As Sherry pointed out last week and as comments on her post suggest, people involved in working-class studies define the working class in many different ways. While we still manage to have productive discussions, our definitions shape what we see and what we think matters.
Something similar happened in the mainstream media’s reporting of the Democratic primaries in the Rust Best states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana this past Spring. Most reporters assumed that white working-class people would vote Democratic, but whether the white working class supports the Democrats depends on how you define “working class.” Exit polls defined the working-class as “voters without a bachelor’s degree,” on the one hand, and as “voters with household incomes of less than $50,000,” on the other. Both these definitions have a history, but if we define the working class on the basis of education, it turns out that the white working class is out of sync with Democrats, more so than if we use an income-based approach.
The “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition comes from nearly a decade of work by public-opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira. In 2000 Ruy’s book with Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, analyzed the electorate using class, race, gender, and whether people lived in a union household. Recently Teixeira, working with Alan Abramowitz, has deepened that analysis with a broader historical portrait, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.” Though Teixeira’s emphases and his political advice to Democratic politicians has shifted over the past eight years, he’s stuck with that “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition of the working class, and it yields some interesting, unexpected results. Here’s what I take to be the most important of those results:
- As a whole, the American working class by this definition is nearly 60% of the electorate. Within the working class, blacks, Latinos, and Asians vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but whites don’t.
- White working-class voters represent about 45% of the entire electorate, and in the last three presidential elections, only about 40% of them voted for the Democratic candidate.
- Though middle-class voters vote slightly more Democratic than working-class ones (by this definition), probably the most important conclusion from this line of research is that class is relatively insignificant compared to race, gender and being in a union household. This is the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas problem: if the white working class voted its economic class interests, Republicans would not keep getting a majority of their votes.
- The only group of white voters who gave Democrats a majority in the past three presidential elections is white women in union households.
- No group of white men voted majority Democrat, not even those in union households. Still, being in a union household increases white men’s Democratic vote by 15 to 17 points, to about 48%. Nonunion white men, on the other hand, give scarcely one-third of their vote to Democrats, regardless of class (at least if we define class by education). This is Michael Moore’s stupid-white-men problem.
- Social class has a substantial effect on white women, however. Middle-class white women vote 5 to 7 points more Democratic than working-class white women do.
- Nonunion working-class white women, what punditry shorthand calls “waitress moms,” are the key demographic in this year’s election. Close to 20% of the electorate all by themselves, this group of women moved strongly against Democrats in the last three presidential elections – they gave Bill Clinton 47% of their vote, Al Gore 44%, and John Kerry only 38%. If that trend is not reversed, Barack Obama is unlikely to be our next president.
In order to win this year, the Democrats need strong turnouts by minority and union-household voters, but they also need to rally white working-class women. That requires a program that can make a real difference in these women’s lives and grassroots organizing to make sure they know that. The Democrats this year may have such a program. And the grassroots organizing going on this year is unprecedented, both in substance and scope. These will be the subjects of my next two posts.