and numerous other actions and proposals by President Obama that are intended to benefit the American working class of all hues, including white voters who support the Republican party.  For a progressive Democrat, it seems like the majority of white workers just don’t see their own class interests clearly.

Indeed, this data suggests that progressives like me were wrong when we argued that the Democrats could attract more votes from working-class whites if they presented a strong pro-worker economic agenda.  While Obama’s platform may not have been as strongly pro-worker as progressives can imagine, it was dramatically more pro-worker than the McCain-GOP approach, and it didn’t win the support of working-class whites.   A better explanation might be that the Obama-Democrat economic program was not featured strongly and clearly enough to penetrate a media fog obsessed with political tactics and insecure about reporting real policy differences.  As I pointed out during the election, important aspects of Obama’s campaign platform were “maddeningly vague,” and political reporters did little or nothing to press for details that might have been relevant to workers.  Still, how clear do politicians have to be in contrasting a “tax cut for 95 percent of all Americans” with “Drill, baby, drill”?

Why the white working class in its majority is still so enamored of the Republican Party is a complicated question. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of race.  As Sherry Linkon has pointed out, the easy attribution of greater racism among white workers than among white professionals, lacking evidence as it does, probably tells us more about middle-class class bias than about the white working class.  Instead, this may be an issue of geography: 57% of white workers in Massachusetts voted for Obama, but only 9% voted for him in Alabama.  Finally, as a whole, large majorities of white workers have been voting for the GOP in presidential elections for most of the past 50 years, beginning in 1952. (See Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, page 70, and Teixeira and Abramowitz, The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.)

Still, workers of all hues have good reasons to be more than a little skeptical of promises from Democratic politicians.  Maybe things will change if Democrats deliver on their pro-worker program.  Let’s hope so, because, as Teixeira still insists, despite declining numbers, the white working class will remain a very large slice of the electorate.  And, a unified and  mobilized multiracial working class is still our one best hope for making a world that, in the words of the black man who is now our president, actually does “honor and reward work, not just wealth.”

Jack Metzgar

Responding to the Deindustrialization of Journalism

Almost every week it seems there is a new report about another newspaper falling on hard times.

In February, The Rocky Mountain News closed.

In December, the Detroit Free Press announced that it would only deliver to residents three days a week.

Last month, the Dispatch in Columbus announced 45 layoffs. Yesterday, the Ann Arbor News announced that it was closing and launching a new, strictly online venture. Just last week, Time Magazine‘s online site ran a version of an endangered species list for 10 large metropolitan papers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s inclusion on the list drew fire from the paper’s publisher, who questioned the sources and the methods behind the predictions, and Terrence Egger’s criticisms of the list mirror those often leveled against online journalism at large-reliability of information, credibility of sources, and lack of accountability.

Yet no one can deny a massive media reshuffling. And few will deny that this crisis is sparked by the growth of internet and mobile news sources. In response, most newspapers are trying to hold onto readers and advertisers through their websites. It is now commonplace that the future of news is interlinked with the internet.

Internet journalism, as many have argued, is largely driven by a kind of niche market-users seek out the content and stories for which they find relevance. Media analysts like Jeff Jarvis say readers want to create their own meanings, find and share their own news, and offer their opinions on it all. For Jarvis, news readers want to be their own “hunters and gatherers.”

While this is exciting for journalists, because, in theory, this revolution could free reporters from the drudgery of covering the day-to-day mundane news and allow them to focus on more enterprise and investigative news, it also poses some interesting — and troubling — questions for the future of news consumption, and for journalism educators.

Many of our students are extremely concerned with their vocational possibilities and view their college educations primarily as a means to land a job after they graduate. Can we, in good conscience, continue turning out majors and attracting new ones knowing what we know about the uncertain future of the industry?

We are certain of a few facts:

* Society’s need for information will not diminish.

* Democracy is dependent upon a free and fully functioning press.

* The important skills that journalists possess will always be in demand.

While these points seem certain, the practicalities remain muddy. Where will journalists work? What will they carry with them when they do interviews? How will they deliver the information? Who will pay for it all?

If the advertising model that long supported newspapers is now broken, it is clear that a new method of support for news dissemination must be found.

We believe that non-profits and universities can play a huge role in preserving the fundamental function of journalism as “watchdog,” safeguarding the interests of the public. Indeed the not-for-profit model is already assuming a vital role in the democratic marketplace, as evidenced by organizations like Propublica and numerous news blog sites.

At Youngstown State University, we are developing a project that surfaces some exciting but uncomfortable questions relating to the niche and internet markets: a wire service of enterprise and investigative news from our region.

By organizing a network of student journalists and faculty and professional editors, we envision an outlet for in-depth coverage of important stories too often overlooked or willfully sacrificed by resource-strapped local media. These student-generated stories would be made available to any interested media.

Inevitably, many of the stories will deal with working-class issues, although the editorial focus of the project is primarily geographic. We envision students thinking and reporting about issues of economic re-development and the changing nature of work, because these issues are so much a part of our region.

We see this as a way to help newspapers that are faced with diminished resources in both their print and online platforms to continue to give important content to readers. As newspapers respond to the current crises of the industry by increasingly defining their niches as local, event-based coverage, their constricted resources often leave them ill-equipped to generate significant issues based and investigative reporting.

While we understand that the future of media mandates that students become niche savvy, we wrestle with how to best balance this reality with our mission to educate within a liberal arts curriculum. We worry that a focus on the niche and on the platform could result in the development of a kind of geographic narcissism and an even more troubling critical myopia. We are also uncomfortable with playing a possible role in the continued downsizing of newsroom staff, an issue currently being aired on Jarvis’s blog in connection with a post on CUNY’s NYCity News Service proposal.

One school of thought argues that the best preparation for a career as a journalist is a solid liberal arts education with some emphasis on skills development. Without a strong basic education, a journalist cannot perform the analysis and prioritizing that are necessary for serious journalism. But many journalism programs across the country are flooding their curriculum with multimedia training, sometimes at the expense of the traditional liberal arts education. In these models, the focus is often concentrated on storytelling across multiple platforms, and curricula often weight the medium more heavily than the message.

In the true spirit of the collaborative model that is overtaking online journalism, we are interested in thoughts and feedback about our project and the issues it raises.

Our interest in feedback is fueled by our own discomfort with how to best prepare the next generation of journalists. Journalism has long held an uncomfortable position in higher education. Is it a profession? Is it an academic discipline? These questions, which first surfaced decades ago, continue to haunt us as we move journalism in a new direction defined, in large measure, by technology.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

The “Bigs” vs. the Working Class

It’s no surprise that we spend a lot of time on this site discussing the working class. After all, it is named Working Class Perspectives.

We’re not alone.  Over the eighteen month run up to the general election pundits, professors, poets, and political hacks were consumed with thoughts about the tens of millions of people who, by one definition or another, qualify as working class.

It now appears, however, that far too much time has been devoted to the working class-especially by President Obama.  At least that’s the opinion of Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, who writes in the March 10 edition of Newsweek that the country’s “Establishment” comprised of Beltway insiders, the chattering class including the Manhattan-based media, and Wall Street are  “taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking.”

According to Mr. Fineman, although the President still has the approval of the people [his approval rating has averaged between 65 and 60.8 percent since the inauguration], the Establishment is beginning to mumble that the president may not have what it takes.  He provides a litany of issues that are making the “Bigs,” as he calls them, restive:

  • The failure to call for genuine sacrifice on the part of all Americans, despite the rhetorical claim that everyone would have to “give up” something.
  • A 2010 budget that tries to do far too much, with way too rosy predictions on future revenues and growth of the economy.
  • Obama is no socialist, but critics argue that now is not the time for costly, upfront spending on social engineering in health care, energy or education.

He then concludes “Other than all that, in the eyes of the big shots, he is doing fine. The American people remain on his side, but he has to be careful that the gathering judgment of the Bigs doesn’t trickle down to the rest of us.”

Mr. Fineman is dead wrong.  The fact is, the “Bigs” are the last people Mr. Obama has to worry about for a number of reasons.  First, because they didn’t vote for him.  Second, because they never will.  And third, because his presidency will be doomed if he focuses on mollifying the elites rather than on meeting the needs of the millions of working families those very elites have dragged to the edge of the economic abyss.

It’s apparent that Mr. Obama grasps this point.  He clearly understands that after being ignored by pundits and politicians and suffering abuse at the hands of Wall Street for the last two decades, the working class has more than earned the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame that’s come their way.  After years of wage stagnation, job loss, and the resultant evaporation of the American Dream, the nation’s working families not only need, they undeniably deserve the government’s full attention.

That’s exactly what they’ve been getting from the new chief executive.  Nearly every domestic policy or program emanating from the White House is discussed in the context of its probable effect on workers and the middle class.   And while economists like Paul Krugman and others have raised legitimate questions about how effective the administration’s approach to the crisis may ultimately be, no one has questioned the new president’s concern for or commitment to the millions of men and women who placed their trust in him on November 4.

That commitment is obviously at the heart of the Mr. Obama’s adherence to the bold agenda he has established for his presidency, despite warnings from the all-knowing Establishment that his plans are overly ambitious given the state of the economy.  Far from retracting or retrenching, he continues to move forward with plans to provide tax cuts for the working class, reform health care, increase access to education, and invest in a real energy policy that will create jobs and reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

Just as importantly, he appears to be unmoved by warnings from the “Bigs” that allowing the Bush tax cuts to sunset in order generate the revenue to pay for his programs will stifle growth and job creation.  He recognizes that working families, beset by falling wages and deteriorating home values have sacrificed enough and that efforts to revive the economy will only succeed if sufficient stimulus is directed toward those who need it most.

Contrary to Mr. Fineman’s contention, what Mr. Obama should fear most about the Establishment in not that their discontent will trickle down to the “little people” who live outside the Beltway and Manhattan, but that the “Bigs” will succeed in derailing his effort to remake and reorder America and in so doing cause him to break faith with the people who elected him.  It is then, and only then that his presidency, his legacy, and our country will be in jeopardy.

Leo Jennings

Examining Literacy: A Class Approach

In the suburban community of Poland, Ohio, students at one elementary school participated in a “word parade” in observance of “Read Across America Day.”  Dressed in clothing that conveyed the meanings of words, students learned new words through this event. News accounts of the parade suggest that it was a collaborative effort, involving students, parents, school officials, and community residents. Collaborations like this are common in Poland and the community’s demographics help explain this:

Because research finds that parental involvement at school is generally higher among middle-income, college-educated parents, one might expect parental involvement at school to be high in Poland. Families in this middle-class community have the resources that facilitate parental involvement at school.

Research also finds that increased parental involvement at school is associated with higher levels of reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement (Ibid). The most recent “report card” for the Poland local school district seems to reflect this:

  • Ninety-nine percent of students in Poland’s local school district graduated from high school in 2007. More than 98% of students in the district scored at or above the proficient level in reading, mathematics, and writing.  Satisfying all but one performance measure in 2007-2008, the Poland school district was rated “excellent” in performance last year.

Unfortunately, not all local school districts in Mahoning County can boast of an “excellent” performance rating. Like elsewhere, high performing schools, high levels of parent-school involvement, high income and high literacy are unevenly distributed in Mahoning County, and vary by social class. The Youngstown local school district was placed on “academic watch” last year.

But one can easily argue that Youngstown faces harsher conditions than surroundings suburbs like Poland face. Chronic job loss, population decline, poverty, high crime, and limited access to reliable transportation characterize many Youngstown neighborhoods. These problems tax family and community resources and operate as barriers to increased reading proficiency, literacy, and student achievement.

So, while family and community characteristics in middle-class communities seem to facilitate high literacy and student achievement, family and community characteristics in working-class and poor communities seem to impede such things.  Social inequality is reproduced and, for some groups, illiteracy is passed from one generation to the next.

For the illiterate, illiteracy often means humiliation, poverty, low-wage employment, and an inability to participate fully in society. For American businesses illiteracy has meant lower productivity, more on-the job accidents, and poor product quality, at a reported cost of $30 billion a year.

In an effort to promote increased literacy in Youngstown, the city and county library system recently opened its Newport library branch. The library offers an Early Literacy Center that addresses literacy at “the starting gate”. Complete with books, toys and literacy activities, the Center is designed to help babies learn pre-literacy skills and become successful readers. Located at an intersection that divides Youngstown from surrounding suburbs, the library also has the potential to bring people from Youngstown and surrounding suburbs together.

However, the fight against illiteracy must not end with the development of single early literacy center, or even with the development of two or three centers.  Steps must also be taken to eliminate the poverty, joblessness, crime, neighborhood segregation, the home-school disconnects, and other systemic factors that generate illiteracy in many poor and working-class neighborhoods through our nation.

Denise Narcisse

Hard Lessons: The Challenges of Teaching about Class

I’m teaching a course on working-class culture this semester, a course that always reminds me in forceful ways of just how complex and elusive a topic class is.  That’s one reason why it often gets left out of the curriculum.  In a radio interview a few years ago, I asked two professors from elite institutions why their programs on gender, race, and ethnicity didn’t address class more directly.  Their answer was simple:  “class is too difficult.”  The difficulty has three sources, I think.

First, class is difficult not because it’s invisible in American culture, as some have claimed, but because the way we talk about it creates misconceptions.  In contrast to the survey data Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago, my students seem to think that identifying someone as working class is rude.  They have learned that we aren’t supposed to notice social differences or to draw attention to anyone’s disadvantages.  Focusing on someone’s class – especially if that person is working-class — seems comparable to focusing on a disability or emphasizing someone’s race.  They’ve learned that we’re supposed to focus on how everyone is human and equally valuable.

My students also often insist that upward mobility is available to everyone.  Working-class people, that belief suggests, are therefore responsible for their economic struggles.  They must not be smart enough or work hard enough.  On the other hand, upper-class people fare no better in many students’ eyes:  rich people, they tell, don’t appreciate what they have, and they’re lazy, self-absorbed fools.  In other words, my students define middle-class as normal, and everyone wants to be normal.

The second reason why class is such a difficult topic to make sense of is that the experts – people like me – refuse to define it clearly, insisting that it’s complex, shifting, contingent.  While many scholars base their approaches in the reasonably clear Marxist distinction between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labor, many others complicate the definition by considering multiple variables such as education, income, social status, and so on.  It’s easy to get caught in an unending debate about an individual’s class status, and my students find such debates confusing.  But, as I remind them, Working-Class Studies is less about how we define class and more about how it affects people’s lives.  That leads us to focus more on culture and discourse.  We’re more interested in how working-class people think, write, act, and interact than we are with drawing sharp lines between classes.  That makes our work complex, which is useful in academic terms, but that can also make it confusing.

I can handle these first two challenges by guiding students through readings, discussions, and applying what they’re learning to new situations.  My students usually come away from a few weeks of concentrated examination of class theory and images of class with the vocabulary and conceptual models to think critically about how class works.  They may not feel completely confident of their understanding even at the end of fifteen weeks, but, as I tell them, I’ve been studying class for more than fifteen years and I still struggle with the concept at times.

The last challenge of teaching about class is harder to resolve:  class is challenging because it’s personal.  It makes us all recognize aspects of our lives that we’d prefer to ignore.  Talking about class makes us question our own social positions, and students sometimes find that their long-cherished identities as middle-class people begin to shift as the course progresses.  That’s often uncomfortable.

The discomfort is compounded when we talk about the limitations of upward mobility.  Most of my students have a deep faith that getting a college education will improve their social and economic positions.  They’re right.  But they have to recognize the obstacles that could block their progress up the class ladder.  Many are the first in their families to attend college, much less graduate school.  They sometimes struggle not only to pay for school but simply to justify it.  “What are you going to do with that?” their aunts and uncles ask at every family gathering.  And the truth is that they don’t know: they’re pursuing degrees in English and American Studies that not only won’t make them rich but may not even lead to a job.  And they’re attending a working-class regional state university has less status than a selective liberal arts college or well-known research institution.  Simply put, they don’t want to wrestle with the contradiction between the ideal of higher education as a ticket to the middle class and their fears that maybe, in the end, they won’t be good enough to move up.

I don’t tell them these things to make them feel bad.  Rather, I want them to understand that the deck may be stacked against them.  They need to know that working hard might not be enough.  I want them to understand that social class is not a reflection of individual worth or effort but rather the result of a social system that doesn’t distribute opportunity equally.  I also want them to recognize the strengths of working-class culture, so that they can appreciate where they’ve come from and understand that moving up may bring loss as well as gain.

Working-Class Studies is complex and sometimes contradictory.  I want my students to understand how class affects their lives, but I also want them to learn not to take it too personally.  I hope that they will continue to work hard and dream big, but I also hope that they will recognize how their lives are shaped by social forces, not just their own efforts and abilities.  Their futures may not rest completely in their own hands, and that’s a difficult lesson for anyone.

Sherry Linkon