Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

Influential political analyst Ron Brownstein thinks American politics is all about answering this question: “How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do?”

Hilary Swift, New York Times photo

The question resonates because metro areas vote so differently from small town and rural areas and because our electoral-college leftover from slavery (like the Senate) gives these non-metro places outsized influence in our politics.  Regionally, large majorities on the coasts vote Democratic while the South and Midwest are majority Republican.  But to Brownstein’s readers in The Atlantic, Paducah (population 23,000 and in Kentucky) likely also connotes “hick” or “hillbilly,” terms that are stand-ins for “poorly educated” whites without bachelor’s degrees — or the so-called white working class.  

Brownstein presents the core conflict in American politics as between a backward-looking, aggrieved “coalition of restoration” (Paducah) and a forward-looking, virtuous “coalition of transformation” (Seattle). The unstated assumption is that highly educated folks, the transformers, are the norm as well as the ideal, whereas poorly educated whites are ignorant and backward at best, or deplorable at worst.  Those whites seemed to prove that again last Tuesday by voting 64 to 35 for Donald J. Trump.  (All 2020 election results here are from preliminary and not entirely reliable Edison exit polls as reported in The New York Times.)

At this moment it’s pretty tempting for us highly educated folks to think that all Trump voters are deplorable people resisting the important transformations we are all busy working toward.  But there are different transformations afoot and they’re not all positive.  And there’s also some restoration we could use a lot more of.

Brownstein mistakenly meshes cultural transformations – “growing diversity in race, religion, and sexual orientation [and] evolving roles for women” – with economic ones – “the move from an industrial economy to one grounded in the Information Age.”  In this formulation if you want to restore some important aspects of the Industrial Age – like 2% annual increases in real wages for three decades, strong unions, and steeply progressive taxes – then you also resist growing diversity and evolving roles for women. 

It’s true that many white men, with and without bachelor’s degrees, rage against all three transformations.  But there is no logical connection between cultural reactionaries and economic ones.  A person can be culturally deplorable and economically progressive at the same time, as much survey research has shown.  Or they can resist diversity but be open to – and in fact, looking for – the government to dramatically improve their economic circumstances.  And that means that Democrats should make a renewed effort to convince workers of all skin tones to look more closely at their economic program.  The one Biden ran on is good enough.

It didn’t get much attention in the media, nor did Biden emphasize it enough. Yet the economic program Biden ran on is potentially transformative at the scale he proposed  – especially trade and industrial policies focused on making more things in-country, a massive infrastructure investment that creates millions of jobs, and a comprehensive enhancement of the care economy for children, elders, and the workers who care for them, all paid for with increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy. If enacted, this program will disproportionately benefit people of color, but the largest group of beneficiaries will be whites without bachelor’s degrees.  

Such a program will be impossible to enact with a Senate still controlled by Paducah, but the overall program could be enormously popular, and it should be the center of Democratic legislative politics for the next two years.  The program – and the focus on economic revival – might be able to pull a handful of Republican senators across the aisle, but that’s not as important as making strong inroads into the Trumpian base of the party – namely, the white working class.  I believe that can be done and is, in fact, highly feasible, but you have to understand the Trump coalition better than our punditry generally does.

A recent New York Times article, for example, described the Trump and Biden coalitions in a way that is quite common shorthand among many analysts and pundits: “A Trump coalition of white voters without college degrees and a Biden coalition of college-educated white voters . . . and minority voters.”

White people without bachelor’s degrees are the largest part of the Trump coalition – 47% — but they are not alone.  Despite what Brownstein and others assume, the white part of the educated middle class are not uniformly right-thinking transformers. Last week they split their vote 49 to 49, making them about a third of the Trump coalition.                 

Trump Coalition
White Working Class47%
White Middle Class33%
“Non-White”20%

While only a fifth of the Trump coalition are not white, “non-white” people make up nearly half of Biden’s coalition. The total “non-white” Dem advantage may be down some from the Obama elections, but it is still huge.   As growing and mobilizing parts of the electorate, racial minorities are clearly the foundation of any viable Democratic coalition.

Biden Coalition
“Non-White”47%
     Black 20%      Latino 17%      Asian & Other 10% 
White Middle Class30%
White Working Class23%

But that 35% minority of working-class whites who voted for Biden are not an insubstantial part of the Biden coalition, making up nearly a quarter of it. That’s the smallest part of the coalition, but it amounts to about 20 million voters, which is more people than reside in all but four of our most populous states.  The educated white middle class represents a somewhat larger group, but they are not the only white part of the Democratic coalition.

Simple democratic arithmetic dictates that you cannot neglect any part of your coalition, but you also need to add to your coalition by subtracting from the opposition’s groups.  The white working class may have gotten over-sized attention from progressive Democrats coming into this election, but that’s because they are the single biggest target.   It didn’t help that a part of the Democratic party has sometimes argued that they should be abandoned and allowed to stew in their own juices – often with more than a little class prejudice.  Democrats’ effort to attract more working-class whites, however, resulted in about a 4-point gain among them nationally, but the gains in battleground Rust Belt states were enough to determine outcomes – 8 points in Michigan, 9 points in Minnesota, 7 points in Wisconsin, though only 2 points in Pennsylvania.

As Michael Sandel has pointed out, “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”   To gain more support from working-class whites, Democrats have to acknowledge that class prejudice — and overcome it.  We can start by simply understanding that the white working class is a very large and diverse group of people. It cannot reasonably be characterized as having one uniform social and political psychology. Indeed, it is so large and diverse that it makes up both the largest piece of the Trump base and an indispensable part of the Biden base. 

Nor should we buy the kind of broad-brush geographical references that Brownstein offers. Working-class whites don’t all live in places like Paducah.  They live in cities, including Seattle, and are likely a majority in the suburbs, even though political reporters often seem to assume that “the suburbs” require a bachelor’s degree and a comfortable income for admission. 

Most important, we need to understand that while some part of the white working class is deplorable in every respect, the largest group among them is culturally conservative but also economically progressive.  The Public Religion Research Institute study that tracked substantial racial and cultural resentments and anxieties among large portions of the white working class also found:

White working-class Americans generally believe the economic system is stacked against them, are broadly supportive of populist economic policies such as raising the minimum wage and taxing the wealthy—including a larger role for government—and are skeptical of free trade. . . . . Most white working-class Americans believe the best way to promote economic growth is to increase spending on education and the nation’s infrastructure, while raising taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for it.”   

If a President Joe-from-Scranton can unify Democratic legislators around the progressive economic program he ran on, he can rally the diverse coalition that elected him this year while at the same time appealing to that considerable part of the white working class who voted for Trump but who are also open to a transformation toward economic justice that includes them.  

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  A former president of the Working-Class Studies Association, he is the author of a forthcoming book from Cornell University Press, No One Right Way: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Cultural and Political Diversity in the White Working-Class

  1. Pingback: Trump lost, but racism is alive and infused in U.S. history » The Global Centre for Risk and Innovation

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  4. William Smoot says:

    This is a great article. While I agree that economic issues are an important part of trying to bring some of the red folks over to blue, I believe cultural issues matter also.
    I just spent the past couple of hours looking at Presidential election result maps for Kentucky going back to 1960. (Full disclosure: I am a native son.) From 1960 through 1996, the state sometimes went Republican and sometimes Democratic, but its 120 counties always comprised a checkerboard map of red and blue. In 1960, Kennedy lost Jefferson County but won 45 other counties. The checkerboard pattern is no more. In 2016 and 2020, every small town/rural country in the state went red, and the two metropolitan counties, Jefferson County (Louisville) and Fayette County (Lexington) went blue. In much-watched Pennsylvania, the same thing was true. Trump one the rural/small town vote by a huge margin, and we all watched anxiously as the two biggest cities tipped the results to Biden.
    Where one lives has become a stronger determinant of how one votes than ever before. Why is this? The reasons are no doubt complex, but I think part of the explanation is that people vote more on cultural issues now than in the past. Gender roles, LGBTQ issues, guns, abortion, and “university” thinking determine how one votes, and views on those issues tend to vary by zip code. Here lies an opportunity for “adding to your coalition by subtracting from the opposition’s groups.” Not that the Left wants to cave on abortion rights or gun control, but it can explain its position with respect for the other side’s view and an admission that some of the other side’s values (the sanctity of life) are good values. The mistake I see Leftists making almost daily is to act and talk ways that make voters on the other side feel diminished. In lengthier interviews with Trump voters, one often hears, “They don’t like us.” Whether such speakers feel wounded or defiant (or both), they certainly feel like Trump is the only available haven for their dignity. And for that, Leftists bear no small amount of responsibility.
    While I agree that economic program is important, I don’t believe cultural issues should be ignored. They matter to voters, so they should matter to us.
    By the way, no one living in Paducah is going to be called a “hillbilly.” That term is reserved for people living in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. Paducah is across the Ohio River from Illinois. And it’s almost as big as the state capital, Frankfort.

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  5. TD says:

    “How long can Paducah tell Seattle what to do?”

    That is not really what Mr. Brownstein means. Paducah is probably largely willing to let Seattle be. It’s Seattle that wants to impose its will on Paducah. My casual observation is that red states are largely willing to let blue states be as whacky as they like, but just leave them alone. The blue states say red states must become like them. Many blue states are quite large with one or two large cities that dominate the state and numerous second tier cities and rural areas that are suffering. California is Exhibit A. Why does Fresno suffer while Silicon Valley and SF boomed? Why don’t firms think of the Central Valley cities when they contemplate siting a new manufacturing plant? Basically, SF doesn’t want those industries in CA, even if sited hours away.

    What Mr. Brownstein really means by his comment is “How long must Seattle tolerate Paducah’s resistance to doing as Seattle tells them?”.

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  6. wvulou says:

    Thanks for this analysis, Jack. I agree and I hope the Democrats spend some time in Paducah, talking to some of their constituents and rebuilding trust with those economic proposals. A lot riding on it.

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  8. cynthia curran says:

    Personality, this is rubbish. Most Trump supporters make over 50,000 a year according to exile bpolls and don’t work in blue collar jobs. They are more likely to not live in rural areas but in suburbs even though Trump did better in rural areas since suburbs have a lot more money. In fact minorities make up less of the Trump coalition than college educated whites Trump won 38 percent of whites with college and only 12 percent of blacks..

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    • TD says:

      The working class secured Trump the nomination in 2016 over a plethora of other candidates that the suburban Republicans would have preferred. That they voted for him in the election does not make them ardent Trump supporters.

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  13. Fred Anderson says:

    Dr. Metzger;
    I suspect much of your desired program hangs upon effective taxation of the wealthy and the corporations. I suspect neither is workable / desirable, and so the progressive program self-destructs.

    When we tax the corporations, those taxes become a cost of doing business. Any firm that cannot recover its costs goes broke. So these taxes get passed along to someone. (Hence the observation that “Corporations don’t pay taxes; they merely collect them for the government.”)
    Now the plan is that the corporations will pass those taxes to their owners. But capital is extremely fluid / fungible. And there is a (world) market rate one must pay to gain the use of another’s funds. No sane organization pays more than it has to — the market rate — for capital. And any organization that proposes that it should pay less than the market rate, quickly discovers that, with the click of a mouse, the investors can (and will) move their investments to someone who will pay it. So we cannot effectively pass these tax charges to the capital suppliers. They’ll simply leave the room.
    There is debate about where those taxes do get passed, but I think it is usually conceded that it is easiest to pass them to the workers (whose only alternative is to quit), and wisest to pass them on to the customers (abusing the employees has nasty long-run consequences).
    Note that, when passed to the customer, these look a lot like a sales tax. And sales taxes are regressive. (The customer does have the escape hatch of buying from a foreign supplier who doesn’t pay — or pass along — these U.S. taxes.)

    And. One operational definition of wealthy is that your income substantially exceeds your needs. As a consequence that excess can be saved. (And any wise saver will have the money invested and earning a return — if nothing else to stay ahead of the ravages of inflation.) When we tax the wealthy, they don’t cut back their lifestyle. (That’s painful.) Instead they just have less left over to save — and invest.
    But for the society, less investment means fewer places of employment, allowing the equipment to wear out or obsolesce, less ability to invest in our people (i.e., training) and falling behind as foreign competitors upgrade their technologies in ways U.S. firms can no longer afford.

    We will have (and should have) progressive programs if & when the American people decide to tax themselves to support them. The idea that we can have them at someone else’s expense doesn’t work.

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    • jackmetz1 says:

      Thanks, Fred, but we’ve had this discussion before. Your argument is logical, but both too narrow and ahistorical. The net effect of raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy depends on what government does with the increased revenue. If they put it under a mattress or pay down national debt, then the consequences you foresee are very likely to occur. If, on the other hand, they spend it on infrastructure, care, and education, for example, the macroeconomic multipliers are so great as to overwhelm the effects you think happen always and everywhere. That’s the narrow part — you’re only looking at one part of the picture. The ahistorical part is those three decades after World War II when corporate tax rates and individual taxes on the wealthy were much, much higher than they are today — and we had the greatest period of economic growth, about 4% a year, and of real increases in wages in all of U.S. history.
      Good to hear from you again,
      Jack Metzgar

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      • Fred Anderson says:

        Uh-Oh. I boggled the spelling of your name. (How embarrassing!) I apologize.
        Fred Anderson

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      • TD says:

        The US had a good run when much of Europewas and Japan was flattened by WW2 and much of the rest of the world was under the Soviet Union’s domination or a third world backwater. Back then a lot of business executives could work in the morning, have a three martini lunch, nap all afternoon and still sell their products. It’s different now.

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  14. Gregory Guthrie says:

    Please read: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/21/disaffected-rust-belt-voters-embraced-donald-trump-midwestern-obama
    Joe from Scranton had enough down-home appeal to pull out a victory.

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  15. Alan Harrison says:

    Fascinating piece, but unfortunately your link to the NYT requires subscription/registration. Here in the UK, there’s a “dumptheguardian” option to read worthwhile articles from the rag without contributing to its revenues.

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