Tag Archives: 2012 election

How They Think: The Complexity of White Working-Class Voters

Since the late 90s, political pundits have debated how to define the working class and how to explain their voting patterns. Prior to the 2000 presidential election, a standard definition of the working class combined income, occupation, and education. But Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers made the case for using education as the primary element for political analysis, in part because exit polls didn’t ask for occupation. They noted that 45% of voters were white and working-class, and, when all working-class voters were included regardless of race, the working class was an absolute majority. Political scientist Larry Bartels agreed, though he used an income-based definition and subdivided the working class to show that the bottom third of the white working class by income was strongly Democrat. On the other hand, Thomas Frank argued that the white working class was becoming more conservative and moving away from the Democratic Party, voting their moral interests rather than their economic position. In response to George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, The Nation magazine asked, “Who Lost the Working Class?”  A few years later, Bill O’Reilly claimed that 60% of the country was now working class, based on occupational indicators defined by Michael Zwieg, and he promised that he and other conservatives were “looking out” for them. More recently, Charles Murray argued that the white working class supported Democratic polices involving government and the social safety net because they had lost the “founding virtues” of family and hard work. On the other hand, Salon’s editor, Joan Walsh, explained that the white working class had lost confidence in government and that liberal Democrats had alienated the white working class.

The shifting definitions and perceptions of the working class and its politics often obscured a fundamental issue: racial polarization. As Ron Brownstein has observed about recent Presidential elections, Obama needed 80% of all minorities and 40% of whites to win election. While the working class as a whole gave Obama majorities in both 2008 and 2012, within the working class, whites voted nearly 2 to 1 against Obama.  Because of these patterns, discussions of working-class voting have focused on white working-class voters.

In his new book, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, Andrew Levison tries to move the discussion forward. He points out that most definitions of the working class focus narrowly on educational attainment or on some configuration of income and/or occupation. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and surveys of attitudes, Levison finds that the working class is quite large and urban, and a significant majority is white.  But he also reminds us that there is no one working class, and definitions of the working class that use education, income, or occupation alone have limited value. He argues that political scientists and pundits may do better to consider the political diversity of the working class.  They should pay attention to “how ordinary workers think—how they process, store, and organize political ideas and opinions.”

Looking at political values, Levison finds a diverse range of views among the white working class, ranging from conservative to liberal/progressive to “open-minded.” This echoes the way political operatives think about potential voters: those who are against us, those who are with us, and those who could be persuaded. Most important, Levison suggests that we should see much of the working class as pragmatic – that is, as voters who could be persuaded to support either side — rather than as ideologically committed to specific economic or moral values.  For those pragmatic voters, what matters is policy, not party.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Levison does not believe that shifts in and geography have changed the political orientation of the working class as a group.  Rather, he thinks that the working class should be studied in more individualistic terms in light of shifting values. He concludes that working-class value systems are largely shaped by four institutions — church, education, the military, and small business. Yet this “cultural traditionalism,” as Levison calls it, translates into both conservative and progressive political views.  Both draw upon the same framework, but importantly, different life experiences lead working-class people to different political positions.

Levison also shows that the majority of white working people are not strongly conservative, as some might believe. In polls, less than 50% expressed “strong agreement” with conservative propositions, and on some questions conservative support was as low as 20%.  This suggests that a significant proportion of white working-class voters are sufficiently open-minded that they could be persuaded to support progressive politics and candidates.

Here Levison becomes more partisan and suggests that the Democratic Party should appeal to the large “open-minded” working class through economic and social policies. It can do this in several ways. First, it must eliminate the Party’s elitism and condescension toward the working class. But the Democrats must also replace approaches based on identity politics with a more pragmatic populist rhetoric focused on policies that the working class participates in formulating.  That means rebuilding working-class community and labor organizations and giving the working class more opportunities to participate in policy formulation. None of this will be easy, but it is necessary to counteract the Republicans’ money, pointed critiques of liberalism, counter-narratives, and their own grassroots institutions.  

The White Working Class Today is an important book that should be read by journalists, political scientists, and political operatives. But I have several concerns.  First, I would have liked to see something about how the white working class differs from the white middle class and from people of color of all classes. That more complex analysis might help Democrats solve a core puzzle: how to appeal to the white working class while also mobilizing the young people, educated white women, LGBT voters, and people of color who helped Obama win reelection? This will be particularly important in the upcoming midterm state elections in 2014.

Second, Levison also puts too much emphasis on messaging while largely ignoring specific policies. He recommends ways to talk to working-class voters but offers few suggestions about what to do about the problems they face. Yet Democrats have rightly been criticized for the gap between their populist campaign rhetoric and their often-neoliberal policies. While Republicans are responsible for most recent legislative inaction, Democrats too often get blamed. That frustrates working-class voters and makes them susceptible to Republican appeals to “libertarian populism.” At some point, the Democrats must address the policy gap.

Finally, Levison assumes that Democratic politicians and apparatchiks are committed to improving the life chances of working-class people.  I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, most politicians conspicuously avoid even using the term working class. Rather, their messages subsume the working class under aspirational terms — middle class or working people. Most Democratic politicians understand that while they need working-class support, they cannot alienate their more elite donors.  And too often, that shapes their political behavior.

John Russo

How Kasich Can Win Ohio Again

In November 2011, I published a New York Times op-ed entitled “How Obama Can Win Ohio Again.” Now, with my pundit credentials firmly established (sic), I am opining that Ohio Governor John Kasich will win reelection in 2014. This could play havoc with Democrats’ hopes for the 2016 Presidential election.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are usually thought of as swing states that are gradually but decisively getting bluer.  But the 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for Republican governorships in those states. Four right-wing Republicans came to power and immediately mounted formidable attacks on traditional Democratic supporters, including unions, blacks, and women. Major political struggles ensued in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, but with very different results. Following the 2012 Presidential election, where all four states went for Obama, those attacks continued, especially on issues of immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in 2011, rust belt Democrats counterattacked.  Particularly important were mass mobilizations around collective bargaining changes and recall elections for state officials. While receiving most of the media attention, the Wisconsin actions did little but slow the state’s draconian labor law changes, though they did put Republican legislators on notice for the dangers of overreach.  The same was true in Michigan, where changes occurred on a piecemeal legislative basis. The mobilization in Ohio was more successful, resulting in a stunning repeal of anti-union legislation, SB5. Since then, Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican legislators have scaled back direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining.

This year, Republicans legislatures have once again gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while Kasich is playing a somewhat different game in Ohio.  For example, after the 2012 Presidential election, Michigan Governor Richard Snyder extended the attack on organized labor and broke his promise not to enact a right-to-work law. Republican legislatures in all four states want to push their political advantage in hopes of turning at least two of these four rust belt states red in the 2016 elections. They are doing this by securing their base support on social issues such as abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage while continuing their attack on unions and voting rights.

Kasich has taken a more arms length approach than fellow governors on wedge issues and stayed away from anti-union legislation.  Several conservative Ohio legislators have attempted to push right-to-work legislation, but taking a cue from Kasich, Republican legislators did not provide legislative support for the initiative, and it died in Committee.  No doubt, the last thing that Ohio Republicans want in 2014 is a repeat of the 2011 mobilization that brought together labor and community groups and defeated SB5.

While attacks on labor have decreased, Kasich is touting Ohio’s improving economy. At the 2012 Republican Convention, where Obama’s economic policies were being trashed, Kasich gave a speech touting all the economic improvements, tax cuts, and job creation in Ohio and bragging that Ohio was a great place to do business. Party leaders didn’t much like the speech, but Kasich’s “enterprise” approach made sense. Ohio has seen a substantial but uneven economic recovery, in part due, ironically, to the continuing benefits of the stimulus package and auto bailout and the growth of the oil and natural gas industry. The result has been that Ohio’s economy grew faster than the national average, and since 2011 the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average.

Even though that economic growth has primarily benefited whites, and minorities continue to lag in the current economic recovery, Kasich might have race on his side in 2014. In Ohio and elsewhere, Republican have pinned their 2014 election hopes on attracting white working-class voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Washington Post exit polls showed that about half of Ohio voters fall into this category, and 42% voted for the President. Nationally, only 36% of white working-class voters supported Obama. If Obama brought black and Latino voters to the polls in 2012, Republicans like Kasich hope that they can prevail in 2014 because minority voters won’t show up. Obama won’t be on the ticket, Ohio urban centers are being depopulated, and the Supreme Court has largely gutted the Voting Rights Act.  All of that could depress minority turnout, making the white working-class vote statistically more important to Ohio Republicans.

Overall, Kasich’s strategy of avoiding major mobilizing issues and following traditional Republican fiscal conservatism has resulted dramatic increase in his approval ratings. So solid does Kasich appear that some potentially strong Democratic candidates, such as Richard Cordray, former governor Ted Strickland, and Representative Tim Ryan, have decided not to run against him. The Ohio Democratic Party has been left with a weak gubernatorial candidate, Ed Fitzgerald, a one-term Cuyahoga County Commissioner who some see as a position jumper. To make matters worse, the ODP is being led by the same apparatchiks whom many blame for the 2010 Republican sweep.  That, in turn, led to redistricting that will make it impossible for Ohio Democrats to gain control the legislature in this decade.

So what could go wrong for Kasich? He must keep the most conservative elements of his party under control.  Already this year, conservatives nationally and in Ohio have pushed laws that attack poor whites, seniors, and women. Cuts to food stamps and Medicaid primarily hurt whites, for example.  In Ohio, 65% of households receiving food stamps and 61% of those on Medicaid are white. Also, despite widespread public support for same-sex marriage and less restrictive abortion policy, new Ohio Republican legislation dramatically restricts abortions.  Republicans are also fending off challenges to Ohio’s Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Changes in voter registration, which would primarily affect minorities and seniors, could work against Kasich by sparking another round of organizing and resistance.  Finally, a political scandal like the one that dogged Ohio Republican candidates in 2006 could help Democrats campaign on a clean up government message. One may be brewing over the lack of transparency in Kasich’s privatization of Ohio’s job development agency.

Taken together, these conservative attacks, potential scandals, and union fears of right-to-work legislation following a successful reelection could make Kasich vulnerable to a broad mobilizing effort. But only if Ohio Democrats can develop a strong economic and legislative message and tap into Ohio’s organizing culture. Absent this, it seems likely that Kasich will win Ohio again. And if other rust belt governors follow suit and take a more moderate approach in the short term, this could mean problems for Democrats in 2014 and make the 2016 Presidential election much more competitive in these crucial states.

John Russo

The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

I’ve had it with “the white working class.”  Not the actually existing part of the working class that is white, which is composed of complex and interesting people most of whom don’t vote like I think they should, but rather the fictional character who got so much attention during this year’s election campaign.

The fictional character is a white guy who works in a decrepit factory or drives a truck.  He drinks boilermakers (not wine and never a latte) and is good at bowling rather than golf.  Depending on political point of view, he is a “culturally confused but good-hearted racist” or a “salt-of-the-earth real American who loves God and guns and hates both gays and Wall-Street bankers.”

As a demographic category that divides white voters without bachelor’s degrees from those who have that “middle-class” credential, the “white working class” concept makes sense to me, but only if its use fulfills two conditions that the political media apparently cannot manage:

  • First, that we always keep in mind that “white working class” is a demographic category that clumps together more than 45 million voters who share two characteristics and only two – race, as conventionally defined, and the absence of a bachelor’s degree.  The category includes women and men of all religions (and varying levels of religious commitment) and regions. They come from big cities, suburbs, small towns, and isolated shacks in all parts of the country.  It includes Bill Gates and other fabulously rich people who never completed bachelor’s degrees, and it leaves out the many factory workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and retail clerks who did. That is, like all concepts, “white working class” is a convenience for getting a hold on the big picture, but it grossly simplifies a much more complex and varied social reality.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is not now, never has been, and never could be a “typical” white working-class person.
  • Second, that as a demographic category for the purposes of electoral analysis, “white working class” is valuable only as part of a comprehensive discussion of the white vote in U.S. elections.

I’ve made the first point before, more than once.  Here let me concentrate on the second by detailing my conclusions about how the concept has played out in the 2012 presidential election.

After much pre-election discussion of how the “white working-class” would vote, the major news media who commissioned the massive election-day exit poll have not reported on their websites how this group actually voted.  In fact, the websites listing that information — voter-category by voter-category, state by state — in 2012 have less than 1/10th the information that CNN had (and still has) on its web site for 2008.   But here’s what I can report based on what is available on Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times, plus some numbers from reporters who have access to the poll’s internals – most importantly, “The Obama Coalition in the 2012 Election and Beyond” by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin.

  • Class in itself had almost no impact on how people voted for president in 2012.  The middle class (folks of all shades and colors with at least a bachelor’s degree) voted 50/48 for President Obama, and the somewhat larger group of voters with no bachelor’s degree, the working class, voted 51/47 for the President.  Thus, because the middle and working classes voted basically the same, class by itself did not matter.
  • Race, on the other hand, makes a huge difference in how people vote.  Nonwhites (Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other) voted a little more than 80% for Obama while only 39% of whites did that – a difference of more than 40 percentage points.  Both the middle class and the working class gave Obama slight majorities based primarily on nonwhite voters who offset his 20-point loss among whites.
  • Among whites, the white working class is far from unique in giving Mitt Romney substantial majorities.  Nationally, working-class whites gave Obama only 36% of their vote, but middle-class whites, though slightly more favorable at 42%, also gave Romney a large majority.  Other demographics within the white vote show similar patterns.  Though there are important differences among white voters, most white demographics vote strongly Republican.  For example:
    • Women gave Obama a 55% majority, but not white women, who voted 56/42 for Romney.  White men, on the other hand, were even more strongly for Romney (62/35).  The gender gap is actually bigger among Blacks and Latinos than it is among whites.  Black women voted 9 points more for Obama than their male counterparts; Latino women, 11 points more, and white women, 7 points more.
    • Obama won a bare majority among Catholics (50/48), but lost white Catholics by 19 points – which, however, is a lot better than he did among white Protestants who he lost by 39 points.  On the other hand, Obama won substantial majorities among whites who self-identified as non-Christian or as having no religion.
    • Obama also famously won big (60/37) among young people aged 18-29, but the majority of whites in this age group voted for Romney (51/44).  On the other hand, no other white age group gave Obama more than 39% of their vote.
    • Where whites live matters a lot.  There were no exit polls in some states this year, and so far there is no breakdown of voters by both race and education (as there was in previous years).  From what we have, however, it is clear that the national white vote of 39% for the President hides a lot of variation – whites in Vermont and Alabama vote very differently (66% vs. 15% for Obama in 2012), as do whites in Iowa and Missouri (51% vs. 32% for Obama).  Likewise, whites in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 and above) vote more Democratic than whites in the small-town and rural areas of the same states.

Though shrinking as a proportion of the population and thus of the electorate, whites are still a very large majority (72% of the 2012 electorate), and the 39% of us who voted for President Obama provided the bulk of his votes in 2012 (36 million vs. 29 million from nonwhites). But our voices would not have been heard without strong turnouts (against formidable efforts at voter suppression) and lopsided votes for Obama among nonwhites.  On the other hand, their voices would have been drowned out – and worse – without us.  That’s what a multiracial coalition looks like.  Though its weakest link, the white working class is a significant portion of the coalition, and not just in the Midwest battlegrounds.  Of Obama’s 65 million votes in 2012, 30% came from whites with bachelor’s degrees and 25% (more than 16 million) came from those without them.

Part of the reason progressive Democrats have focused on the white working class over the past decade is that among whites, they are much more likely to benefit from progressive economic programs than middle-class whites – programs like universal health care, enhancements of earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment benefits and food stamps.  This has not worked yet to produce more white working-class voters for Dems, at least not at a national level, but the logic is good because all these programs disproportionately benefit working-class Blacks, Latinos, and Asians as well.  And that basic approach, as qualified and compromised as it has played out in practice, is working so far politically, if not economically.  As Teixeira and Halpin conclude:

President Obama and his progressive allies have successfully stitched together a new coalition in American politics, not by gravitating toward the right or downplaying the party’s diversity in favor of white voters.  Rather, they did it by uniting disparate constituencies – including an important segment of the white working class – behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

I find the Democrats’ obsessive use of “middle class” irritating, and I’m not sure they’ve articulated anything I want to call “a populist, progressive vision” (as opposed to some of their actual programs), but it is worth appreciating the enormous accomplishment, however fragile and flawed, of what Teixeira and Halpin call “a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition” that put Barack Obama in the White House for a second term.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Obama Will Cruze to Victory

“And the winner is…”

(Drum roll—sound of envelope being ripped open.)

“…Barack Obama.”

I’m going to be honest about this: when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest I’ve been downright Romneyan.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but unlike the GOP nominee who can’t remember what he believed an hour ago, I haven’t developed a case of Romnesia or tried to Etch-a-Sketch my shifting prognostications out of existence. What hasn’t changed is my belief that the outcome of the presidential contest in Ohio would determine who would occupy the White House for the next four years.

A little over a year ago—and months before he had sewn up the GOP nomination–I believed Romney was on a clear path to victory in the Buckeye state.  He was the least buffoonish character in the cast of clowns that was seeking the Republican nod, he was and would continue to be awash in campaign cash, and his record as a Senate candidate and governor of Massachusetts would enable him to move from the far right-wing toward the center after he secured the nomination.

Other factors also pointed to a Romney win. Though recovering, the economy was weak, unemployment was uncomfortably high, and President Obama was being blamed—his job approval rating was hovering at 42%.   The Democratic Party’s dispirited and disillusioned base had not turned out in 2010, enabling the GOP to capture every statewide office.  White working-class males who had never been enthralled with Mr. Obama remained skeptical if not downright hostile, and the state’s conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to toss him out of office. Ohio was, in my opinion, ripe for the taking.

Obviously, my opinion has changed. Since mid-summer I’ve been calling the race for the President and, despite some trepidation caused by his lackluster performance in the first debate and the public’s and the media’s willingness to give Romney a pass for being the most disingenuous and dissembling candidate to ever seek the presidency, I am confident Mr. Obama will win Ohio tomorrow on his way to racking up a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

Why do I now believe that Mr. Obama will prevail in a contest he could easily have lost?

Regardless of the billion dollars spent by the candidates, political parties, and Super PACs to air more than 1,000,000 TV ads, President Obama will win Ohio and the White House because he thought it was a good idea to save the domestic auto industry and Mitt Romney did not.

The President will win because his commitment to an industry that employs one in eight Ohioans has strengthened both the state’s economy and his standing among working-class voters. This issue has provided voters with an unobstructed view of the difference between the two candidates, their credibility, and the effect each man’s philosophy of government could have on the future of our nation.

The auto rescue demonstrates that government can exert a positive impact on the economy.  Unlike TARP and the President’s overall stimulus plan, which primarily benefited Wall Street, the auto rescue paid off for Main Street, especially Main Streets across Ohio.  It preserved good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs, enabled GM and Chrysler to invest nearly one billion dollars in new plants and equipment, and positioned the companies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Yes, there was pain involved.  The thousands of union members who lost their jobs, the car dealers who were forced to close, and the Delphi retirees whose pensions shrunk will tell you just how much.  But it’s also important to note that the auto rescue forced fat cat members of the 1% to join the working families who make up the 99% in paying the price for mistakes made by corporate America.  Along with being fundamentally fair, the substantial “haircut” that bond-holders and other investors were forced to take was an essential element of the financial restructuring that put the two auto companies on the road to recovery and literally saved millions of jobs.

In the end, the auto rescue bolstered Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects because it produced tangible results for American workers—the type of tangible results that have yet to be generated by the larger stimulus plan or health care reform.  The type of results Romney and the Republicans can’t lie about or distort.  The results are as real as the paychecks that millions of workers receive each week, as real as the thousands of Chevy Cruzes that roll off the Lordstown assembly line each week, as real the pride workers feel when they read that the car they make is the best-selling model in America.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, everything that’s wrong with his politics, his campaign, and his philosophy was encapsulated in his stance on the auto rescue as expressed in these 84 words from an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times:

Let Detroit Go Bankrupt

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.

Clearly, Mr. Romney was dead and demonstrably wrong.  That inconvenient truth and the fact that the op-ed can be read by anyone who visits the Times’s website hasn’t prevented Mr. Romney from attempting to flip-flop on this issue as he has on so many others, including abortion, health care, the environment, and gay rights.

But no matter how he twisted and turned, no matter how much he lied, he couldn’t get out from under the op-ed.  He could never gain traction in Ohio where voters–white working class voters in particular–were living the success of the President’s plan.

How did Mr. Romeny deal with his inability to pull ahead in the state he had to win?

He simply told bigger lies in TV and radio spots that claimed Chrysler was moving production of its Jeep models to China and GM was shipping jobs and capital overseas.  The ads were so misleading and offensive that Chrysler and GM officials vehemently denounced them, the media finally held him accountable for dissembling, and the public reacted with anger and revulsion.

Predictably, his poll numbers started to slip.  Romney had finally been hoisted on the petard of his own mistruths.

Tomorrow, the man who rescued the domestic auto industry will defeat the man who wanted to let it die and then lied about it.  That says a lot about Ohio voters.  Confronted, at last, with the undistorted, incontrovertible truth, they are poised to reward a President who did the right thing with four more years in the White House.

Now that we know who will win, the big question—the one that will obviously be discussed once the dust of the election clears—is what Mr. Obama will do with the opportunity Ohioans are about to give him.  Will he, as he did with the auto rescue, focus on investing in Main Street by making sure that working-class families have a real chance to grab their piece of the American Dream or will he revert to Wall Street-centered policies that undermined his credibility, dampened the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and placed his prospects for reelection in jeopardy?

I have a prediction, but I’m not ready to make it public just yet…

Leo Jennings

He’s No Coach Taylor: Mitt Romney and Friday Night Lights

As someone who counts getting escorted out of an auditorium by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s hired goons as one of my proudest moments, I never thought I’d admit to having something substantial, even intimate, in common with Mitt Romney. But as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate and I are both fans of the TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), a gritty, realist drama centered on a high school football team and the largely working-class residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. What more, we both find inspiration in a motto that “Coach” Eric Taylor, with a combination of unwavering determination and tenderness, utters to his team at the end of every pre-game locker room huddle: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Indeed, in the final stretch of completing my Literature PhD last summer, the slogan stared back at me from the wall in front of my desk. In the midst of tearful frustration and paralyzing anxiety, Coach Taylor was there, Zen-like, to help me get my head back in the game.

So imagine my dismay when a friend shared an article describing how Romney, high off his “victory” in the first presidential debate, adopted a slightly amended version of Coach Taylor’s motto — “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose” — as the official home-stretch slogan of his campaign. I was hardly the only person shaken up by Romney’s appropriation of the Friday Night Lights motto. Peter Berg, the series creator, immediately sent Romney an angry letter accusing him of having plagiarized his expression. “Your politics and campaign are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series,” he further explained. Unmoved by Berg’s request that he “come up with (his) own slogan,” Romney continues to feature the line on his Facebook page and in campaign materials. His campaign website even encourages visitors to “Support America’s Comeback Team” by ordering a $10 set of red, white, and blue rubber bracelets with the motto emblazoned on each one.

My personal stake in Romney’s use of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” lies not just in my appreciation of a show containing some of the most respectful, affirming representations of working-class people since Roseanne. I also wrote a dissertation chapter focused on what I’m calling the Friday Night Lights “franchise” of texts: the 1990 sports journalism classic by Buzz Bissinger (who, in a disappointing yet intriguing twist in this saga, is voting for Romney); the 2004 film, also directed by Berg, based on Bissinger’s book; and the TV series inspired by the book and film. I wrote about these texts because I needed to reckon with something from which, as a working-class girl from a sports-obsessed small town, I fled: the kind of “small-minded” people who turned their children into heroes on the football field only to watch them take their place on the assembly line — or, more bleakly, the cell block — after graduation. What I observed in these texts, however, was how small-town high school football can function as a collectively owned asset — an ever-growing “archive” of moments demonstrating the inherent worth of members of that community — with which to counter constant exposure to the unstable, exploitative labor conditions created by unregulated free-market capitalism. Football, in other words, is a matter of working-class dignity. As one coach from Bissinger’s book put it to his young team: “Later on in life they can take your money away from you, they can take your house, they can take your car, they can’t take this kind of stuff away from you, something you’ll always have and always be proud of.” Any way you look at it, Romney and his ilk are the “they” to whom this coach is referring.

The main source of my anger over Romney’s use of the “Clear Eyes” slogan — a slogan belonging to those small-town working class kids and the Coach they respect, who respects them back whatever their circumstances — is the entitled smugness with which he just reaches out and takes. This theft reflects the general attitude of the corporate class toward the world they inhabit and the policies they promote to sustain their right to take. Cutting taxes for the wealthy while raising middle class taxes to pay for such cuts, as Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would do, is a particularly frightening example of this “we take what we want, no apologies” outlook. As we learned from the 2008 mortgage crisis and corporate bailouts to follow, the economic system is designed to insulate the takers from any potential repercussions associated with their greed.

That greed is especially insidious when cast as an appeal to the very “heartland” working people who will be most affected by the taker’s anti-labor, social contract gutting political moves. One of the most haunting moments from Bissinger’s book comes when he cites a few lines from George Bush senior’s 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. Hot on the tail of an enthusiastically received campaign stop in Midland, Texas, where he once briefly lived, Bush reminisced:

Now we moved to West Texas forty years ago, forty years ago this year. And the war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own… We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us, worked in the oil business, and then started my own.

And in time, we had six children; moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house, and lived the dream—high school football on Friday nights…

There’s so much taking going on here. Bush, a Yale graduate and banker’s son, takes hardship, takes struggle.  With the slippages of a clever speechwriter, he turns a one-room “shotgun house” into a densely populated shack (did they really have six children before moving out?). From shotgun to duplex to house, he takes upward class mobility, that story, for his own. And, like Romney, he takes “the dream” of small-town high school football.

Romney is not only taking Coach Taylor’s motto. Like Bush, he is making a grab at working-class identity. In a cover photo featured last week on his Facebook page, Romney’s back is turned to the camera, rain pouring down his jacket in a nighttime scene reminiscent of Coach Taylor’s many contemplative looks across an empty field. Since we don’t see Romney’s face, there is little to distinguish him from a Coach whose sincerity, humility, and finely-tuned force of character mark him as a man that anyone — even a feminist agitator like myself — would follow.

Bush and Romney want access to those moments of greatness beneath the lights not just as admirers, but as participants in the collective authoring of the American story: “making memories,” as the series’s Silverado-driving fullback Tim Riggins would put it. However disingenuous a performance, Bush senior was telling communities like Midland, “Not only do I value the dream that you’re living, but I’ve lived it too — I’ve made those memories. Your story is my story.” The irony, of course, is that the archive of community memories granting value to working-class experience is especially important in light of conservative economic policies that leave working people with so few stable assets to hold onto, things they can’t take. Plumbing small-town high school football for political capital is an attempt to destabilize something that remains a small but deeply meaningful source of self-empowerment for the working class.

In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Coach Taylor walks slowly through the locker room at halftime of the first game played by the East Dillon Lions, the inexperienced, poorly equipped team with which he has been saddled. As he regards his battered team — his quarterback has a badly sprained ankle; one of his fullbacks is spitting blood — a look of sad resignation crosses the Coach’s face. He walks back to the field, ready to do what he must: forfeit the game in order to keep his vulnerable players from further harm. Coach Taylor knows that for his team to stand a chance of eventual success, players must have their health, decent equipment, and any other resources he can provide.

Contrast that with another Romney attempt to channel the Coach. Last week, he staged a touch football game between his campaign staffers and members of the press corps. Romney’s advice to his team? “Figure out which of their players is best and take them out early… That’s right, don’t worry about injuries guys, this counts. Win.” Coach Taylor leads with a community-first ethos that Romney, with his instinct to “take out” anyone standing in the way of his personal win-loss record, could not fake if his life depended on it. Responding to the slogan drama, one popular Friday Night Lights fan blog gives it to him straight: “Hey Mitt: You, sir, are no Coach Taylor.”

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Program in Literature at Duke University.

The New Precariat and Electoral Politics

During the Presidential campaign, Americans have heard endless discussions about unemployment. But neither candidate has said much, at least not directly, about precarious employment or about the new precariat – that growing group (some would even say the growing class) of workers in temporary, part-time, and/or contingent work that often doesn’t pay a living wage.

Who is the precariat? According to Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class, all of us could be.  For now, the precariat involves largely women, the young, the disabled, retirees forced back to work, former prisoners, and migrants. It also includes large numbers of formerly middle-class professionals, skilled and semi-skilled people who have been displaced by economic change. While each of these groups has gotten some attention, Standing argues that as a group, the precariat is still “a class in the making,” united by an overwhelming sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

The growth of the precariat has its roots in globalization and technological change, which flooded flexible labor markets and advanced international divisions of labor.  These conditions coincided with changes in government regulation, corporate restructuring, reduced access to and distribution of social programs, and the creation of coercive social policies such as workfare, mass incarceration, and means testing.

Historically, precarious employment was associated with the informal economy.  But with economic changes in the last several decades, informality has moved beyond traditional practices of black market exchanges or services such as day care or tutoring. As workers have been displaced from the formal economy, many are turning to consulting, internships, and subcontracting to find contingent and intermittent work. In general, more and more people are involved in unregulated work characterized by irregular employment, short job ladders, substandard wages and working conditions, and increased stigmatization. During the current economic crisis, with declining standards of living and loss of public assistance, the new precariat – like the old precariat — survives by working longer hours, holding multiple jobs, and when possible relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and family.

While the growth of the precariat creates real social and economic challenges for workers in the informal economy, in places like Youngstown, where the cost of living is low, some mostly younger adults are making a virtue of the situation. As cultural anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe has argued, Youngstown is becoming home to increasing numbers of highly individualistic, anti-materialistic, entrepreneurial adults with episodic employment in largely deregulated work environments. While some define themselves as entrepreneurs, many also see their rejection of materialism as providing a measure of freedom and dignity that challenged capitalist and “older parental” values surrounding work.

Their economic conditions are anemic and often do not reflect their education and experience (many have college and even graduate degrees). They don’t earn much and have little savings, health care, or pension benefits. Their work experiences and the difficulties they’ve had in finding jobs in the formal economy have reduced their expectations about the future.  They have internalized their economic insecurity, and their personal lives tend to mirror their work lives, with contingent and episodic relationships and living situations. Many embrace sustainability and green values, starting urban farms or homesteading in abandoned houses.  Others are part of a contingent creative class, doing freelance work in the arts, web development, and education, but because of the precarity of their work, they don’t make the kinds of stabilizing contributions to the local economy that Richard Florida predicted.  Some just want to be left alone, comfortable with their inexpensive lifestyles.

Just how big is the new precariat? It’s difficult to measure, but the Federal Reserve Board of Cleveland suggests that the ‘Great Recession’ has resulted in increases in self-employment, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 35 million people work part time.  While the data on how many people have precarious employment is far from definitive, the precariat clearly seems to be large and growing.

That suggests that the new precariat could have a significant impact on the election. Most of them don’t believe that the government or other institutions can do much to ameliorate their situation.  Many consider themselves to be small business people. As Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett have suggested, “Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way ‘working class’ once served that function for the left.” That suggests that the precariat may be persuaded by campaign rhetoric about taxes and economic development.  On the other hand, many see themselves as anti-capitalist, committed to green values and social justice. So will they vote like those who share their educational backgrounds, who are more likely to be politically independent and have socially progressive leanings, thus revealing themselves to be the fallen faction of the middle class?  Or do they, like much of the old white working class, vote on the basis of economic aspiration?  Or does the precariat now include so many Americans, from diverse backgrounds and in varied situations, that their political views can’t be easily predicted?  In 2012 in states like Ohio, the new precariat could determine the presidential election and America’s future.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

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

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

 

 

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).