Rush Limbaugh, who passed away last month at age 70, was conservative talk radio’s most flamboyant and influential provocateur. Boasting an audience of 15 million, Limbaugh is often credited with persuading working-class voters to embrace a Republican Party whose pro-business, free trade economic policies went against working-class interests. As Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, explained, “Limbaugh was on the forefront of trying to take conservative policies and explain them in a way that appeals to a demographic that typically would not favor the Republican Party.” The result, Wagner suggests, can be seen in “the strength of the Republican party has among working-class Americans.”
But is it really true that Limbaugh, who could be misogynistic and racially inflammatory in his broadcast, appealed primarily to the working class? In fact, as Rick Perlstein has suggested, Limbaugh’s listeners are more aptly described as “the petty bourgeoisie, the Joe the Plumbers, the guys with their own bathroom fixture businesses, the middle managers.”
This case of mistaken identity, of misidentifying people who are actually quite comfortable as “working class,” has plagued coverage of American conservatism for years now. It was a crucial error in how people viewed the participants in the Capitol insurrection. Many of those arrested after the January 6 riot were middle-class business owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists and accountants. So why do so many assume that the rioters—and former President Trump’s supporters more generally—were working-class? We can trace the error back to its grain of truth: the economic displacement that explains why white working-class people are so angry.
Back in the 1980s, displaced workers were treated to disregard, and even victim-blaming, by officials and the media alike. When massive factories closed and moved to China and Mexico, displacing entire American working-class communities, workers were told this was part of a “natural economic order” for which they should have been better prepared. No wonder they became disenchanted and lost faith in the institutions—corporations, the government, unions, and even churches—that had once provided support. And yes, some working-class whites blamed African Americans and immigrants for their declining economic circumstances, even though Black and Latino workers were harmed at least as much and in some ways more than white workers. Over time, no doubt, many did turn to rightwing populism and the conservative media.
But this story misses an important sequel: By the 1990s, some white-collar workers began to see the same erosions in their way of life. Middle-class Americans began to experience what Barbara Erhenreich has called a fear of falling. Those insecurities grew larger and began to explode as a result of the “lesser Depression” between 2008 and 2010, when middle-class families lost jobs, incomes, pensions, homes, and healthcare—losses from which they did not recover.
While overall, the wealthy and the upper-middle-class have made gains over the last 40 years, many middle-class people have lost ground. Middle-class incomes have stagnated, white-collar jobs have become less secure, professional work is now more likely to be temporary or freelance—all while healthcare, housing, and college costs have skyrocketed.
What this means is that in 21st century America, even a stable middle-class income can’t always provide a comfortable life. Middle-class people who grew up expecting to do better than their parents now see their children struggling not to fall behind. Some of the same people who once blamed displaced industrial workers for not having gone to college to prepare for economic change now find themselves wondering how, after “doing everything right,” they can’t seem to get ahead.
Resentment has grown, too. Struggling middle-class voters blame educated elites for saving Wall Street and giving tax breaks to corporations, insisting on the rights of immigrants or the importance of racial justice rather than doing anything to help teachers, accountants, or other white-collar workers, as they see it.
Donald Trump tapped into those resentments. His promise to “make America great again” seemed to promise that the American Dream would again become viable. He promised that reinvigorating manufacturing, strengthening trade policies and reducing taxes and regulations would make businesses profitable enough to protect jobs and maybe even increase salaries. Like some in the working class, many middle-class voters bought Trump’s boasts about low unemployment rates and a booming stock market, despite the fact that during his time in office, the gap between the wealthy and the poor expanded and the share of income going to the middle and working class continued to fall. That he was addressing their grievances at all kept the base satisfied.
And for a tiny minority, these resentments led them to Capitol Hill on January 6. For those who stormed the Capitol, the threats to “their country” today might include Wall Street, the educated elites who dominate the Democratic Party, people of color, and immigrants. All became targets during the insurrection.
Unfortunately, the trend that led to displacement among middle-class Americans is likely to continue. Already during the pandemic, corporations have dumped employees in favor of automation and artificial intelligence, moves that will increase unemployment and deter a strong jobs recovery. The World Economic Forum Survey reports that over 40% of businesses indicated they would reduce workforces and turn to new technology and subcontracted specialists for task-specific projects.
The increased automation will certainly impact the middle and working class. It will accelerate job losses in manufacturing, food service, and retail. Artificial intelligence (AI) will have a greater impact on middle-class professional and white-collar workers. What is particularly important is that new technologies will not influence single industries as they have so often in the past. Rather, they will expand rapidly across multiple industries and occupations.
As workers lose jobs to automation, expect to hear calls for them to retrain. That’s what happened when steel and auto plants closed during deindustrialization in the late 20th century, but such programs didn’t work. Instead of preparing displaced workers for good jobs, they trained some for jobs that didn’t exist, and others for positions that paid less than their old jobs. We’re likely to see the same pattern again as automation and AI reshape the workplace.
With state and local budgets in crisis, many will look to the federal government. Clearly, the Biden administration’s American Recovery Plan is an attempt to weave a new social safety net to provide economic and healthcare floors for displaced workers and families. But given the scale of the current and pending job losses from the pandemic, automation and AI, such reforms are fingers in the dyke holding back the resentment that led to the attack on the Capitol.
John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Newsweek.