Warming Up to the Working Class

When John Russo, Sherry Linkon, and other faculty at Youngstown State University initiated Working-Class Studies as a field in the mid-1990s, it was virtually impossible to use the term “working class” in public discourse.  We were a “middle-class society,” with all but a few rich people and poor people in that one ubiquitous class. This was a point of considerable national pride.

It was both pleasing and a bit unnerving, therefore, to hear so many people throwing around the term “working class” during last year’s presidential election.  As Carl Bloice at Black Commentator pointed out, it was often assumed that the working class in question was all white and usually male.  Bowling was pitted against basketball, beer against wine, NASCAR against golf – as if everybody knew what they were talking about.  But at least it was possible to use the term, and the actual multiracial, multi-gendered working class occasionally got some attention paid to its interests.

One of the interesting pieces of research produced by political scientists studying white working-class voters was overlooked during the election.  Larry Bartels’s very useful Unequal Democracy reports in passing on a “feeling thermometer” where people are asked how warmly or coldly they feel toward a long list of different groups (p. 137).

Working-class people outpolled middle-class people, poor people, and rich people by 5 points, 9 points, and 22 points, respectively.  What’s more, working-class people outpolled every other group presented.  With a temperature reading of 82.3, the working class was more warmly considered than women, older people, the military, and young people – the next most warmly considered groups – as well as The Democratic Party and labor unions (both by 24 points), big business (by 26 points), and The Republican Party (by 28 points).

I wonder if those Democrats and labor leaders who prefer usages like “middle income,” “working people,” or “working families” have seen this temperature survey.  They’ve bent over backwards to avoid using the term “class” unless it is preceded by “middle.”  As Bartels declares, “Given the frequent characterization of America as a society that exalts the middle class, it seems remarkable that most Americans express even more positive feelings about working-class people than about middle-class people” (p. 138).

Why do people of all classes, genders, ages, and colors feel so warmly about “working-class people”?  I don’t know, but given how confused Americans are in using class language, it would be worth further investigation.  One thing such investigation would almost certainly uncover is that the reasons for warmness vary by class.  There is a working-class set of connotative meanings that is different from the middle-class set.

For example, from the early 1970s – when the notion of America as a proudly “middle-class society” was probably at its peak – until its most recent survey in 2006, the National Opinion Research Center has found that about 46 percent of respondents self-identify as working class, while another 46 percent self-identify as middle class.  During most of this period, the term “working class” was virtually banned in public discourse, often seeming vaguely unpatriotic during the Cold War, and yet it is likely that the overwhelming majority of working-class people (whether defined by occupation, education, or income) identified as working class.  I taught working adults during all of this period, and though my students were influenced by the “middle-class society” discourse all around them, many routinely used the banned term with accuracy-and pride.  That is, many defined themselves and their world as outside middle-class society, and of those, most were proud of and glad about that (though admittedly more so in the ’70s and ’80s than now.)

Working-class pride has two general sources, in my observation.  One is the belief that they are the people who actually do the work and get things done, the ones the world really depends on.  Not simply that there are many more workers than managers, but rather a pride in being on the ground “where the rubber meets the road” and the knowledge and wisdom that derives from that.  Though often associated with men who make things, this pride is also common among women clerical, retail, and other workers who often express amazement at how little understanding managers have of “the real world” they participate in on a daily basis.  This source of pride often comes with a certain negative stereotype about middle-class professional and managerial workers, which is not likely to be a source of middle-class warmness about working-class people.

The other source of working-class pride is more about cultural connotations of working-classness that are shared in great measure by working- and middle-class people.  My guess is that connotations of being honest, sincere, down-to-earth, straightforward in speech and manner, and of not “looking down” on anyone or “putting on airs,” or “caring (too much) about what other people think” are all attributes that make even the most compulsively achievement-oriented middle-class professional feel warmly about working-class people.

Those are my guesses, and it would be interesting to hear others’.  In any case, it is good to know that not only is the existence of an American working class finally being recognized, but that it is warmly considered by damn near everyone.

Jack Metzgar