Just What Is the Working Class?

The white working class, referred to as “America's forgotten majority” in a 2000 book of that title by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rodgers, has been anything but forgotten since the 2004 election. Disputes within the liberal family have focused obsessively on how Democrats can regain the allegiance of this demographic, considered to be a necessary element of any successful political coalition. The jumping off point for that conversation is author Thomas Frank's assertion of a “great backlash” in which class issues have been sublimated into a culture war. Liberals have pushed economic populism as the antidote, while centrists have argued for moving right on national security and issues like abortion and gay rights, but everyone agrees on the existence of the problem of the white working class.

Everyone, that is, but Larry Bartels, who argued, in a provocative presentation in early September 2005 to the American Political Science Association, that the Democrats' working-class problem is a mirage. According to his analysis of National Election Survey (NES) data: “White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle- and upper-income white voters have trended Republican.” What's more, he finds, Frank's cultural backlash just isn't real. Social issues have even less salience than economic ones, Bartels writes, “for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites.”

This analysis should discomfit both Democratic factions. If the white working class is still with the Democrats, and less likely than other voters to base their votes on cultural issues, then moves to the right on social issues seem unmotivated. At the same time, if the economically disadvantaged are, in fact, loyal Democrats, then there should be few additional votes gained from more trenchant economic populism.

But how could the entire political class get such a big question so wrong? In part, the cultural shift they thought they saw among working-class Americans emerged from a naive misreading of the famous “red versus blue” maps showing Democratic voters concentrated in big cities, with GOP voters sprawling across lightly populated exurbs and rural areas. Lurking just beneath the surface of these maps, however, there are two rather different Blue Americas. One, in places like Manhattan and the western half of Washington, D.C., is white, highly educated, and affluent. The other, in places like the Bronx and the eastern half of Washington, is overwhelmingly minority, poorly educated, and poor. That both Blue Americas vote Democratic and are adjacent to each other on two-color maps tends to obscure, rather than illuminate, some important divides in American society, with the sharpest economic contrasts often existing within Democratic-voting urban areas rather than between Democratic areas and Republican ones.

Similarly, political scientists Andrew Gelman, Boris Shor, Joseph Bafumis, and David Park argue in their November 30, 2005, paper, “Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What's the Matter with Connecticut?,” that the conventional media understanding of American politics is largely the result of a massive “fallacy of composition” -- confusing the properties of a unit (the state) with the properties of its component parts. Their data, like Bartels', show that there is a relatively recent trend toward poor states voting Republican while rich ones support the Democrats. From here, it's easy to leap to the conclusion that poor people are swarming toward the GOP, but it isn't true. Exit polls indicate that poor Mississippi (per capita income just below $25,000) backed Bush by a hefty 59-40 margin over John Kerry, but also that 62 percent of Mississippians reporting a family income below $15,000, and 54 percent of those making between $15,000 and $30,000 backed Kerry. Bush's success in this poor state, in other words, was due to his strength among relatively rich voters. Nor is this merely a result of Democratic strength among African American and Latino voters -- the “Connecticut” authors consider this possibility and conclude based on NES data that higher income positively correlates with Republican-voting, both on a national level and within states, even while controlling for race and ethnicity.

The key assumption of this line of thought is that income can be used as an adequate stand-in for class as a social phenomenon, an assumption that's hotly disputed by many. Political scientists David Gopoian and Ralph Whitehead Jr. in a post on Teixeira's Donkey Rising blog, and Frank himself in a rebuttal to Bartels posted on his Web site, argue that Bartels has simply misidentified the white working class by focusing on whites whose incomes put them in the bottom third of the income distribution. Their preferred definition of the “working class” includes those who lack a four-year college degree, whatever their income. Gopoian and Whitehead point out that “only one-third of the Bartels voters were actively doing paid work,” a fact that undermines the “working” half of the working-class label. What's more, “of those who were working, nearly half were under the age of 30,” a category that would include such non-obvious members as several 20-something Ivy League–educated members of the Prospect's staff. Under the education definition, the GOP is, indeed, victorious among white working-class voters by a margin of 23 points.

The education-based definition of the working class comes with problems of its own. Using the education criterion, almost two-thirds of white voters, and a significantly larger portion of the overall population, get defined as “working class,” arguably making the group too large to target politically in a meaningful way. The median household income of non– college-educated whites was $47,500 in 2004, slightly above the national median. Consequently, the working-class category of those without four-year college degrees ends up comprising a rather miscellaneous group, lumping together people living below the poverty line with many reasonably well-off people. Indeed, college dropout and richest man in America Bill Gates is considered working class under this standard. One outlier hardly disproves a theory, but according to the NES fully 29 percent of voters have some college education but no degree, slightly outnumbering those with a bachelor's degree or more. The “some college” group was, according to 2004 exit polls, the educational cohort in which Bush achieved his best performance. Thus, the conservative inclinations of the educationally defined working class are largely attributable to the sentiments of its best-educated members.

To best identify which people are abandoning Democrats, one would ideally want to combine the metrics and assess the impact of education, income, and age on voting behavior as independent variables. But the three factors are tightly entwined together and immune from meaningful statistical analysis. Thus, we're left to swim in a somewhat surprising pool of ignorance regarding the basic dynamics of the American electorate, falling back on somewhat pointless definitional disputes.

We do know, however, that insofar as talk of working-class conservatism leads people to imagine an army of impoverished Bush voters, the talk is misleading. Poor states tend to favor the GOP, but poor people do not; indeed, the poorer you are the more likely you are to vote Democratic, and this effect is stronger in the poorer “red” states than in the more prosperous “blue” ones. Conversely, among the white population at least, classic “working poor” families turn out to be rather thin on the ground. Only about a quarter of white voters are in the bottom third of the income distribution, and this group is dominated by retirees, other nonworkers, and the young -- many of whom are not likely to fit a traditional “working poor” profile. The working poor present an urgent policy problem, but not a potential electoral goldmine for the Democrats.

In whatever sense working-class conservatism is real, it is a phenomenon of middle-income -- or slightly richer -- whites, with attendant consequences for political strategy. People in this range don't benefit from Republican economic policies oriented toward tax cuts for the very rich, but neither have they felt the sting of Republican budget cuts that have been targeted at the truly poor. Consequently, winning their votes will probably require something beyond crass appeals to alleged economic self-interest, whether or not these are coupled with moves to the right on other issues.

Liberals can take little comfort from the news that they have trouble attracting the votes of essentially “typical” people -- members of the majority racial group with roughly average incomes and levels of education -- but the data suggest that the Democrats' problems are rather more banal than they've oft been made out to be. Winning over the typical member of the electorate, after all, is exactly what you would expect a successful presidential candidate to have done. Liberal heartache and conservative gloating over a more interesting alleged inversion of typical class politics, on the other hand, seems largely unwarranted. Poorer people vote for the Democrats, richer ones for the GOP, and the battle lines are drawn in the middle of the income spectrum, just where you'd expect.

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