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.
Chicago Working-Class Studies
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This guy, Sean Trende, at RealClear politics, uses ‘downscale’ as a descriptor for his missing white voters.
How can anyone credit the Obama administration for “programs like universal health care, enhancements of earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment benefits and food stamps”?
food stamps – enacted decades ago
unemployment benefits – nearly sliced or actually shaved at every federal fiscal crisis, real or phony
green manufacturing – has produced hardly any jobs on a national scale
infrastructure spending – meager job generation
EITC – enacted more than a decade ago
universal health care – Affordable Care gave workers a penny here and there, costs them a fortune paid to insurance companies
Great post Jack. The mythical “white working class man” is the ultimate unicorn of American politics and journalism. Your facts are great. But how do we de-fang this stereotype?
When viewed from outside the USA, the idea that class equates with educational attainment levels is odd and surely in post-crisis America there must be large numbers of college graduates working for wages and facing limited career opportunities. Certainly this is the case for many educated young people in Canada.
I have found a much more useful indicator to be income levels. If your household earns roughly the per capita average of GDP then you are middle class. In most advanced capitalist countries that translates to between 17 and 23% of households are middle class. A further three to five per cent are upper class, i.e. “earning” well over their fair share, and the rest are working class.