Class in America
Somewhat unpredictably, the media darling of the 2016 American election cycle was the “white working class.” Supposedly ignored by the increasingly multicultural left and capitalist, supply-side right, the members of this ethically inflected class quickly rose to prominence thanks to a variety of influential books and articles. Popular concern with the sociology of Appalachia and the Rust Belt grew as pundits struggled to explain how Donald Trump was able to pile up victories, first in the Republican primaries and then in the presidential election. One popular explanation was: the white working class, fed up with the identity politics of the left and the callous neoliberalism of the right and center, overwhelmingly voted to stick a middle finger in the face of the establishment by giving the nation’s highest office to a coarse real estate magnate. Arguments have arisen among both Republicans and Democrats as to whether this new voting bloc ought to be courted with appeals to economic or cultural populism or rebuked for its tribalism or toxic social norms.
I am not fully convinced by this story. Now, I do not wish to minimize the plight of blue collar white workers in post-industrial America who struggle with unemployment and opioid addiction. Their troubles are real and they deserve our sympathy and political concern. But I think the going narrative about the political ascendancy of the white working class is misleading.
Before I can make this argument, I want to outline some of the challenges involved in discussing social class. First, quantitative analysis remains a somewhat coarse-grained tool for sociological analysis. The two main quantitative methods for sorting individuals into the working class are income and education level. You could stipulate that any adult making less than $40,000 or without a college degree is working class, but splitting up classes this way may create some very strange and heterogeneous groups. A preschool teacher, paralegal, entry level accountant and owner of a small landscaping business may all draw the same income yet run in different social circles. These problems arise when grouping individuals into education brackets as well. Your typical Harvard graduate may have very little in common with the average alum of Bridgewater State. The manager at a big box retailer and a carpenter may both lack a college degree, but there is no guarantee that they approve of the same social norms or run in the same social circles. The problem with these quick and dirty quantitative analyses is they tell us very little about people’s beliefs and values. But understanding how people sort into social groups requires us to get a sense of what people value and who they relate to.
Qualitative analysis comes with its own challenges. The social sciences are undergoing a bit of a replication crisis right now, so we may have good reason to adopt a healthy skepticism towards any sociological theses established on the strength of one or two recent surveys. To give one somewhat suspicious example, almost half of all Republicans polled in one YouGov/Economist survey believe that there was some truth to the pizzagate conspiracy theory. The same survey showed that 52% of Democrats believed that Russia directly tampered with voting tallies in the 2016 election. Now, it may be the case that half of the country believes in one crazy conspiracy theory or the other. Or it might also be the case that survey responses are often confused or fickle and not indicative of deeply held or cherished beliefs.
With these qualifications out of the way, here’s my basic thesis: Trump did not win because a mob of carpenters, welders and factory workers came out of the woodwork in record numbers to vote him in. Rather, Trump won because of his support among a demographic that has been integral in electing most recent presidents, a group I will call the parochial middle class.
The expression “middle class” is as nebulous and unhelpful as “working class,” so let me elaborate a bit on some of the class distinctions I am making. I am going to follow Paul Fussell in a way by understanding class as not merely a function of income, but as also determined by shared values, tastes and social norms. Two families who draw the same income may have drastically different goals, values and priorities, and our class distinctions should take note of these differences.
Although I do not believe that income is fully determinative of social class, it is a good place to start. I suggest that we roughly divide up American socio-economic groupings into the following categories: poor/working poor, labor working class, service working class, parochial middle class, cosmopolitan middle class, upper middle class and ultra rich. Let me briefly say something about each class.
I am unsure as to the extent that the poor or the ultra rich as a class have a meaningful impact on American politics. Those in poverty spend so much time coping with the precariousness of their situation that they likely do not vote in great numbers. Bernie Sanders made this point during the 2016 primaries, and even if he fudged the specifics a little, his claim seems accurate given recent polling data.
How can I make a similar claim about the ultra rich? Two reasons. First, despite fears of big money billionaires controlling American elections, the spending of billionaire donors did not have a noticeable effect on the 2016 presidential election. Jeb Bush lost miserably despite the immense amount of money funneled into his Right to Rise PAC. His failure was not fiscal but political.
The second reason is that the ultra rich are a very small sample group without a clear ideological agenda. One would expect the ultra rich to favor Republicans, given the Republican pro-business platform. However, in the 2016 election they did not, as a class, favor either Clinton or Trump. For every Sheldon Adelson or Charles Koch there is a Tom Steyer or George Soros willing to spend for the other team.
Becoming ultra rich is largely a function of luck: you are born into it, your investments pan out, your startup strikes it big, you invent something marketable, you pick stocks correctly, your real estate investments pan out, etc. It is difficult, if not impossible, for people to control for these outcomes, so we should expect the ultra rich to be a somewhat random and heterogeneous bunch.
Perhaps I am wrong and there exists a shadowy caste of billionaires who all work together to collectively plot the control of our political institutions. I have simply seen no evidence to believe that this is the case.
Below the ultra rich there is an income group we can call the upper middle class. This class is largely made up of high salaried professionals: doctors, lawyers, executives, HR directors, engineers, (some) professors and sales managers.
Members of the upper middle class do seem to exhibit some shared practices and norms. They shop at high end department stores, but lack anything resembling an aristocratic sense of taste. They travel a lot, but frequently to tropical resorts. They own humidors, wine cellars and golf club memberships. They buy new cars every two to three years. They put their children in private schools, and those children go on to receive fancy sounding fellowships at elite universities.
As Reihan Salam acerbically notes, members of the upper middle class are politically active. They gentrify neighborhoods and ruthlessly vote to protect their interests. Just like the ultra rich, however, it would be a mistake to believe that members of the upper middle class overwhelmingly support a Republican agenda. Upper middle class social circles tend to be socially liberal. So are the elite universities where upper middle class children are educated. Exit polling data indicates that, in the 2016 election, Clinton won among voters making $200k to $250k a year and only lost marginally among voters who make $100k to $200k.
This leaves us with two remaining income brackets, middle class and lower-middle class (i.e. the working class). I have chosen to split the lower-middle or working class into two categories: a labor working class and a service working class. The rationale behind this split is again the problem of pulling apart income and social milieu. An employee working for an Apple store in Manhattan and an apprentice carpenter building homes in Hamilton, Ohio may draw similar incomes, but they likely move in different social circles and exhibit strongly divergent tastes and preferences.
What I have called the service working class is made up of retail chain employees, grocery cashiers, fast food workers, baristas, hotel workers, low-level state government workers, gas station attendants, line cooks and waiters or waitresses. Isolating statistics on this class is difficult. Bls.gov gathers data on people employed in the “service industry,” but one glance at the average compensation listed (30$/hour) indicates that their tabulations include managers, professionals and executives in the service industry as well. While the COOs and CFOs of hotels may be working in the service industry, they are certainly not a part of the service working class.
The service working class is very diverse. Some members work part time, while some are probably better grouped in with the poor or working poor. Some are immigrants, while some are high school students or younger workers. Most probably lack a college degree. Some are unionized and politically active, some are conservative and anti-union. There is reason to believe that the service working class is disproportionately female.
This is largely anecdotal, but from my personal experience, one cultural value generally held among workers in the service working class is a desire or dream for something better, whether for themselves or their children. This may seem like a truism, as many low-wage service jobs, in addition to offering poor compensation, tend to be menial and degrading. But it distinguishes members of the service working class from members of the labor working class. Members of the service working class work to pay the bills or take care of their children. Most, I think, would happily exit the service working class for more stable, lucrative and enriching work. Low-wage service jobs are often seen as a means to an end, whether for short-term (or long-term) fiscal solvency or as a stepping stone to a better position. Few hotel maids dream of seeing their children grow up to be hotel maids.
This is not the case with the labor working class. In the labor working class I include carpenters, plumbers, electricians, miners, farmers, machinists, landscapers and factory workers. Members of the labor working class frequently do see their work as an end in itself, as a “good, honest day’s work.” Most mechanics would be happy to see their sons grow up to be mechanics. I use “sons” deliberately, for labor working class jobs are mostly dominated by men. Even when women do make inroads into labor working class positions, the social environment of traditionally labor working class occupations continues to be saturated with testosterone.
Members of the labor working class drive pickup trucks. They hunt or fish. They like to grill on the weekends. They cuss a lot. They have strong tribal allegiances, whether to their ethnic lineage or favorite sports teams. Their moral beliefs skew towards an honor culture. White members of the labor working class typically listen to country, classic rock or heavy metal.
It is this class that everyone intentionally refers to when they speak of the white working class. They have been the target of a great deal of journalistic sympathy and antipathy. Many believe they swung the election to Trump by voting as a bloc. As I said, I think this narrative is flawed, so let’s take a closer look.
A quick look at the federal government’s labor statistics indicates that blue collar jobs make up a minority of the jobs in this country. Traditionally blue collar fields such as mining, manufacturing and construction are dwarfed by retail, professional services, health care and state government services. Further, as automation improves, it is plausible to think that fields such as mining and manufacturing will employ an increasing number of engineers or managers and fewer laborers or technicians. Also, an increasing number of traditional labor positions (landscaping, construction, mining, manufacturing) are now held by people of Hispanic descent. Thus, one should expect the number of white people who hold blue collar jobs in these industries to be a small minority of the national population.
If we go back to our cruder quantitative analyses, we can see some indication of this. Most white people without a college degree work in white collar or service industry positions. Low-income voters voted for Hillary by a margin of 2:1 or so. Rural voters made up 17% of the electorate in the 2016 election, and many of those voters may not even hold labor working class jobs. About half of Democrat rust belt voters who previously voted for Obama voted third party or stayed home. All this indicates that white, blue collar voters likely did not make up a very sizable chunk of the voting public in the 2016 general election. I grant that it is possible that they had a meaningful impact on helping Trump win the Republican primary, as Michael Brendan Dougherty has argued. However, Trump received around 13.4 million votes in the primary. He managed almost 63 million votes in the general election. Considering Trump’s biggest advantage over Hillary Clinton came from voters making $50–100k per year, we should really look to the middle class to figure out how Trump consistently picked up so many votes across states in the general election.
In order to understand Trump’s success with middle class voters we need to split the middle class into two factions: a parochial middle class and a cosmopolitan middle class. Members of the parochial middle class tend to live in suburban, exurban and rural locales. They typically work as managers, salespeople, entrepreneurs, pastors, civil engineers, nurses, firefighters and police officers. They occupy non-labor positions in mining and agriculture. The cosmopolitan middle class tends to live primarily in suburban and urban settings. Members typically work as teachers, professors, software and electrical engineers and scientists. Many seek careers with non-profit organizations. They dominate employment in the fine arts, news, television and media.
Members of the parochial middle class watch college football on Saturdays and attend more conservative or orthodox churches or synagogues on Sundays. They value family and community. They typically believe that what they have, they earned through grit and hard work. They read the local newspaper and participate in local politics. They interest themselves in history and Americana. They eat at chains like Applebees or Olive Garden. They send their children to state colleges and universities.
Members of the cosmopolitan middle class take their children to soccer or piano practice on Saturdays and attend more mainline churches or synagogues on Sundays (although many are also irreligious). They value compassion and fairness. They are bothered by abstract moral concerns. They get their news from city newspapers, like the New York Times (on the left) and the Wall Street Journal (on the right). They read a lot, from economics and sociology to psychology and international politics. They shop at Whole Foods if they have expendable income and Trader Joes if they do not. They send their children to research universities and private liberal arts colleges.
I do not mean these class distinctions to be absolute. There are nurses who enjoy visiting the opera on the weekends. There are also electrical engineers who attend small baptist churches in rural locales. I am merely trying to outline two cultural poles in the American middle class. Most members of the American middle class will not fit squarely in either the parochial or cosmopolitan camp; some people or families share characteristics of both. However, I believe it is the case that many align distinctly on one side of the divide or the other.
From my experience, members of the parochial and cosmopolitan middle classes take a rather adversarial stance towards each other. Parochials refer to cosmopolitans as out of touch “coastal elites” who do not represent “real America.” They falsely assume that cosmopolitans do not work hard at their jobs. They charge cosmopolitans with moral innovation. While this charge may be fair, as cosmopolitans tend to be socially liberal, it ignores the fact that parochial or rural communities are hardly bastions of virtue and traditional morality.
Cosmopolitans call even educated parochials ignorant and backward. They extend little charity of interpretation to the beliefs of parochials: cosmopolitans find them to be racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic. Older parochials are the insufferable racist uncles at Thanksgiving, while younger parochials are disdainfully dismissed as “bros” and “basic girls.” Cosmopolitans cannot conceive of how anyone would hold to the parochial middle class system of moral and axiological beliefs, ignoring the fact that the parochial middle class moral code is entirely uncontroversial if we look to the beliefs of the world at large.
While these two factions of the American middle class are frequently at odds, they do share some characteristics. One major shared value is the importance of morality. Both the parochial and cosmopolitan middle classes generally place a high value on right or upstanding conduct. They disagree vigorously, however, on what constitutes right or upstanding conduct. As I mentioned, parochials typically favor the local virtues of honesty, hard work and taking care of loved ones, while cosmopolitans generally value global virtues such as impartial benevolence, fairness or empathy. Members of both classes also greatly value the social recognition of their moral worth. Parochials want to be known as upstanding citizens and people of their word. Cosmopolitans want to be known as socially progressive or “woke,” an “ally” of those who are marginalized.
My general outline of the American classes is so far a bit vague and very unscientific. I’m sure that there is a lot that I have failed to note and some characteristics which are flat out wrong. However, my hope is that people who have moved in these social circles feel some sense of recognition. I do not intend to establish any of these as hard, sociological theories or facts. Rather, my aim is to re-orient some of the background assumptions that frame a lot of discussions about class in this country.
With that aside, here are some potential theses for further investigation:
Thesis 1: Donald Trump won the election due to a large amount of support from the parochial middle class.
As I noted earlier, Donald Trump performed best among those earning 50k to 100k per year. If I am correct, and blue collar jobs simply do not make up that large a percentage of jobs in this country anymore, then we would expect many of Trump’s supporters to be managers, salespeople, nurses, entrepreneurs, civil engineers and police officers as opposed to just carpenters, welders or miners. I can’t confirm this, as I am unable to track down fine-grained enough exit polling.
If it is true that Trump’s support came more from the parochial middle class than the working class, then we would expect Trump’s support to be somewhat provisional or hesitant. Parochials generally care a bit more about decency and right conduct that those in the labor working class, so they may have found it difficult to vote for someone as coarse as Trump. The fact that many late deciders ended up voting for Trump and that Trump is viewed unfavorably even by many who voted for him gives some evidence to show that this is the case.
If there is a large parochial middle class portion of the electorate who came out to vote for Donald Trump, it is worth asking why they would support him, considering Trump’s tendency to violate parochial middle class moral norms. The liberal wonk theory suggests that Trump’s middle class voters were driven by racism. Others lay the blame at FBI Director James Comey’s interference. Both of these theories take a starkly pessimistic view of parochial middle class voters. Both theories confirm cosmopolitan priors about how members of the parochial middle class are backwards, bigoted and uninformed. In the interest of not falling into the trap of confirmation bias, I would like to suggest another possibility.
Donald Trump won because he successfully made a pitch to a variety of interests of the parochial middle class. Parochials are worried about Islamic terrorism. They are concerned about low-skilled immigration. They want opportunities for their children at local colleges and universities. They want to run their religious institutions without government interference. They want support for small and local business owners. They want employment and good (not just livable wages). They want affordable health insurance premiums. Most of all, they want moral clarity from the government: those who break the law should be punished, whether they are immigrants, politicians or bankers.
Trump’s policy positions were crude, but they were direct. He suggested a ban on Muslim immigration. He wanted to build a wall on the southern U.S. border. He promised to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court who would support religious institutions. He promised to personally go after big corporations who tried to outsource American jobs. He claimed he would “drain the swamp” of D.C. influence peddling. He said he would dismantle Obamacare and Common Core.
Many of these policy suggestions are unworkable or immoral. But notice that they are all a pitch to the interests of the parochial middle class. What, conversely, did Hillary Clinton offer parochials? A minimum wage hike? Amnesty for undocumented immigrants? An expanded immigration policy? Liberal justices who would pull the tax-exempt status of religious institutions not in compliance with the left’s interpretation of Title IX? A doubling down on Obamacare? The “most progressive” social platform of all time? Equal pay for equal work?
Basically, Hillary Clinton offered parochials nothing. Trump, with all his flaws, threw them some crumbs on issues they cared about.
Now, you may here be thinking that my description of the parochial middle class sounds very white. Certainly, my description of parochials applies most aptly to white middle class social circles. But it would be misleading to think that, simply because the parochial middle class happens to be full of white people, there is something inherently white about parochial middle class norms. This consideration leads to my next thesis:
Thesis 2: Many African American and Hispanic members of the middle class are a lot more parochial and a lot less cosmopolitan than academic discourse would have you believe.
There are two popular narratives on the demographic shifts in the 2016 presidential election. First, Trump won because some white Obama voters switched to Trump. The other narrative is that Obama’s diverse coalition of the ascendant never came out in large numbers to support Clinton. I have already argued why I think the white voters who switched from Obama to Trump were not necessarily blue collar working class. So let’s take a little closer look at the second issue: that people of color did not come out in the same numbers for Clinton as they did for Obama.
Some people will blame voter suppression for the depressed minority turnout for Clinton. Perhaps many African American voters still resent Bill Clinton’s earlier tough on crime rhetoric. But there is some reason to think that voter suppression does not tell the whole story. Also, despite Clinton’s past statements on crime and incarceration, Trump’s rhetoric towards African American and Hispanic voters was always far, far more offensive.
There is a tendency on the left to interpret depressed minority turnout as follows: well, obviously any rational person of color would have voted for a Democrat, so there must be some irrational factors, such as reactionary emotions or GOP voter suppression, that kept minority voters at home. This is part of a broader interpretive strategy that tends to view poor and minority voters who do not vote Democrat as actively sabotaging their own interests.
In opposition to this reductive and, let’s be honest, patronizing explanation, I would like to offer an alternative. The reason that fewer African American and Hispanic voters came out for Clinton than Obama is because many African American and Latino voters have parochial tastes and adhere to parochial social norms. Obama effectively made a strong pitch to parochial interests in his two election campaigns (healthcare, education, fewer foreign wars, community, faith, etc.) whereas Clinton did not. Clinton attempted many identity-based appeals to win minority voters; but these identity-based appeals all assumed that a more urbane and cosmopolitan message would resonate with minority voters. She did not seem to consider the possibility that a cosmopolitan middle class message might turn off many of the more parochial minorities she desperately needed to win the election.
This is my most controversial claim so far, so let me briefly walk through some obvious objections. First: where’s the proof of this claim? Well, for one, African Americans are generally less supportive of gay marriage than white, non-Hispanic Americans. Latinos increasingly support gay marriage, but many older and more conservative people of Hispanic descent continue to oppose it. Many African Americans and Latinos in America live in more rural locales. African Americans and Latinos are more likely to report that religion plays a central role in their lives than whites. African Americans and Latinos tend to have more children. It does not seem outrageous, given this data, to stipulate that faith, family and tradition play an important role in many African American and Latino families — a decidedly parochial collection of values.
“Well,” one could further object, “all my favorite African American and Latino columnists, pundits, TV personalities and professors are progressive and cosmopolitan.” This may be true, but let’s face it, most white columnists, pundits, TV personalities and professors tend to be cosmopolitan and progressive as well. For many cosmopolitan middle class and upper middle class white people, the only people of color they come into contact with are either on social media or television. Many African Americans and Latinos on social media and television are part of the cosmopolitan middle class, but it would be a questionable inference to then assume that, because of this, all African Americans and Latinos must have cosmopolitan tastes and values.
Now, it is absolutely the case that many white members of the parochial middle class hold offensive or insensitive racial beliefs. For this reason (and others), African Americans have consistently voted Democrat for some time now. Also, Democrats have been supportive of government labor unions, which have traditionally provided a good source of stable labor for African Americans, even when other employment pathways were blocked by de facto racism. But Democrats should not assume that, because African American (and Latino) voters have backed them in the past, they will continue to back them in the future. It is plausible to think that more parochial African American and Latino voters sometimes reluctantly vote for Democrats. Pushing a more socially and economically cosmopolitan platform may make some of those voters stay home in protest (as they may have for the 2016 election).
Another objection I have seen is something like this: wasn’t Obama extremely cosmopolitan and urbane? Why did so many minority voters come out to vote for him? But I’m not sure the Obama of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns really was that cosmopolitan or urbane. Obama ran a populist campaign opposed to the war in Iraq. He focused on healthcare and education. He visibly attended faith-based events. He smoked and wore dad jeans. He filled out his NCAA brackets. He opposed gay marriage until halfway through his second term. He heavily prioritized time with his family. Despite conservative hysterics about Obama’s “beer summit” and his expressed sympathy for Trayvon Martin, Obama’s tone and message when lecturing predominantly African American audiences tended to be rather conservative. All things considered, I think Obama sold his platform to parochials very effectively (although running against arch-cosmopolitan Mitt Romney didn’t hurt).
To sum up my argument a bit, while media interest in the white working class has exploded since Trump’s primary election wins, an explanation of Trump’s victory really has to go through what I have called the parochial middle class. To use Chris Arnade’s terminology, the 2016 election was not so much the revolt of the back row kids against the front row kids. Rather, the story of this election was Trump’s ability to get the middle row kids to back his team. This leads to my final thesis:
Thesis 3: Anyone who cannot win the vote of the parochial middle class will have a difficult time winning national elections.
There is a sizable portion of the American left who feel that the lesson of the 2016 election is that Democrats should abandon any pretense of economic liberalism in favor of economic populism. In other words, Democrats should look to Warren, Sanders and Ellison for leadership to become the party of the working person again. Presumably, this strategy would convince the white working class folk who voted for Trump to return to the Democrats.
Now, Bernie Sanders did have some surprising success in the Democratic primary with parochial middle class voters, especially given his handicaps. I was shocked to see how many voters claimed to be deciding between Trump and Bernie. Decidedly un-cosmopolitan “Bernie Bros” would show up to his rallies, much to the consternation of forward-thinking progressives.
It is possible that many of these parochial middle class Bernie fans were drawn to his economic populism. But that was not Bernie’s only virtue. Bernie also spoke with a sharp moral clarity. He spoke passionately about wanting to jail the bankers responsible for the Great Recession. He was quite clear about the need to get lobbyists and donors out of politics. He also produced brilliant propaganda aimed at the parochial middle class.
Democrats will probably win some more races in the next election, regardless of their strategy. Parties have a lot of trouble holding on to power for extended periods of time, and it is quite plausible to think that voters will have had their fill of Donald Trump in four years. But Democrats need to realize that their social, political and economic message did not clearly resonate with a lot of voters. If I am incorrect in my analysis, and the blue collar working class still commands a lot of political power, then a campaign focused solely on economic populism may do the trick. However, if I am correct, it may take more than economic populism to get parochials to come out and vote for Democrats. Democrats may need to make some difficult decisions in deciding how to tweak their platform on issues that matter to parochials (e.g. immigration, education, national security, religious liberty). Whether they can (or will) successfully do so without compromising their core tenets remains to be seen.