The Diversity of the White Working Class

The recent firestorm of debate stirred by Thomas Edsall’s New York Times report of a behind-the-scenes plan by “Democratic operatives” to “explicitly abandon the white working class” reveals more about the degraded state of political journalism than it does about either Democratic operatives or the working class.

Edsall is a highly respected member of the political punditry who has made a good living covering and analyzing American politics for more than 30 years.  So you’d think he’d know that three items in his lead paragraph are spectacularly false:

  • The “Democratic operatives” referred to as hatching the abandonment plan, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, are not employed by the Democratic Party and are, in fact, part of a diverse group of independent Democratic analysts who are seeking to influence the party’s, and especially President Obama’s, 2012 election campaign.  They are influential, but their views are countered by many others, most of whom pay no attention whatsoever to a “working class.”
  • Teixeira’s and Halpin’s new paper, The Path to 270: Demographics versus Economics in the 2012 Presidential Election, not only does not advocate that the Dems abandon the white working class, but systematically weighs the importance of the white working-class vote in the 12 most important battleground states in next year’s election.  Indeed, as Edsall must surely know, Teixeira, writing with various co-authors over the past decade, has done more than any other political analyst to call attention to the existence of a “working class” in our supposedly “middle-class society.”
  • Finally, there is this howler:  “For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly severe losses among white voters.”  How could Edsall not know how wrong that is? According to his own newspaper’s  comprehensive report of exit polls since 1972, while us white folks have been strongly Republican in presidential elections for decades, we are substantially less so than we used to be.  From 1972 through 1992, for example, whites voted for Democratic presidential candidates only 36% on average, but from 1996 through 2004 the average was 42%, and Obama got 43% in 2008.  Indeed, in the ten presidential elections from 1968 through 2004 white men (the most Republican of demographic groups) on average voted 35% for Dems, but gave Obama 41% of their vote in 2008. Continuous electoral losses for sure, but the opposite of “increasingly severe.”

These are all pretty big mistakes for a political pro.  Edsall’s misreading and mischaracterization of Teixeira and Halpin is probably willful – in order to argue against a straw man or, cable-news style, simply to get attention.   The confusion about white voters, on the other hand, is likely the result of sheer ignorance shared by many in his craft.

In their new study Teixeira and Halpin break down the projected 2012 electorate into three parts:

  • People of color (blacks, Latinos, Asians & self-identified “others” of all classes), an increasingly large proportion of the electorate that should constitute 28% in 2012.  This group gave Obama 80% of their vote in 2008, thereby overcoming a 55 to 43% McCain majority among white voters.
  • The white middle class (whites with at least a bachelor’s degree), also a growing portion of the electorate that should be 36% of all voters next year.  47% of this group voted for Obama in 2008.
  • The white working class (whites without a bachelor’s degree), a declining group in the electorate that should also be 36% in 2012 – the first time in American history that these two groups of whites will make up equal proportions of voters.  In 2008 the white working class nationally gave Obama only 40% of its vote.

Teixeira and Halpin are optimistic about the long-term future of Democrats as we move toward a “majority minority” population by 2050, with people of color (the strongest Dem group) increasing their share of the electorate with each election cycle and the white working class (the strongest GOP group) decreasing its share.  Another demographic reason for optimism, according to Teixeira and Halpin, is that the “millennial” generation (people now aged 10 to 33) has been a strong Democratic group thus far and will also grow over the next several election cycles.  Whites aged 18 to 29 in 2008, for example, were the only white age group that gave Obama a majority – 54%, while whites aged 30 and up voted Dem in the 41-42% range.

While long-term demographics favor Democrats, stagnant economic growth and high unemployment go strongly against them in 2012.  Getting to 270 measures these demographics against economic conditions and Obama’s approval ratings in the 12 battleground states.  This is the part of their analysis that is the most complex and interesting, as each state is perversely unique in how these variables play out.  Michigan, for example, has one of the largest white working classes in the country (52% of the electorate in 2008), but they voted against the national trend, giving Obama a majority of their votes in 2008, but the white middle class in Michigan did not.  Today Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (11.1%), but people in Michigan (all classes and colors combined) give Obama a well-above average job approval rating of 50%.

Going state by state and region by region, you get a different picture of the white working class and of the white vote in general.  It turns out that whites, including the white working class, are a lot more diverse politically than the national numbers indicate.  All national numbers – including everyday poll numbers — are distorted by just how one-sidedly Republican white voters are in the South.  Since 1980 white southerners have voted in the low 30s for Democratic presidential candidates, while white voters in the rest of the country have been trending up toward the high 40s.  Indeed, whites in the Northeast have given Dems a majority in the last four presidential elections, while whites in the Midwest and West voted 47% and 49% respectively for Obama.

For an extreme example of how diverse white working-class voters can be, consider this: in 2008, 57% of them voted for Obama in Massachusetts compared with only 9% in Alabama.   Besides Michigan and Massachusetts, 12 other states had white working-class majorities for Obama in 2008: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

The broad patterns that Teixeira and Halpin assert do apply in most states, and the terms of their analysis are interesting and insightful in every state.  They do not do enough, in my view, to emphasize the diversity among white voters and especially among working-class whites – by state and region, by age, by religion, and by whether they are in a union household or not.  But their state-by-state analysis illustrates again and again what a wildly, quirkily diverse group working-class voters are.  And unlike the various pundits who have been commenting on their work, they never purport to guess at what “the white working class” thinks and feels because they know they’re not all Archie Bunker and his wife Edith and that some folks have been a-changin’ in the past 30 years.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

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8 responses to “The Diversity of the White Working Class

  1. Pingback: Stereotyping the White Working Class « Talking Union

  2. Pingback: Stereotyping the White Working Class | Working-Class Perspectives

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  5. Metzger makes very good points, but misses the most important one. names that there is no “white working class”. There is only the “white” (self-identified) section of a very mixed US working class, and which is VERY poorly defined by having less than a Bachelor’s degree. See Michael Zweig’s new edition of his book The Working Class Majority. His usage is much more helpful both analytically and certainly for developing a strategy broader the the next election cycle, which has not worked for workers for over a generation. There is a reason Occupy and it’s 99% formulation have been so effective.

  6. Well done, Jack! This is the kind of thoughtful and nuanced analysis we need in working class studies to more fully understand the complex interplay of race and class. For too long, white working class people have been clumped together and treated as a homogenized – and politically reactionary – mass. In my memory, this dates back to the era of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, when the so-called “Silent Majority” was concocted as a seething, but passive, white, working class blob. Although this constituency was *created* in the late 1960s, and given legs by the TV character, Archie Bunker, it was presented as a “discovery” by Agnew & Nixon. The political power & purpose of this categorization of white workers simultaneously drove a wedge between white workers and African American workers, and between white workers and liberal/progessive middle-income professionals and students — a brilliant conservative trick to sow dissent and division among the constitutencies of the Civil Rights and Anti Vietnam War movements, the most important social movement for working class people in the 1960s. Once “discovered” (invented), this fabricated portrayal of white working class people took on a life of its own – maturing, perhaps, in Frank’s book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Thank you, Jack Metzger, for unpacking the errors and ideological motor behind distorted images of a unified strata of racist, white working class people. The clarity you offer will strengthen our anti-racist, working class mobilizations in 2012, and in the years ahead.

  7. Good analysis of the available data. I never knew that Steve Jobs and I are “working class”, while the person I buy my coffee from is “middle class”. Perhaps there are better indicators than a bachelors degree to determine class.

  8. Excellent points. Working class voters are still a critical voting block and any viable strategy for building a governing Democratic majority must include this important segment of the electorate.

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