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



This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class, Working-class politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Stereotyping the White Working Class

  1. Pingback: USW Blog » Blog Archive » The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

  2. Pingback: The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Melissa Townsend says:

    Terrific piece Jack. With all campaign messaging about the American Dream and Getting Ahead I’m wondering if there is anyone out there talking about folks who would simply like to maintain their own financial status quo. The idea being — some folks want to just keep on keepin’ on rather than strive to get ahead. In all the polling, is anyone asking about
    this? — Melissa


  4. Sara Appel says:

    Another timely, incisive blog from Jack that gets at the fundamental issue of respect: to understand working-class white voters, in other words, we need to first respect them as thinkers in their own right. And part of respecting these voters as thinkers involves not reducing them to “THE” (monolithic) White Working Class” of little brain power (perpetually “uninformed on the issues”) and copious amounts of reactionary, “unthinking” anger. However, I’m also wondering if we’re not doing a similar disservice to the complexity of white working class people (and how their minds work) by over-emphasizing or simplifying the “white” part of our sense of who these folks are.

    Responding to Jack above, Levison makes a distinction between the white working classes of “Ohio or New Jersey” and Georgia– a distinction he further elaborates by setting up a hypothetical focus group of construction workers assumed to be culled from this demographic. However, looking around as I walk down the always-under-construction streets of Durham, NC, most of the “hardhat” workers I see are Latino and black; I’d guess that I might see something similar in many or most parts of Georgia (the ATL, certainly). This reality underscores further problems with Levison’s characterization of differences between the “worldview” of the two groups of “white” potential voters he identifies: the Ohio/NJ block, vanguard of “a family social history of industrial union membership in the 1950’s and 1960’s”; and the “contrasting” Georgia block, characterized as ideologically inclined to embrace “a romanticized and idealized pseudo-memory of an idyllic “real country” past” and a smaller-scale, less union-centric vision of “hard work.”

    As both Jack and Levison point out, the importance of examining regional differences between working-class voters shouldn’t be underestimated. However, Levison is still guilty of the same brand of elitism he critiques when it comes to relying on a somewhat caricatured, Gone with the Wind-esque sense of who the southern working class is. I would also link this caricature, perhaps more importantly, to a whitewashed caricature of the liberally-inclined working-class as midwestern and northern that we (Working Class Studies people at least) still rely on a bit too handily, and with perhaps too much certainty in terms of its demographic clarity. Perhaps, then, it is not necessarily or only the case that Obama (of the liberal elite) doesn’t “get” or care about who the white working class is. Maybe there is still more “getting” to be done from the Working Class Studies side of the aisle as far as understanding why a president who is in grave danger of losing the votes of a demographic that he rarely calls out or mentions nominally (it’s always the “middle class,” as Jack says), who also happens to be the first non-white president of a nation defined largely by its racism, might have a hard time finding a “place” for the white working class in his political messaging.


  5. Pingback: Can Working-Class Women Have It All? | Working-Class Perspectives

  6. Silverman says:

    Metzgar: “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.”

    how can President Obama get their votes, when he probably would not kow what one of them was even if he bumped into one of them. I see working class persons sometimes and I wonder how they think. I think they feel completely ignored, or completed alienated from the degree-carrying professionals or “educated” type persons, although working class persons have got plenty of education in the school of life, hard knocks, etc. I think they look at the bourgeoisie and have little interest. I do not think they can identify much with the lifestyle of that class. But they know that class ultimately gives them their jobs. There’s the connection, if any.
    Otherwise, they feel little connection to the those in power. I do not think Obama secretly harbors a major interest in them. It is a different lifestyle. If the government is uninterested in me, why would I vote for a government? And, if they do, why not vote for the private sector, which has some relationship to them, in terms of employment? Money talks. The private sector feels more real to them than the bureaucrats in government. I think these persons are really alienated. I think they are right that they are not represented by the educated elites in the government — or any educated elites. Many of them simply cast a “frustration” vote: the goal here is to vote. They do not have a real plan to change their lives, they just like to hear themselves complain, or maybe vote for some right-winger out of sheer frustration.

    Actually, the classes are always somewhat separate. I think any closer contact or increased communication occurred in the past. In general, the wealthy class does its job, the working class does its job. Little communication exists between them. The days when working class persons could be inspired by a candidate seem to be over. I am thinking here about previous presidential candidates. Local candidates might still be of some interest. Who votes for Kucinich, or Bernie Sanders?

    Sorry, but Obama is in the elite, and he is not concerned with them in my opinion. So, you and Levison need to devise a strategy for Obama to get persons he does not care about to vote for him, anyways. He has to somehow convince them to vote for him, so I guess Levison would offer some clever strategies. The truth is, they have less and less reason to even vote. You have to give them some reason to even care, but they feel too alienated from the upper class.


  7. Richard Butsch says:

    Hooray Jack!!
    Jack, you highlight another example of how too many people not from working class roots, simply do not know working class people or life, and consequently put them all in the same box of stereotypes. In my own research this is consistently evident in the characterizations of working class on television – which only helps to reinforce such stereotypes.


  8. Donald Finley says:

    The White Working Class does not include people like
    Andrew Levinson. He’s part of the intellectual elite 2.7% that seem to end up interpreting and speaking for everyone while sowing plenty of discord.


  9. Summer says:

    Well, in the US it seems to me that “working class” can easily include “workers by brain” these days. General office workers, or really anyone earning an hourly wage or even some salaried folks, will still often identify as or with the working class. I’ve had office jobs, both salaried and hourly, and I’ve even at times managed others, but I don’t have a bachelor’s degree and I’ve never had any meaningful control over my workplace or its policies beyond training and sometimes adjusting the schedules of certain other employees.


  10. A Response – Entirely Supportive — by the Author of the Article Jack Metzgar Discusses

    First off, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Jack Metzgar – and John Russo – in trying to bring a greater sense of nuance and depth to the discussion of America’s working people. Opinion polls necessarily need to use unambiguous definitions of social categories in order to decide which respondents to put in which categories – but, like Rett Butler in Gone With The Wind, social reality itself “simply doesn’t give a damn”. The “real” white working class, as Metzgar has repeatedly insisted, is heterogeneous and complex and politicians and journalists who want to reduce these Americans to a homogeneous group with uniformly “typical” opinions on everything are simply manipulating clichés, not grappling with social reality.

    Jack is also completely right in emphasizing the vast differences between “white working class” Americans (i.e. those with either less than four-year degree or, alternatively, at most a High School diploma) in different regions of the country. The Pew poll I used was unusually large (n=1,300 for less than a four-year degree and n= 680 for just High School) and even this was still approaching an unacceptably large margin of error. A polling analyst would need a survey three or four times as large to get data that could properly quantify how opinions on issues differ between white working people in different areas of the country. Metzgar and others have looked at voting behavior for hints, but how people vote often doesn’t tell you why they voted the way they did.

    In fact, a cognitive anthropologist could actually make a reasonable argument that white working people in Ohio or New Jersey are in an almost completely different political culture than white workers in, say, Georgia. If you set up focus groups with groups of male construction workers in the two states, you would get two very different socio-political frameworks.

    In Ohio or New Jersey you would find a political discourse influenced by (1) early 20th century European immigration and Mediterranean or East European ethnicity (2) a family social history of industrial union membership in the 1950’s and 1960’s followed by the factory shutdowns of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    In Georgia, in contrast, you would find a worldview shaped by (1) a romanticized and idealized pseudo-memory of an idyllic “real country” past and (2) a vision of “hard work” as something done in small groups and teams and by self-employed craftsmen not unionized “employees”.

    Despite this, there are indeed significant cultural and psychological communalities among construction workers in the two regions, communalities which make it still worthwhile to study their aggregate opinions on a national level. But one can never forget that similar answers to survey questions often mask very different regional cognitive-cultural frameworks generating those answers.

    One can get some flavor of this by comparing the portrait of white working people in Michele Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men and Aaron Fox, Real Country: Music and Language in Working Class Culture. Both books describe white working class cultures that are each very distinct from the world of “soccer moms” and “office park dads” (not to mention the “elevators for my cars, tax deductions for my dancing horses” world of the rich). But, as Jack Metzgar notes, the regional variations between these working class cultures must not be ignored.

    Andrew Levison


  11. Alan Harrison says:

    I’m sorry, but for the life of me I can’t see how having a first degree (US “bachelor’s degree”) removes you from the working class. I got my BA (Birmingham – a “Russell Group”,broadly equivalent to Ivy League institution) in 1969, and all jons I did thereafter where unequivocally working class: I exercised no control over the labour process. That didn’t change when I got my MA (Warwick, also Russell Group in ’91). In fact, soon after, I was fired and then did a Ph.D. at the much less prestigious Wolverhampton, though my supervisor was Paul “Learning to Labour” Willis and the external examiner Huw “Working for Ford” Beynon.I then worked as a university lecturer for seven years before falling victime to a publish-or-perish cull, but even during that relatively prosperous period I was working in an occupational group that was clearly being proletarianised.

    I know that much of the American manual workforce itends towards the politics of waht we would call the working-class Tory, and I’m sure many of you are working hard to make them “see the light”, but i’m not sure it helps to pretend that large numbers of what the old Labour Party constitution called “workers by brain” aren’t working class is really helpful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s