The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

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.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Obama Will Cruze to Victory

“And the winner is…”

(Drum roll—sound of envelope being ripped open.)

“…Barack Obama.”

I’m going to be honest about this: when it comes to predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential contest I’ve been downright Romneyan.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but unlike the GOP nominee who can’t remember what he believed an hour ago, I haven’t developed a case of Romnesia or tried to Etch-a-Sketch my shifting prognostications out of existence. What hasn’t changed is my belief that the outcome of the presidential contest in Ohio would determine who would occupy the White House for the next four years.

A little over a year ago—and months before he had sewn up the GOP nomination–I believed Romney was on a clear path to victory in the Buckeye state.  He was the least buffoonish character in the cast of clowns that was seeking the Republican nod, he was and would continue to be awash in campaign cash, and his record as a Senate candidate and governor of Massachusetts would enable him to move from the far right-wing toward the center after he secured the nomination.

Other factors also pointed to a Romney win. Though recovering, the economy was weak, unemployment was uncomfortably high, and President Obama was being blamed—his job approval rating was hovering at 42%.   The Democratic Party’s dispirited and disillusioned base had not turned out in 2010, enabling the GOP to capture every statewide office.  White working-class males who had never been enthralled with Mr. Obama remained skeptical if not downright hostile, and the state’s conservatives were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to toss him out of office. Ohio was, in my opinion, ripe for the taking.

Obviously, my opinion has changed. Since mid-summer I’ve been calling the race for the President and, despite some trepidation caused by his lackluster performance in the first debate and the public’s and the media’s willingness to give Romney a pass for being the most disingenuous and dissembling candidate to ever seek the presidency, I am confident Mr. Obama will win Ohio tomorrow on his way to racking up a comfortable margin of victory in the Electoral College.

Why do I now believe that Mr. Obama will prevail in a contest he could easily have lost?

Regardless of the billion dollars spent by the candidates, political parties, and Super PACs to air more than 1,000,000 TV ads, President Obama will win Ohio and the White House because he thought it was a good idea to save the domestic auto industry and Mitt Romney did not.

The President will win because his commitment to an industry that employs one in eight Ohioans has strengthened both the state’s economy and his standing among working-class voters. This issue has provided voters with an unobstructed view of the difference between the two candidates, their credibility, and the effect each man’s philosophy of government could have on the future of our nation.

The auto rescue demonstrates that government can exert a positive impact on the economy.  Unlike TARP and the President’s overall stimulus plan, which primarily benefited Wall Street, the auto rescue paid off for Main Street, especially Main Streets across Ohio.  It preserved good-paying, blue collar manufacturing jobs, enabled GM and Chrysler to invest nearly one billion dollars in new plants and equipment, and positioned the companies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Yes, there was pain involved.  The thousands of union members who lost their jobs, the car dealers who were forced to close, and the Delphi retirees whose pensions shrunk will tell you just how much.  But it’s also important to note that the auto rescue forced fat cat members of the 1% to join the working families who make up the 99% in paying the price for mistakes made by corporate America.  Along with being fundamentally fair, the substantial “haircut” that bond-holders and other investors were forced to take was an essential element of the financial restructuring that put the two auto companies on the road to recovery and literally saved millions of jobs.

In the end, the auto rescue bolstered Mr. Obama’s electoral prospects because it produced tangible results for American workers—the type of tangible results that have yet to be generated by the larger stimulus plan or health care reform.  The type of results Romney and the Republicans can’t lie about or distort.  The results are as real as the paychecks that millions of workers receive each week, as real as the thousands of Chevy Cruzes that roll off the Lordstown assembly line each week, as real the pride workers feel when they read that the car they make is the best-selling model in America.

Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, everything that’s wrong with his politics, his campaign, and his philosophy was encapsulated in his stance on the auto rescue as expressed in these 84 words from an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times:

Let Detroit Go Bankrupt

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.

Clearly, Mr. Romney was dead and demonstrably wrong.  That inconvenient truth and the fact that the op-ed can be read by anyone who visits the Times’s website hasn’t prevented Mr. Romney from attempting to flip-flop on this issue as he has on so many others, including abortion, health care, the environment, and gay rights.

But no matter how he twisted and turned, no matter how much he lied, he couldn’t get out from under the op-ed.  He could never gain traction in Ohio where voters–white working class voters in particular–were living the success of the President’s plan.

How did Mr. Romeny deal with his inability to pull ahead in the state he had to win?

He simply told bigger lies in TV and radio spots that claimed Chrysler was moving production of its Jeep models to China and GM was shipping jobs and capital overseas.  The ads were so misleading and offensive that Chrysler and GM officials vehemently denounced them, the media finally held him accountable for dissembling, and the public reacted with anger and revulsion.

Predictably, his poll numbers started to slip.  Romney had finally been hoisted on the petard of his own mistruths.

Tomorrow, the man who rescued the domestic auto industry will defeat the man who wanted to let it die and then lied about it.  That says a lot about Ohio voters.  Confronted, at last, with the undistorted, incontrovertible truth, they are poised to reward a President who did the right thing with four more years in the White House.

Now that we know who will win, the big question—the one that will obviously be discussed once the dust of the election clears—is what Mr. Obama will do with the opportunity Ohioans are about to give him.  Will he, as he did with the auto rescue, focus on investing in Main Street by making sure that working-class families have a real chance to grab their piece of the American Dream or will he revert to Wall Street-centered policies that undermined his credibility, dampened the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and placed his prospects for reelection in jeopardy?

I have a prediction, but I’m not ready to make it public just yet…

Leo Jennings

He’s No Coach Taylor: Mitt Romney and Friday Night Lights

As someone who counts getting escorted out of an auditorium by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s hired goons as one of my proudest moments, I never thought I’d admit to having something substantial, even intimate, in common with Mitt Romney. But as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate and I are both fans of the TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), a gritty, realist drama centered on a high school football team and the largely working-class residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. What more, we both find inspiration in a motto that “Coach” Eric Taylor, with a combination of unwavering determination and tenderness, utters to his team at the end of every pre-game locker room huddle: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Indeed, in the final stretch of completing my Literature PhD last summer, the slogan stared back at me from the wall in front of my desk. In the midst of tearful frustration and paralyzing anxiety, Coach Taylor was there, Zen-like, to help me get my head back in the game.

So imagine my dismay when a friend shared an article describing how Romney, high off his “victory” in the first presidential debate, adopted a slightly amended version of Coach Taylor’s motto — “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose” — as the official home-stretch slogan of his campaign. I was hardly the only person shaken up by Romney’s appropriation of the Friday Night Lights motto. Peter Berg, the series creator, immediately sent Romney an angry letter accusing him of having plagiarized his expression. “Your politics and campaign are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series,” he further explained. Unmoved by Berg’s request that he “come up with (his) own slogan,” Romney continues to feature the line on his Facebook page and in campaign materials. His campaign website even encourages visitors to “Support America’s Comeback Team” by ordering a $10 set of red, white, and blue rubber bracelets with the motto emblazoned on each one.

My personal stake in Romney’s use of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” lies not just in my appreciation of a show containing some of the most respectful, affirming representations of working-class people since Roseanne. I also wrote a dissertation chapter focused on what I’m calling the Friday Night Lights “franchise” of texts: the 1990 sports journalism classic by Buzz Bissinger (who, in a disappointing yet intriguing twist in this saga, is voting for Romney); the 2004 film, also directed by Berg, based on Bissinger’s book; and the TV series inspired by the book and film. I wrote about these texts because I needed to reckon with something from which, as a working-class girl from a sports-obsessed small town, I fled: the kind of “small-minded” people who turned their children into heroes on the football field only to watch them take their place on the assembly line — or, more bleakly, the cell block — after graduation. What I observed in these texts, however, was how small-town high school football can function as a collectively owned asset — an ever-growing “archive” of moments demonstrating the inherent worth of members of that community — with which to counter constant exposure to the unstable, exploitative labor conditions created by unregulated free-market capitalism. Football, in other words, is a matter of working-class dignity. As one coach from Bissinger’s book put it to his young team: “Later on in life they can take your money away from you, they can take your house, they can take your car, they can’t take this kind of stuff away from you, something you’ll always have and always be proud of.” Any way you look at it, Romney and his ilk are the “they” to whom this coach is referring.

The main source of my anger over Romney’s use of the “Clear Eyes” slogan — a slogan belonging to those small-town working class kids and the Coach they respect, who respects them back whatever their circumstances — is the entitled smugness with which he just reaches out and takes. This theft reflects the general attitude of the corporate class toward the world they inhabit and the policies they promote to sustain their right to take. Cutting taxes for the wealthy while raising middle class taxes to pay for such cuts, as Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would do, is a particularly frightening example of this “we take what we want, no apologies” outlook. As we learned from the 2008 mortgage crisis and corporate bailouts to follow, the economic system is designed to insulate the takers from any potential repercussions associated with their greed.

That greed is especially insidious when cast as an appeal to the very “heartland” working people who will be most affected by the taker’s anti-labor, social contract gutting political moves. One of the most haunting moments from Bissinger’s book comes when he cites a few lines from George Bush senior’s 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. Hot on the tail of an enthusiastically received campaign stop in Midland, Texas, where he once briefly lived, Bush reminisced:

Now we moved to West Texas forty years ago, forty years ago this year. And the war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own… We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us, worked in the oil business, and then started my own.

And in time, we had six children; moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house, and lived the dream—high school football on Friday nights…

There’s so much taking going on here. Bush, a Yale graduate and banker’s son, takes hardship, takes struggle.  With the slippages of a clever speechwriter, he turns a one-room “shotgun house” into a densely populated shack (did they really have six children before moving out?). From shotgun to duplex to house, he takes upward class mobility, that story, for his own. And, like Romney, he takes “the dream” of small-town high school football.

Romney is not only taking Coach Taylor’s motto. Like Bush, he is making a grab at working-class identity. In a cover photo featured last week on his Facebook page, Romney’s back is turned to the camera, rain pouring down his jacket in a nighttime scene reminiscent of Coach Taylor’s many contemplative looks across an empty field. Since we don’t see Romney’s face, there is little to distinguish him from a Coach whose sincerity, humility, and finely-tuned force of character mark him as a man that anyone — even a feminist agitator like myself — would follow.

Bush and Romney want access to those moments of greatness beneath the lights not just as admirers, but as participants in the collective authoring of the American story: “making memories,” as the series’s Silverado-driving fullback Tim Riggins would put it. However disingenuous a performance, Bush senior was telling communities like Midland, “Not only do I value the dream that you’re living, but I’ve lived it too — I’ve made those memories. Your story is my story.” The irony, of course, is that the archive of community memories granting value to working-class experience is especially important in light of conservative economic policies that leave working people with so few stable assets to hold onto, things they can’t take. Plumbing small-town high school football for political capital is an attempt to destabilize something that remains a small but deeply meaningful source of self-empowerment for the working class.

In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Coach Taylor walks slowly through the locker room at halftime of the first game played by the East Dillon Lions, the inexperienced, poorly equipped team with which he has been saddled. As he regards his battered team — his quarterback has a badly sprained ankle; one of his fullbacks is spitting blood — a look of sad resignation crosses the Coach’s face. He walks back to the field, ready to do what he must: forfeit the game in order to keep his vulnerable players from further harm. Coach Taylor knows that for his team to stand a chance of eventual success, players must have their health, decent equipment, and any other resources he can provide.

Contrast that with another Romney attempt to channel the Coach. Last week, he staged a touch football game between his campaign staffers and members of the press corps. Romney’s advice to his team? “Figure out which of their players is best and take them out early… That’s right, don’t worry about injuries guys, this counts. Win.” Coach Taylor leads with a community-first ethos that Romney, with his instinct to “take out” anyone standing in the way of his personal win-loss record, could not fake if his life depended on it. Responding to the slogan drama, one popular Friday Night Lights fan blog gives it to him straight: “Hey Mitt: You, sir, are no Coach Taylor.”

Sara Appel

Sara Appel is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Program in Literature at Duke University.

The New Precariat and Electoral Politics

During the Presidential campaign, Americans have heard endless discussions about unemployment. But neither candidate has said much, at least not directly, about precarious employment or about the new precariat – that growing group (some would even say the growing class) of workers in temporary, part-time, and/or contingent work that often doesn’t pay a living wage.

Who is the precariat? According to Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class, all of us could be.  For now, the precariat involves largely women, the young, the disabled, retirees forced back to work, former prisoners, and migrants. It also includes large numbers of formerly middle-class professionals, skilled and semi-skilled people who have been displaced by economic change. While each of these groups has gotten some attention, Standing argues that as a group, the precariat is still “a class in the making,” united by an overwhelming sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

The growth of the precariat has its roots in globalization and technological change, which flooded flexible labor markets and advanced international divisions of labor.  These conditions coincided with changes in government regulation, corporate restructuring, reduced access to and distribution of social programs, and the creation of coercive social policies such as workfare, mass incarceration, and means testing.

Historically, precarious employment was associated with the informal economy.  But with economic changes in the last several decades, informality has moved beyond traditional practices of black market exchanges or services such as day care or tutoring. As workers have been displaced from the formal economy, many are turning to consulting, internships, and subcontracting to find contingent and intermittent work. In general, more and more people are involved in unregulated work characterized by irregular employment, short job ladders, substandard wages and working conditions, and increased stigmatization. During the current economic crisis, with declining standards of living and loss of public assistance, the new precariat – like the old precariat — survives by working longer hours, holding multiple jobs, and when possible relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and family.

While the growth of the precariat creates real social and economic challenges for workers in the informal economy, in places like Youngstown, where the cost of living is low, some mostly younger adults are making a virtue of the situation. As cultural anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe has argued, Youngstown is becoming home to increasing numbers of highly individualistic, anti-materialistic, entrepreneurial adults with episodic employment in largely deregulated work environments. While some define themselves as entrepreneurs, many also see their rejection of materialism as providing a measure of freedom and dignity that challenged capitalist and “older parental” values surrounding work.

Their economic conditions are anemic and often do not reflect their education and experience (many have college and even graduate degrees). They don’t earn much and have little savings, health care, or pension benefits. Their work experiences and the difficulties they’ve had in finding jobs in the formal economy have reduced their expectations about the future.  They have internalized their economic insecurity, and their personal lives tend to mirror their work lives, with contingent and episodic relationships and living situations. Many embrace sustainability and green values, starting urban farms or homesteading in abandoned houses.  Others are part of a contingent creative class, doing freelance work in the arts, web development, and education, but because of the precarity of their work, they don’t make the kinds of stabilizing contributions to the local economy that Richard Florida predicted.  Some just want to be left alone, comfortable with their inexpensive lifestyles.

Just how big is the new precariat? It’s difficult to measure, but the Federal Reserve Board of Cleveland suggests that the ‘Great Recession’ has resulted in increases in self-employment, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 35 million people work part time.  While the data on how many people have precarious employment is far from definitive, the precariat clearly seems to be large and growing.

That suggests that the new precariat could have a significant impact on the election. Most of them don’t believe that the government or other institutions can do much to ameliorate their situation.  Many consider themselves to be small business people. As Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett have suggested, “Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way ‘working class’ once served that function for the left.” That suggests that the precariat may be persuaded by campaign rhetoric about taxes and economic development.  On the other hand, many see themselves as anti-capitalist, committed to green values and social justice. So will they vote like those who share their educational backgrounds, who are more likely to be politically independent and have socially progressive leanings, thus revealing themselves to be the fallen faction of the middle class?  Or do they, like much of the old white working class, vote on the basis of economic aspiration?  Or does the precariat now include so many Americans, from diverse backgrounds and in varied situations, that their political views can’t be easily predicted?  In 2012 in states like Ohio, the new precariat could determine the presidential election and America’s future.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Voting on the American Dream

In between the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was asked to review an article concerning the attitudes of displaced workers toward their plight. The study suggested that cultural narratives shape the social and political consciousness of those suffering economic distress in both positive and negative ways.  The article made me think about the convention speeches and the impact that they may have on working- and middle-class listeners whose lives have been disrupted by the Great Recession. How might they use the words and cultural narratives suggested in the convention speeches?

The New York Times actually tracked how often the Republicans and Democrats used certain words at their conventions. Other than the names of the presidential candidates, God, and taxes, the most common terms at both conventions were work, jobs, families, opportunity, economy, and success. All of these terms are closely associated with the American Dream, which was also mentioned frequently.

The frequent use of these words is to be expected, given that the American Dream has been the most dominant aspirational and cultural narrative in our county. Among other things, the American Dream suggests that through hard work and education individuals could improve their standard of living and that improvement would continue for each successive generation.  But that narrative has become contested because of declining socio-economic conditions and downward class mobility. A question now being heard, as noted in an NPR story last spring, is whether the American Dream is still viable, or has it become a nightmare?

To answer that, it helps to consider the political uses of the American Dream.  Political economists have suggested that it has served hegemonic purposes, allowing small but powerful groups to exercise political power with high levels of popular consent. In the case of the American Dream, they suggest, elites have used this powerful narrative to create a social and political consciousness that would not threaten the privileged.  For example, some elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support.  A recent example appeared in the Republican convention, which emphasized the claim that “We  Built It” in response to President Obama’s suggestion that businesses don’t build the roads and infrastructure that allow their enterprises to succeed.

But what happens when the American Dream becomes discredited?  Does it lose its ability to shape political consciousness? As the Occupy Movement has shown, the American Dream has been betrayed, and today the story of America is characterized by injustice, inequality, and unfairness.  But that movement created what’s called a counter-hegomonic narrative, a story that made clear that the Dream is no longer attainable.  A narrative emphasizing the betrayal of the American Dream could play a powerful role in shaping social and political attitudes and in deciding the election this year, as the study I mentioned earlier suggested.

Of course, candidates still insist on citing the American Dream in their speeches.  But while some people still find hope in that narrative, others recognize that their own situation reveals the Dream’s contradictions. So what will be the dominant influence?  Hope?  Or a change in the way we think about the American Dream?

I suspect that people will look more critically at the limitations of the American Dream narrative than they have in most previous elections. A recent Pew Research study shows that Americans increasingly define themselves as lower class. The greatest shifts occurred among adults under 30, especially whites and Hispanics and those without a college degree (whom pollsters often consider working-class), though many who have college degrees also identified as lower class.  The pattern holds across political affiliations, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More important, those who identified as lower class also supported the idea that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, and they expressed little optimism for the future.

Given that, politicians would do well to go beyond embracing the American Dream and instead identify clear strategies for renewing its viability.  Unfortunately, neither party has been able to suggest anything except increased education,  and they offer few concrete plans to help more people attain that.  Most of the time, the best they can do is make oblique references to raising the standard living and improving trade and manufacturing policies.  Despite their fervent statements of faith in the American Dream, what we’re hearing is mostly aspirational political rhetoric.  And many Americans just aren’t buying it anymore.

That skepticism might, eventually, provide the foundation for broader discontent, which could take many forms.  As Election Day gets closer, perhaps the biggest threat to both parties, but especially the Democrats, is apathy and resignation from voters who no longer believe in the American Dream.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

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