Stereotyping the White Working Class

Jack Metzgar
Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago

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.

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Jack Metzgar is the author of a book about the 1959 steel strike called Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered.

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This has been reposted from the Center for Working-Class Studies.

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