Category Archives: Working-class politics

Voting on the American Dream

In between the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was asked to review an article concerning the attitudes of displaced workers toward their plight. The study suggested that cultural narratives shape the social and political consciousness of those suffering economic distress in both positive and negative ways.  The article made me think about the convention speeches and the impact that they may have on working- and middle-class listeners whose lives have been disrupted by the Great Recession. How might they use the words and cultural narratives suggested in the convention speeches?

The New York Times actually tracked how often the Republicans and Democrats used certain words at their conventions. Other than the names of the presidential candidates, God, and taxes, the most common terms at both conventions were work, jobs, families, opportunity, economy, and success. All of these terms are closely associated with the American Dream, which was also mentioned frequently.

The frequent use of these words is to be expected, given that the American Dream has been the most dominant aspirational and cultural narrative in our county. Among other things, the American Dream suggests that through hard work and education individuals could improve their standard of living and that improvement would continue for each successive generation.  But that narrative has become contested because of declining socio-economic conditions and downward class mobility. A question now being heard, as noted in an NPR story last spring, is whether the American Dream is still viable, or has it become a nightmare?

To answer that, it helps to consider the political uses of the American Dream.  Political economists have suggested that it has served hegemonic purposes, allowing small but powerful groups to exercise political power with high levels of popular consent. In the case of the American Dream, they suggest, elites have used this powerful narrative to create a social and political consciousness that would not threaten the privileged.  For example, some elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support.  A recent example appeared in the Republican convention, which emphasized the claim that “We  Built It” in response to President Obama’s suggestion that businesses don’t build the roads and infrastructure that allow their enterprises to succeed.

But what happens when the American Dream becomes discredited?  Does it lose its ability to shape political consciousness? As the Occupy Movement has shown, the American Dream has been betrayed, and today the story of America is characterized by injustice, inequality, and unfairness.  But that movement created what’s called a counter-hegomonic narrative, a story that made clear that the Dream is no longer attainable.  A narrative emphasizing the betrayal of the American Dream could play a powerful role in shaping social and political attitudes and in deciding the election this year, as the study I mentioned earlier suggested.

Of course, candidates still insist on citing the American Dream in their speeches.  But while some people still find hope in that narrative, others recognize that their own situation reveals the Dream’s contradictions. So what will be the dominant influence?  Hope?  Or a change in the way we think about the American Dream?

I suspect that people will look more critically at the limitations of the American Dream narrative than they have in most previous elections. A recent Pew Research study shows that Americans increasingly define themselves as lower class. The greatest shifts occurred among adults under 30, especially whites and Hispanics and those without a college degree (whom pollsters often consider working-class), though many who have college degrees also identified as lower class.  The pattern holds across political affiliations, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More important, those who identified as lower class also supported the idea that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, and they expressed little optimism for the future.

Given that, politicians would do well to go beyond embracing the American Dream and instead identify clear strategies for renewing its viability.  Unfortunately, neither party has been able to suggest anything except increased education,  and they offer few concrete plans to help more people attain that.  Most of the time, the best they can do is make oblique references to raising the standard living and improving trade and manufacturing policies.  Despite their fervent statements of faith in the American Dream, what we’re hearing is mostly aspirational political rhetoric.  And many Americans just aren’t buying it anymore.

That skepticism might, eventually, provide the foundation for broader discontent, which could take many forms.  As Election Day gets closer, perhaps the biggest threat to both parties, but especially the Democrats, is apathy and resignation from voters who no longer believe in the American Dream.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

Stereotyping the White Working Class

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs here, here, and here, Democratic politicians led by President Obama have consistently claimed that they are resolutely for a catch-all “middle class,” even as Democratic political strategists, operatives, and pundits publicly worry about losing too many votes among a “white working class” that has no place in the politicians’ messaging.

They worry because, within a simplified racial + class breakdown of the electorate, the white working class (typically defined as white folks without bachelor’s degrees) is both the largest group of voters (about 2 of 5 in 2008) and the one that votes the most lopsidedly Republican.

Democrats typically win people of color by huge margins (about 80/20, or by 60 percentage points in 2008), while losing the much larger group of whites by smaller margins (about 12 points in 2008).  Among white voters, Dems have recently been coming close to breaking even among whites with bachelor’s degrees (Obama lost by only 4 points in 2008 among this “white middle class”), while continuing to lose the “white working class” by much larger margins (18 points in 2008).  If the President does too much worse than that among working-class whites (say, getting only 35% of their votes vs. 40% in 2008), Mitt Romney will be our president.

This three-part breakdown of the American electorate is much too simple, of course, and it is disheartening for those of us who dream of (and have worked for) the kind of working-class solidarity that could change basic economic and political power relations in this country.  But simplified conceptual schemas are inevitable and necessary in organizing the overwhelming complexity of social reality, and this crude combo of race and class is better than the schemas that preceded it, which grossly overestimated the size and suburban character of the “educated middle class.”  It at least recognizes that there is a working class and that not all whites are middle class or affluent.  It is also practically wise for Democrats to be concerned about winning a larger slice of this part of the electorate.

But there’s the rub.  Democrats cannot do better among working-class whites if they envision them as a uniform group that thinks and feels the same way everywhere, as the political pros quite often do.  That is, an overwhelmingly middle-class and upper-class set of politicians, operatives, and pundits appear to have so little direct experience of working-class people of any color that they consistently fall into stereotyping that clouds their vision and often insults the voters they are trying to persuade. At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, President Obama articulated the stereotype with unusual clarity (and nuance if you listen to the whole speech) when he expressed some empathy for those who “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.”

There are white workers who cling to their guns or religion or their racism and nativism – I could give you some names and addresses!  But there are many others who do not.  It seems as if sophisticated, very well-educated people whose vocation involves electoral politics should recognize that within a demographic category including nearly 50 million voters, not everybody thinks and feels the same way.   Start with the 40% nationally who vote pretty consistently Democratic in presidential elections.  Why do they do that?  How are they different from those who vote consistently Republican or the group that goes back and forth?

These are the questions Andrew Levison recently addressed in an article posted on the Democratic Strategist blog, “The White Working Class is a Decisive Voting Group in 2012 – and Most of What You Read About Their Political Attitudes Will Be Completely Wrong.”  Using the 2011 Pew Political Typology survey that asked voters to choose between “liberal/progressive” and “conservative” policy statements, Levison found that about 26% of white working-class voters were “progressive true believers” and 27.5% were “conservative true believers.”  The largest group, at about 46%, however, is what Levison calls “ambivalent/open-minded.”  These may be congenital “moderates” or “low-information voters,” but Levison focuses on something he has directly observed among white workers – a willingness to acknowledge truth in both of two contradictory positions.  These are people, he says, “who do think quite seriously about issues, but do so in a fundamentally different way than do ideologically committed people.”  He calls them “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers (emphasis added).

The answers in the Pew survey are interesting and insightful in themselves, but Levison’s willingness to wade into the complexity of white working-class political thinking and to come out with a clarifying (if necessarily simplifying) analysis is especially rewarding.  There is rarely a clear majority of those who “strongly agree” with either of the two statements presented by Pew, but there are some.  For example, 53% strongly agree that “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare,” while another 53% strongly agree that “Business corporations make too much profit” and 70% that “Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.”  Levison finds that the largest group of working-class whites are “cultural traditionalists,” but that “The genuinely consistent white working class conservatives – the Fox News/Talk Radio” hard-line ideologues – represent only about one fourth of the white working class total.”

Stereotyping is always based on taking a part to be a whole.  It is often said that there is “an element of truth in stereotypes.”  There is not.  Rather there is a subgroup within the stereotyped group that fulfills the stereotype.  It may be large, even a majority, or it may be small, but it is always a mistake to think that any part is the same as the whole.  Once committed to a stereotype, observers tend to see only those parts that confirm the stereotype and to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit the expectation. That’s why Levison’s analysis is so valuable.  It confirms that a large part of the white working class fulfills the “culturally conservative/economically populist” stereotype popular among political pundits, while never losing sight of the part that is progressive both culturally and economically and the part that is consistently conservative on both fronts.

The one thing I would add to Levison’s analysis: these different political types are not equally distributed across the country, as any national survey and reasoning about it tend to suggest.  The size and character of the white working-class vote varies greatly from state to state.

Nobody cares, for example, that whites without bachelor’s degrees gave John McCain 6- and 10-point majorities in California and New York in 2008 – first, because they are a relatively small group in those states (27% and 29% respectively vs. 39% nationally), and second, because these states are safely Democratic based on strong majorities among large groups of voters of color and whites with bachelor’s degrees.   Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the part of Virginia where many national media workers live are similar.  My guess is that the national media tends to mistake these parts for the whole.  They don’t mistake Alabama’s average-sized white working class, which gave Obama only 9% of its vote in 2008, for the whole.  But they do tend to project their parts of the country onto many other parts where it does not fit.

Most importantly, in the Midwest battleground states – Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin – whites without bachelor’s degrees were the majority of voters in 2008.  Democrats cannot win in those states with Alabama-type margins going to the GOP, and they will struggle with California/New York-type margins (as they did in Missouri and Ohio in 2008, losing the first and winning the second by narrow margins).  Fortunately, working-class whites in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin not only do not fulfill the racial + class stereotype, in 2008 they reversed it.  In all three states, President Obama won majorities among this group, as he did in 11 other states, including important “leaners” like Oregon and Washington.

I’m hoping Levison’s analysis, placed as it is in an important source of independent Democratic strategizing, may pull Democratic politicians and operatives away from their stereotypes of working-class whites.  Levison urges Dems to focus on the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers and to make their case fully and frankly, and I would add, in some detail.  This rather than bobbing and weaving so as not to offend a “typical conservative white worker” who is but part (though admittedly often a loud part) of a much larger and more complicated whole.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

“Job Creators” and “Capitalists Like Me”

It’s one thing when one of the world’s wealthiest capitalists argues that he is not being taxed fairly because he is not being taxed enough, as Warren Buffett did last August.  But it’s quite another when a wealthy capitalist explains why the kind of gross inequality of income the U.S. now has is actually bad for business.  That’s what Nick Hanauer did in a TED University talk last month about “job creators”:  “In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the middle class. And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the middle class, is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle class, the poor and the rich [emphasis added].”

Hanauer is a super-wealthy venture capitalist who was an early investor in Amazon.com and founded a couple of internet start-ups that were bought by Overstock.com and Microsoft – the latter for a tidy $6.4 billion.  In his TED talk he denied being a “job creator,” and with directness, humor, and plain-spoken common sense, he attacked the notion that folks like him create jobs.  It’s only 6 minutes long, but it sparked an internet fury when TED refused to post the speech on its web site, as it ordinarily does.  Time Magazine’s links-rich retrospective of the controversy that forced TED to post the speech can bring you up-to-date if you didn’t know about it.

Certifiably successful capitalists (and Buffett and Hanauer make Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney’s $250-million net wealth look mediocre) arguing that they should be taxed more is the classic man-bites-dog story that is supposed to attract journalists.  In both cases Buffett and Hanauer did eventually get a fair amount of attention, but only because they are savvy entrepreneurs who made extraordinary efforts to get that attention.  Once attended to, however, they are treated as outliers, interesting personalities, eccentric curiosities – sort of like men who bite dogs – rather than initiating discussion about the issues they tried to raise.

Who or what creates jobs?  How could our tax system be fairer – and simpler?  And what is the connection between jobs and taxes?  These are big issues that should be at the center of the political debate in this year’s election, as the two mainstream political parties have very different answers to them.

First, there is a sense in which capitalists – whether investors, owners, or top management – do create jobs.  They make decisions to start or expand businesses that require new employees.  The question is why they decide to start or expand businesses.  Is it because they have a lot of spare money, or is it because they think they can sell lots more of the product or service they provide, thereby making a handsome profit?  In general, both spare money and profit opportunities based on potential consumer demand are necessary.  But what is more necessary at any given time varies in specific economic circumstances, and the question becomes an empirical one about our current circumstance.   Here’s where facts and figures matter, and we are fortunate to have an extremely clear set of them to answer these questions.

There is lots and lots of spare money in the hands of rich people and corporations, so much that they don’t know what to do with it all, and there’s not enough in the hands of workers and consumers.  This could be a temporary situation based on the continuing slow growth of the Great Recession, but the well-documented huge and growing inequality of income in the U.S. clearly suggests that there is a long-term and worsening problem of insufficient consumer demand.  When the top 10% get about half of all income, with the top 1% getting the lion’s share of that, the bottom 90% does not have sufficient income to provide the consumer demand that would provide enough profitable opportunities for capitalists to use their spare money to expand businesses and, thereby, create jobs.  This is what Nick Hanauer means when he says “the true job creators are consumers,” not “capitalists like me.”

The Republican economic program – whether Mitt Romney’s, the Ryan Plan that was passed in the House of Representatives more than once, or the approach of GOP state governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – responds to a diagnosis of the problem that will not stand empirical scrutiny.  Reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals assumes that capitalist “job creators” are not creating enough jobs because they do not have enough spare money, which is clearly not the case.  Massive, if largely unspecified, cuts in government spending at all levels will further reduce total demand (the sum of consumer, investor and government spending) and, thereby, economic growth.  The combination of cutting these taxes and government spending will further worsen income inequality, making the insufficiency of consumer demand even worse – initiating a new and potentially “greater” recession, as it has in England.

The Democratic economic program – from President Obama’s weak and late-arriving American Jobs Act plus the tax plan in his 2013 Budget to the full-throated Congressional Progressive Caucus’s People’s Budget – increases taxes on top earners and increases government spending for a wide variety of activities that would increase the number of jobs and, thereby, overall consumer spending power.  It assumes that rich people and corporations have enough spare money and that workers and consumers need more.

These are startlingly different directions.  They cannot both be right, and compromise between them, besides being very difficult, would likely involve dilution not correction.  But these are the choices we face this year as American voters.  Both facts and logic favor the Democrats, but that will matter only if they, and especially the President, have the wit and courage to insist on explaining them to so-called “low-information voters.”  So far the President has favored gimmicks like the Buffett Rule rather than clear explanations of why a thorough redistribution of wealth and income is necessary and in the common good.  The President and other Democrats need to make their economic case clearly and boldly.  They should not wait for the occasional capitalist superstar to bite a dog.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

On pasties, poshness and petrol: The new language of class in the UK

On both sides of the Atlantic we have become used to the deployment of proxies for class in political language, but in the UK just recently this has taken a new turn with the political scandal that is ‘Pastygate.’ Now this isn’t a scandal to rival the break-in at the Watergate building, nor is it one to bring down the UK government. Pastygate refers to decision taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on Cornish Pasties when they are heated above ambient room temperature. I know what you are thinking: Sherry has uploaded the wrong blog this week.  But bear with me.

The uproar around Pastygate centred on the fact that this was widely seen as another attack on the working class, insofar as it is they who tend to buy the humble warmed pasty. With VAT running at 20% this was an inflation-busting rise on a working-class fast food staple.  Politicians of left and right have been falling over themselves to be seen eating pasties in the last month, or struggling to remember when they last consumed one, in order to demonstrate their common touch.

At the same time, the budget also saw a widely criticised cut in the top rate of income tax. The Treasury viewed this measure as simply tidying up tax anomalies, but many have read it as part of a bigger narrative of a government of the elite out of touch with ordinary people. Taken together the two tax moves have been woven in to an emerging story that has at its heart class, which we will pick up later.

But first, petrol! British petrol tanker truck drivers have balloted for industrial action over their conditions of service, health and safety fears, and concern over a race to the bottom in terms of wages.  The big oil companies have outsourced the delivery of fuel to gas stations, and the competitive market has seen a wide deterioration in working conditions. Government ministers, while condemning the looming strikes, urged motorists to fill up their tanks while they had the chance, and one even suggested filling up jerry cans to store in the garage.  Roundly condemned by the fire service and the media, the minister involved was portrayed as elitist and out of touch, in part because of the assumption that everyone in Britain would have a garage. The advice caused a fuel shortage as the pumps ran dry as well as a run on jerry cans.

The cumulative effect of these and other stories – apart from the humorous relief it has given to people struggling through a double dip recession and dire unemployment figures – has been a sense that this is a government run by an out of touch elite. Indeed, one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party rounded on him and the Chancellor just last week. Maverick Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Nadine Dorries described both Cameron and Chancellor Osborne as “Two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk” with “no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others, and that is their real crime.”

George Gideon Oliver Osborne used to be just Gideon Oliver.  He describes his decision to change his name to George at age 13 as “his one act of rebellion.”  Osborne is the son of a baronet and Felicity Alexandra Loxton-Peacock. A multimillionaire, Osborne, like Cameron, enjoyed an elite education at private school followed by Oxford University, where both enrolled in the Bullingdon Club, an elite university dining club founded over 200 years ago. Membership elections are held twice a year. Successful new members are visited in their rooms and expected to consume the contents of an entire tin of Colman’s powdered English Mustard.  The rooms are then “trashed” as a symbol of their election. Club members dress in sky blue and ivory colored tailcoats, the whole ensemble costing in excess of $5700. A now infamous picture shows Cameron and other members of the club posing on the steps of a grand building at Oxford.  This image reemerges from time to time and has haunted “Dave” as an unwelcome reminder of his far from ordinary background.

At the beginning of his premiership, Cameron notably said that “we were all in this together,” referring to the collective struggle to endure the greatest peacetime recession in living memory. Deliberately invoking the spirit of the Blitz, he attempted to conjure up a society suffering in equal measure – one with a degree of classlessness. In contrast, the furor over pasties, petrol, and poshness has popularized an image of a group of wealthy elites waging a class war on those below them. The effect, I think, has been – like 1 percent versus the 99 percent slogan of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. — to separate off the elite from an admittedly very diverse mass  – the middle and working class and the unemployed who perhaps share little in common apart from not being part of this uber-elite. And despite Cameron’s effort to invoke classlessness, the language of class has re-emerged in popular discourse, whether it refers to the upper class or to the working and middle classes who perhaps see themselves as having more in common than has been assumed for decade or more.

This new class discourse is driven by the cumulative effect of cuts in government spending, which are causing a huge retrenchment in all kinds of state services provided by central and local government.  While the impact has already been profound, conservative estimates suggest that so far we have experienced just 10% of the full cuts, meaning many more jobs in the public sector as well as numerous services are still to be lost over the next few years. Crucially, this impact is being felt by working and middle class families – either directly in terms of  lost jobs or in the form of public services once assumed to be safe.

At the same time, because of the economic situation, being working class is no longer a pariah state. Equally important, serious questions are being raised about growing and profound income inequality in the UK. In the local elections held at the beginning of May the Conservatives did very badly and commentators in part explained this through the government being viewed as out of touch by the electorate. While pasties aren’t on the menu of the Bullingdon club it seems we are (almost) all pasty eaters now!

Tim Strangleman

Tim Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods.

Work and Taxes

If I earned more than a million dollars a year, I would be for the Buffett Rule – not for the reasons that famous billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros are for it: because it’s just fair.  I’d be for it because in the long run it would save me money by distracting the public from seeing the roots of class warfare as it is fought in the U.S. Tax Code.

The Buffett Rule says simply that anyone who earns more than $1 million a year should pay at least 30% of their income in federal income taxes.  Legislation to institute this rule is supposed to be voted on this week in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Democrats and ballyhooed by the Obama Administration.  It won’t pass the House, of course, so it won’t actually affect anyone’s taxes, but it’s a helluva good campaign talisman for Obama and Democrats to run on.

The point of the Buffett Rule is to avoid the kind of obvious inequity that Warren Buffett pointed to in his August New York Times op-ed:  In 2010 Buffett, the second richest man in the world, paid only about 17% of his income in federal taxes (income and payroll taxes) while the 20 people who work directly for him paid an average of 36% of their much smaller incomes.

The Buffett Rule was not devised by Buffett, but by the Obama Administration.  And the first thing that should be noted is that even at 30%, Buffett and other millionaires will still be paying less than the 20 people who work for Buffett, including his now-famous secretary.  More importantly, however, Buffett was clear about why he and other investors paid lower effective tax rates than most workers: income that you do not work for is taxed at a lower rate than income you do work for.

Why this isn’t a scandal in a country that supposedly prides itself on its “hard-working people” is a mystery to me.  If you get your money by investing in stocks and bonds, your income is taxed at a 15% rate because it is unearned.  What’s more, you pay nothing in payroll taxes (i.e., nothing for Social Security and Medicare) because you’re not on anybody’s payroll.

Buffett himself actually still works and draws a salary, and on that part of his income he pays a top rate of 35% and regular payroll taxes on the first $110,000 of that income. But the vast majority of his income comes from investments – capital gains and dividends – and on that part he pays only 15% and no payroll taxes.  Here’s how Buffett explains it: “If you make money with money . . . your percentage may [even] be a bit lower than mine.  But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine – most likely by a lot.”

Fair shares and percentages aside, the U.S. Tax Code literally says that investors are more valuable than workers, and therefore, should be taxed less. Or it says that investors need more encouragement to invest than workers need to work.  In any case, our tax code fairly screams that only losers and suckers work for a living.

The obvious remedy to this moral abomination is to tax capital gains and dividends (called “unearned income”) the same as wages and salaries (called “earned income”) on the principle that you should not be taxed at a higher rate for earning your income.  That’s how it was after Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 tax reform law, and for most of our history before that.  It was under Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II that investor privilege was installed in our tax code.  (See the Citizens for Tax Justice’s recent report, “Policy Options to Raise Revenue.”)

Taxing capital and labor income at equal rates would produce much more revenue for the government: $53 billion a year, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, while the Buffett Rule would raise only $17 billion (with other estimates being as low as $5 billion).  You can see why as a greedy, but rational millionaire I’d embrace the so-called Buffett Rule in order to shift the focus away from the basic class bias of our tax code.

There is a theory behind privileging investors by taxing them less.  Namely, investors are “job creators,” and any additional taxes on them will lead to less investment and, thus, slower economic growth, fewer jobs, and even higher unemployment than we have now.  I’ve critiqued this theory before, giving it some credence when it was initially articulated in the 1970s, but showing how it is clearly irrelevant today because investment lags not for lack of money (of which investors have plenty), but for lack of consumer demand that would give investors a reason to invest.  But that’s just me.  I’m not one of the greatest investors of all time.  Here’s what that guy said in his August op-ed:

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher . . . . .   According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.  I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

There are a lot better rules to derive from Buffett’s puckish op-ed than the one the Democrats are using to embarrass Mitt Romney, whose effective tax rate of 14% is even lower than Buffett’s.  Taxing all income at the same graduated rates, for example, would be both simpler and fairer.

While I was writing this post, the Obama-Biden campaign sent me an e-mail asking that I sign a petition supporting the Buffett Rule.  I signed it because Obama’s tax policy is way better than Republicans’ proposed tax cuts for the wealthy.  But the at-least-30%-for-millionaires is a political gimmick without principle, and it leaves in place a tax code that dishonors work and the people who do it.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Fighting the Culture Wars — Again!

If you’ve been following the mainstream news cycle over the last month you know that the culture wars are back. With a vengeance. We’ve seen the supporters of women’s health care and Planned Parenthood respond so vehemently when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced funding cuts that the popular breast cancer foundation reversed its decision. We’ve seen the return of Catholic Bishops and Rick Santorum arguing to limiting access to birth control.  We’ve seen hundreds of laws restricting abortion and access to birth control passed in state capitols across the country.

The cultural wars may not, at first glance, have much to do with class, though a look at history provides a context that can help us see the connection. In the 1980s, the culture wars were defined by questions like “what literature should we be teaching?” Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy had one answer: core curricula in “great books” and “Western Civ.” Many of us offered different answers: Ethnic Studies, Third World Studies, American Studies, Post Colonial Studies, and Transatlantic Studies—curricula that would be diverse, inclusive, and a featuring a non-Western-centric narrative.

Race and ethnicity were at the heart of this debate, but class wasn’t far behind. Ironically, perhaps, Hirsch argued that when we lost our common literacy we fractured along class lines as well as racial and ethnic lines. His argument had little basis in sociology, but he was, in some ways, democratic in his goals. At the same time, many of us rejected his thesis because his “cultural literacy” left out the accomplishments of the subaltern, those “under others” not only because of race but also because of class, whose cultures had been left out of the classroom.

The culture wars were re-ignited in the 1990s, but this time with a more sociological bent. In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia argued that America could be divided—not by class, race or gender—but by “culture,” and especially the culture defined by religion. Some Americans, he argued, were anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-church, anti-drug, anti-gay, and pro-censorship. The rest were not.

Pat Buchanan became associated with this kind of culture war when he declared in 1992 that Bill and Hilary Clinton would usher in a culture of “abortion on demand, a [left wing] litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.” This definition of the culture wars has mostly held sway for 20 years, as we have seen social values conservatives (often represented as white, working-class voters) pitted against “limousine liberals.”

In 2010, the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels told the Weekly Standard that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while, until the economic issues are resolved.”  The truce was short lived. Many have speculated that as the economy improves, the Republicans fall back on the culture wars to engage and inspire their base. But many of these same pundits believe that the Republicans are now too far to the right and are out of touch with their own voters. The statistic that 98% of sexually-active Catholic women use birth control, for example, suggests that many Catholic voters would probably support the idea that birth control (which can cost up to $720.00 a year) should be covered by insurance plans.

But if the latest salvos in the culture wars become policy, the effects might hurt poor and working class Americans—and especially poor and working class women—more than anyone else.

In Texas a new law aimed at restricting Planned Parenthood might end the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program, leaving 130,000 poor and working-class women without health care. As for the question of birth control, a 2009 poll showed that the recession has increased the concern among poor and working class women about family planning. Women lower down on the economic scale are more likely to agree with this statement:  “With the economy the way it is, I am more careful than I used to be about using contraception every time I have sex.”  Proposed restrictions on access to birth control will deprive these same women of the ability to practice family planning the way everyone should be able to: easily and affordably.

Restrictions on abortion also affect poor and working-class women disproportionately. When access to abortion is further restricted, or when women are made to undergo painful and shame inducing interviews and/or ultrasounds before having an abortion (as many states have already legislated or are considering doing so now), we are more likely to see an increase in illegal abortions and women attempting to end pregnancies on their own.

Over the last month, as we have seen all-male panels of experts testifying in Congress about birth control and Sunday talk shows made up, again, of male commentators talking about these issues, I have felt angry. And tired. It is so frustrating to feel like we have to re-wage “culture wars” that we won decades ago.

But I guess I have two messages for myself and everyone else who feels the same way. Get over it. Keep fighting. As the artist Barbara Kruger warned us in 1985, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my checkbook.” This year I am going to be reaching for my checkbook, my telephone, my social networks, my neighbor’s doorbell—everything I can think of to make sure that this war on women, and especially the most vulnerable women in our society, in the name of culture, is not won by the wrong people.

Kathy M. Newman

Right-To-Work Laws and Working-Class Voters: Another Teachable Moment

As a professor, I am always interested in teachable moments. When it became apparent in late 2010 that Ohio Governor John Kasich planned to introduce legislation depriving public sector workers of basic bargaining rights, I told reporters that it was a teachable moment about the role of public sector workers. After all, they were the ones who made all other work possible.

Both organized labor and community groups quickly embraced the idea that Ohio Senate Bill 5 could be a teachable moment.  They launched a hugely successful campaign to put a referendum on the bill, Issue 2, on the November ballot, and then led the fight to persuade voters to oppose the issue and overturn the bill.  Kasich’s attack and the forceful response to it may make it possible for Obama to win Ohio in 2012,  despite economic conditions and 2010 election results that would seem to prime the state to swing to the right this time.

Another teachable moment has arrived now that Republicans have introduced Right-to-Work legislation in New Hampshire and passed it in Indiana.  Similar legislation may be on the way in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Such moves may well undermine the historic white working-class support of Republicans, and that could bode well for Obama’s re-election.

RTW legislation differs from past Republican attacks on unions. As labor historian Joseph McCartin has recently chronicled, while courting union endorsements and union voters, Republicans have pursued strategies that, over the last 30 years, have quietly undermined administrative agencies and government policies that facilitated the formation of unions.  The result has been the erosion and marginalization of organized labor and its ability to raise wages, improve workplace safety and health, and advance representative democracy not only in the workplace but in the body politic.

The current RTW legislation is a direct attack on organized labor and its ability to represent the economic and political interests of both the rank and file and those non-union workers whose wages and benefits are enhanced by employers to avoid unionization. No doubt, the role of unions in building and rebuilding economic security and the middle class, advancing workplace rights, and promoting political democracy will be a central part of the curriculum for this teachable moment.

All the current Republican candidates have refused opportunities to speak to union leaders.  Instead, they have signed on to the anti-labor agenda, including RTW legislation, proposed by conservative corporations, business groups, and donors.  Together with their other economic proposals, they have established a Republican brand that embraces and even celebrates a distorted sense of morality and inequality of income, wealth, and power.

But as Governors Kasich and Walker have found out, “as you sow so shall you reap.”  The fight against RTW proposals and their supporters will be particularly fierce in the battleground states, especially the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin consider those states crucial to Democratic chances in 2012. In addition, RTW initiatives have now put projected GOP states with relatively small labor movements, such as New Hampshire and Indiana, into play for 2012.

If RTW legislation inspires union members to support Obama in November, their family members are likely to follow suit. In New Hampshire & Indiana, about 10% of voters belong to unions, but union households make up about 20% of voters. This is smaller than in the Rust Belt battlegrounds, where 26% to 34% of voters belong to union households, but that 20% may still make a difference. Further, the effect of the anti-union push could also cross state borders by galvanizing labor and community activists from safe Democratic States into neighboring states in the 2012 election.  Supporters in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and even Washington State organized phone banks to support the fight against the Indiana RTW bill.

Republicans also forget that their attacks on unions can turn off long-time Republican voters.  In Ohio, the demonization of teachers as part of Issue 2 moved many Republican educators toward the Democrats.  Educators are now the single most unionized group of workers in the U.S., and many continue to react strongly to conservative attacks, both in states where they are being targeted and across the country.

Further, while conservatives may hope to undermine union political influence with RTW initiatives, they don’t understand the continuing power of unions to mobilize workers.  Kasich’s attack on public sector workers was overturned last year not because so many dollars flowed from unions into the Issue 2 campaign, though enough money was raised that We Are Ohio, the union-based organization that led the fight, is still spending the millions it has left.  What really mattered was the person-to-person, door-to-door effort.  Organizing, it turns out, still works.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by moderate Republicans, and many now believe that the party should not have taken this route.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have argued that the Republicans missed multiple opportunities to garner greater working-class and union support by crafting policies that, while socially conservative, would embrace “limited government pragmatism” that met the needs and aspirations of working people. They see many Republicans as having confused being “pro-market with being pro-business,” and failing to make a distinction between policies that “foster dependency and those that foster independence and upward mobility.”  Rather than directly attacking the very existence of union, they encourage the development of new forms of unionism that are better suited for the new economy and enhance employment opportunities and economic advancement.

Importantly, the Republicans seem to have confused anti-labor policy with real economic policy. Rather than pursue the kinds of moderate revisions suggested by Douthat and Salam, Republican leaders, cheered on by conservative corporate donors and lobbyists, have launched an attack on labor unions that may well lead to the reelection of President Obama and further weaken an already divided Republican Party.  Consequently Republicans, especially Michigan Governor Rick Synder and Governor Kasich, are not publically supporting initiatives by conservative groups, such as the effort by Ohioans for Workplace Freedom to put a RTW referendum on ballots this November. In the current conservative political environment, their silence is deafening.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The GOP, Black “Underclass,” and Working-Class Studies

In the frenzy of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, candidates have appealed to conservative populism through racially coded appeals evoking the dependency of the black “underclass” on government handouts.  Late last year, former Speak of the House Newt Gingrich caused a commotion when he referred to child labor laws as “truly stupid.”  He mused that poor children could develop the honest work ethic missing in their communities, and escape poverty, by replacing unionized janitors in their schools, and working as library, cafeteria and office assistants.  The comments had little to do with race explicitly.  Yet, his casual assumption that such children lack adult role models who work, or earn money legally, is one commonly attributed to the “underclass,” which made the target of his remarks clear.  Gingrich stirred a toxic brew of anti-unionism, thinly veiled racism exempting children of color from protections against exploitation, and disdain for meaningfully combating the poverty that engulfs almost 40 percent of black children.

As if this race-inflected undertow was not strong enough, Gingrich labeled Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and condescendingly offered to lecture a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on why the black community should “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”  The episode not only illustrated Republican-based animosity toward a program that has saved millions, across race, from food insecurity; it also crudely bound the president, and African Americans more generally, to a means-tested program popularly associated with stereotypes of black indolence.  It helped catapult Gingrich to victory during the recent South Carolina Republican primary, but he has not been the only one to use this rhetoric.  Fellow GOP contender Rick Santorum made similar remarks linking welfare dependency and African Americans, though unlike Gingrich he denied them.  Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, also castigated Obama for supplanting a “merit-based society with an entitlement society” – this from a multimillionaire who possesses his own deep sense of entitlement to the White House, indifferent to the fact that large portions of his own party reject him.  The former Massachusetts governor, still glowing from his victory in the Florida primary, has commented openly that his campaign will not concern itself with the “very poor” at all.  Even the only black candidate in the Republican field, Herman Cain, blamed the unemployed for their own predicament.  This was less an irony than an illustration of the adaptability of “underclass” language across racial and class contexts.

Without ever using the term openly, GOP hopefuls have wielded “underclass” phraseology to attack a broad array of the populace clamoring for a more just social contract.  It has, among other things, fueled opposition to public spending and jobs programs that would benefit both working-class and middle-class Americans.  No matter who garners the Republican nomination, a central campaign message already has crystallized: You may be jobless, you may have lost your savings and your home may be in foreclosure, but the president’s policies benefit the “undeserving” poor, who are culturally and morally unlike you.  Summoning the imagery of “underclass” debasement speaks to the GOP’s racial politics, but it also demonstrates how popular ideas about class, poverty, and government policy operate through racial inference.  For labor historians and working-class studies scholars, the current campaign rhetoric demonstrates that the long career of the black “underclass” has to be acknowledged in our analyses and addressed in our prescriptions for change.

The “underclass” entered popular usage in the 1970s to describe a visible urban population afflicted by deepening conditions of  “hardcore” unemployment.  It became, according to Adolph Reed, Jr., “the central representation of poverty in American society,” and was employed primarily to characterize those fastened to the lowest rungs of the black working class.  Functioning more as an ideological device than a real sociological category, the “underclass” literally colored public policy exchanges.  It was a vehicle for shifting attention away from structural inequality to the cultural pathology of the poor: The “underclass” existed because of dysfunctional values, criminal deviance, pathological behavior (e.g., out-of-wedlock births and female-headed households), and reliance on government.  Accordingly, this was a problem that social welfare expenditures could not remedy.  Such expenditures, in fact, only reinforced “underclass” dependence.  This had the effect of vilifying the poorest strata of working-class African Americans among middle-class whites and blacks alike, stigmatizing them in the imagination of other sectors of the working class, isolating them in public policy, and justifying measures that have eroded income, social mobility, and economic security for all.

By equating social welfare with dependency and – more implicitly – blackness, the “underclass” has literally colored discussions of social policy, inviting people of across social class to share in a culture of antagonism to the social safety net.  This was a key component of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, and it fed a campaign against the legacies of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society, especially against government employees providing public services.  It also prompted a liberal retreat from racial and economic justice, as Democratic strategists distanced their party nationally from close affiliation with the black working poor.  The consequence has been what historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann calls a “punitive turn” in public policy under a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents.  Of course, this punishment has spared government welfare to corporate entities, in the form of tax cuts and deregulation.

For the so-called “underclass,” decades of austerity have transformed many black working-class communities into armed encampments, fostered mass incarceration, and dismantled Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the name of “welfare reform.” At the state level, this has led to attempts in Michigan and more recently Florida to require Temporary Aid to Needy Families applicants to pass drug tests before receiving benefits.  Not only do they threaten Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, but such policies begin with the premise that the working poor are more apt to use illicit drugs more than other groups receiving forms of public assistance. This has paralleled a general offensive against the wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of broad swaths of working-class Americans – as in the use of unpaid “workfare” employees and prison laborers to supplant union labor, and in continuing attacks on public sector workers (among whom African Americans are employed in disproportionate numbers).  “Attacks on the poor,” working-class studies scholar Michael Zweig reminds us, “are attacks on the working class.”  From this perspective, the brutal federal indifference to black suffering during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina crisis, for instance, was not just an embodiment of racism, but also a culmination of a general assault on working people.

Protests by public workers in the Midwest, and “Occupy” movements on the East and West coasts may signal the renewal of a transformative working class-oriented activism.  For this to occur, though, the black “underclass,” which has been a crucial part of the baggage of U.S. social welfare policy, has to be critically unpacked and put away.  Working-class studies scholars are among those best positioned to accomplish this.  But combating the vilification of poor people of color requires more than substituting a viewpoint that renders them objects of pity, or reduces them to appendages of the “respectable” working class.  Rather, we have to claim the “underclass” as part of a diverse working class (including women on public assistance, ex-felons, and immigrant laborers), viewed from the validity of the black poor’s own outlooks and experiences.  The racially suggestive insults hurled at the poor, and used to undermine all notions of social security, is a warning that imagining the U.S. working class in the twenty-first century has to be inclusive – for the sake of the “underclass,” and everyone else’s.

Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang is an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press).

Concepts, Real Life & the Working Class

Man, it’s hard thinking and talking about social class in these United States.  Most of the time since President Obama was elected, there’s nobody out there but “the rich” and “the middle class,” as if both the working class and poverty have been eliminated.  Then along comes a political election, and all of a sudden the mainstream media starts talking about a “working class” that turns out to be all white, all male, and uniformly good at bowling!

A recent spurt of this usage is particularly confusing as it casts Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum as “a working-class hero.”  Santorum, a lawyer who now makes about a million dollars a year, grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb the son of a clinical psychologist and an administrative nurse.  His “working-class roots” derive from one of his grandfathers having been a miner and from Santorum’s having driven past steel mills as a teenager.  Santorum had a 15% AFL-CIO voting record when he was a Senator, and according to the Washington Post, he now earns his living “as a consultant for groups advocating and lobbying for industry interests . . . [including] $142,500 to help advise a Pennsylvania natural gas firm, Consol Energy.”  Nobody mentions his bowling average, but otherwise newspaper articles with titles like “Santorum fits working class bill” (David Brooks in the New York Times) and “Like Rocky Balboa, Rick Santorum is a working class hero” exhibit a broader pattern of class talk among the punditry.

As a Working-Class Studies studier, I am generally grateful for any reference to the existence of a working class in the U.S., and I am on record as arguing that Working-Class Studies does not need a single, univocal definition of the class in order to study it.  I have been sympathetic with the progressive Democratic focus on “white working class” voters since it was first articulated by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their 2000 book America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, and I have followed the definitional debate between identifying the working class by education (those without a bachelor’s degree) or by income (those in the bottom third of the income distribution) over the past decade.  The overall result of this debate has been positive, in my judgment, both in blowing up a conception of the electorate that mistakenly saw college-educated voters as a huge majority and in pushing Democrats in a substantially more progressive economic direction in their policies and political appeals.  I also think that Teixeira’s continued cold-eyed social-scientific probing of voter demographics along these lines continues to be both insightful and practically fruitful in informing Democratic Party operatives and politicians.

But the public media discussion of working-classness has so consistently stereotyped and psychologized a resentful, culturally confused, and politically volatile blue-collar white guy that at this point public discussion of white working-class voters not only does more harm than good.  It bewitches any chance we might have of understanding class dynamics in the arena of electoral politics.

First, and most importantly, the term “working class” is often used, as in the headlines above, without the “white” modifier, leading journalists and pundits to sometimes report faulty voting statistics and, worse, to identify working-classness with whiteness.  Many statements are made and facts reported that clearly apply only to the white part of the working class, but without specifying that.  Seldom is it reported that the working class as defined by those without a bachelor’s degree (regardless of race) were a 56% majority of the presidential electorate in 2008, and they gave Obama a 53/46% majority.  So when it is said, as it often is, that Obama has “trouble relating to working-class voters,” someone should ask why they gave him a majority of their votes in 2008.

Likewise, the “working class” is routinely (not always, but often) simply assumed to be all male.  As Michael Zweig points out in his new edition of The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (p. 32), a majority of working-class jobs are now held by women.  Zweig is using a different definition of the working class than the one used for electoral politics (though there is a large overlap), but by any definition, women are either half or nearly half of the working-class, and the largest-growth occupations in the U.S. include low-wage cleaning, cooking, and caring jobs where women still overwhelmingly predominate.

Finally, even when pundits keep a consistent focus on working-class white men and why they vote so strongly Republican in presidential elections (as do middle-class white men, by the way), they often create social-psychological profiles of these voters as if they were all the same.  Sometimes these profiles resonate with a part of working-class reality as I have experienced it, but more often they are middle-class projections based on the pundit’s own political orientation and all-too-often on a TV sitcom character from more than three decades ago.  As I pointed out in my previous blog, “The Diversity of the White Working Class,” working-class whites vote quite differently from state to state.  But even within the same state and within the same neighborhood and family, it is useful to remember how wildly diverse white working-class voters are.

A couple weeks ago my extended family got together not too far from where Rick Santorum grew up in western Pennsylvania.  About 100 people from five generations were present, and we didn’t talk about politics much.  But if I were to survey this all white and predominately working-class gathering, it would be pretty complicated and politically diverse.  The largest group, across the generations, would either be completely apolitical or Republican, but there are some union and nonunion Democrats as well.  Most do not strongly identify with either political party and try to make up their minds based on the candidates and the circumstances in a given election – that is, they are swing voters who will pay attention once election season arrives, and not before.  Among those who don’t care and don’t vote, some feel guilty about that because they think they should care while others defend themselves with “they’re all crooks anyway.”  Among younger people, there are union members who are antagonistic toward their unions, and nonunion workers (and managers) who very much would like to have a union; both groups are open to Democrats because they associate them with unions, but can’t see how it makes much difference one way or the other.  There are stereotypical GOP hunters and people of faith, but there are also hunters who vote consistently Democratic, and those who are contemptuous of religion but vote consistently Republican.

It makes my head spin to try and think about the politics of my extended family, partly because it is among the least interesting aspects of people I know and love.  But my point is not that any particular set of political categories is reductive or too simple.   All concepts are reductive and simple, and in fact, that’s what’s valuable about them.  The test is whether they help us get a productive handle on the overwhelming complexity of social reality.  The problem is when we mistake the concepts’ ability to insightfully organize that complexity for the reality itself.  In the mainstream media and in public discourse more generally, I fear the concept of “the white working class” has now reached that delusional state.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Working-Class Studies