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