How Big Is the Working Class – and Why Does It Matter?

Americans without bachelor’s degrees outnumber college grads 2 to 1. But if you and most people you know and have ever known are college graduates, you might not realize that most Americans are not like you and your cohort.   As a result, you’re likely to think your class of people is much, much larger than it is.

That misunderstanding is crucial for American politics in the early 21st century.  As David Shor and others have pointed out, most political operatives and activists – and perhaps especially Democrats — are college grads who seem to assume that most voters are like them.  Likewise, most network and cable TV reporters and commentators also often seem to assume that almost everybody has been to college.  They might get the right answer on a true-or-false question if somebody asked, but nobody does.  And, thus, there is a feedback loop among the political and pundit class: they don’t realize that they are engaged in a public inter-class conversation that is code-restricted to those who have graduated from college – and maybe even only to those who have graduated from the most elite schools.

For the past two decades, Ruy Teixeira and a handful of other progressive Democratic analysts have been banging their heads against this wall, trying to convince Dems to pay more attention to working-class whites, defined as whites without bachelor’s degrees, and now raising alarms about the erosion of Black and Hispanic working-class voters as well.  Teixeira’s latest effort on the coming mid-term elections shows how the political class shapes issues based on unconscious or semi-conscious class bias: focusing on abortion, Trump’s corruption, gun control, and January 6th – issues top of mind among the college-educated – to the exclusion of economic issues, including inflation and its effects on real wages, that matter most to working-class voters of all colors.

I sympathize with Teixeira’s frustration with the class tilt of Democratic Party professionals and most of the media, but I think he presents too uniform a view of the party, one that may be accurate in the D.C. – New York corridor but much less so across the country.  President Biden has repeatedly emphasized working-class issues, for example, as have several Democratic Congressional candidates, like Tim Ryan in Ohio. 

But the party can’t ignore issues like abortion and Trumpian corruption for both principled reasons and because it is a cross-class, multi-racial coalition that cannot work without all of its parts.

Democratic data firm Catalist makes the challenge clear: Democrats are still a mostly working-class party, as 58% of Biden voters, all colors, did not have bachelor’s degrees.  But the other 42% of the coalition did, and Democrats cannot ignore either group’s interests. The picture gets more complicated when we factor in race.  Catalist groups Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and “Others” together as people of color (POC), and they made up 39% of the Biden coalition.

Many politically informed people would be surprised to see that the white working class made up such a large proportion of the Biden Democratic coalition.  Since 62% of that demographic voted for Trump, how could they also make up nearly a third of Democratic voters? The answer is that working-class whites are a very large group – 44% of all voters in 2020.  So large that while they are about a third of Dem voters, they are also nearly 60% of all Trump voters.  It would be political malfeasance to ignore or walk away from this big a group of voters.

Nor can the Party ignore people of color, especially those without college degrees. Black and Hispanic voters are disproportionately working class, so they share many of the economic interests of the white working class – as well as some cultural and religious proclivities.  When our educated middle class publicly talk about politics among themselves, most people of color, like most whites, are missing in that conversation.  The assumption that secular, cosmopolitan, aspirational values are the only ones that matter grates on some of people in the multi-racial working class, but for others it nurtures cynicism and political indifference – a potentially dangerous political stew where what looks like apathy can quickly turn to rage.

So instead of one intractable problem – class bias among the political and communications elites – I see two.  Democrats need to resist that class bias within their own ranks and at the same time find ways to speak to both working-class needs and values and professional class interests, and without ignoring their own and voters’ interests as women, people of color, and more.  Teixeira is right that anchoring the party in working-class needs and values can unify the varied parts of the Democratic coalition, but only so long as the party also makes room for more middle-class priorities, like abortion and climate change.  I think this is what President Biden has been trying to do – in his (sometimes lame) “from the middle out” rhetoric, but more importantly, in the substantive proposals of his Bernie-influenced Build Back Better plan with its emphasis on industrial policy and the care economy.

To reduce their class biases, our highly educated, allegedly data-conscious political class should memorize a few basic facts:  

  • The working class as conventionally defined by education, and also in a number of different ways around occupation, is a substantial majority of the population, a majority of voters, and a majority of Democratic voters.
  • Roughly 40% of them are people of color, and they have been much more likely than the non-Hispanic-white part of the working class to support Democrats.  
  • The large grab bag of progressive economic proposals that Democrats sometimes shy away from talking about in their campaigns – many of which were in Biden’s original legislative agenda, much of which came very close to passing – help the working class of all races. While people of color benefit disproportionately from these programs, most of those who benefit from higher wages, affordable child and health care, and other policies are white and working class.  This is the rocky road to unifying working-class voters across race.  We need to stay on it and keep at it.
  • Finally, it’s worth remembering that many college-educated people are also struggling financially.  Managers and professionals in the US have median incomes of $77k and $71k, respectively. At least half of them are likely living paycheck to paycheck and would greatly benefit from a progressive economic agenda.

In the end, we all have class interests that shape the way we look at and live in the world, what we prioritize and what we neglect.  But within that shaping process, there’s a lot of room for rational self-consciousness to help us reconcile our interests with what others see as the common good.  You’d think the highly educated would be especially good at this, and they can be. They might just need to get out more among the hoi polloi.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is a retired adult educator from Roosevelt University in Chicago, a founder and past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, and author of Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society (Cornell, 2021).

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2 Responses to How Big Is the Working Class – and Why Does It Matter?

  1. CapitalistRoader says:

    The last time inflation rose so high, so fast.

    1978 Midterm Elections
    – House: GOP +15
    – Senate: GOP +3
    – Governors: GOP +6

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  2. Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

    Ben Sasse, the conservative US Senator from Nebraska is a historian that has chronicled the “class shift” in the Democratic party alongside the surge in Republican populism (especially noticeable in the South) — both recent changes in terms of historical timelines.
    Ben Sasse’s Yale Dissertation uses the central figure of Madalyn Murray O’Hair to focus the religious and theological tumult of the 1960s, and as a way to grasp the rise of the religious right at this important moment in historical time.
    https://www.worldcat.org/title/57233987
    Click on “More Information,” then click on “ProQuest/Abstract” to access the 489 page dissertation.
    The pdf is 56 megs, and the searchable version that I made with Adobe Acrobat DC runs 261 megs. Rousas Rushdoony is barely mentioned, and Francis Schaeffer not at all.

    Sasse is the new president of University of Florida, resigning his US Senate seat.

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