Class has been America’s dirty little secret. We have been told that we are a classless society. Tycoons and politicians regularly adopt an “everyman” persona — dress down, drink beer, wear trucker hats. We have been told that everybody thinks they are middle class. But surveys of “subjective class identification” depend upon the menu of options offered. A plurality will say they are middle class when social scientists ask people to categorize themselves as lower, middle or upper class. If you add the option of “working class,” you get quite different results.
If you determine someone’s class by their income or occupation, you are more accurate. Education is a less reliable measure. There is a lot of chatter about how the “white working class” elected Trump. This is based on defining “working class” people as those who don’t have a college degree. But those who voted for Trump had a higher median household income than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters.
About 70% of white adults don’t have a college degree. Kim Moody in Jacobin notes that there are some 17 million small-business owners without a college degree:
“As a 2016 survey by the National Small Business Association tells us, 86% of small-business owners are white, they are twice as likely to be Republicans as Democrats, almost two-thirds consider themselves conservative (78% on economic issues), and 92% say they regularly vote in national elections.
“They drew an average salary of $112,000 in 2016 compared to $48,320 for the average annual wage. .. There are also 1.8 million managers, 8.8 million supervisors, and 1.6 million cops whose jobs don’t require a college degree. To this we could add insurance and real-estate brokers and agents, and so on.”
Recently in his New York Times column on demographics and income inequality, Thomas Edsall analyzed the increasing number of whites without college degrees who are voting for Republicans over the past 60 years. He cites a study by Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, political scientists at Duke and Ohio State, who argue that the U.S. transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy has produced “tectonic shifts” leading to an “education-income partisan realignment.”
Edsall says “the surge of whites into the Republican Party has been led by whites with relatively high incomes — in the top two quintiles of the income distribution — but without college degrees.”
Kitschelt and Rehm write:
“Individuals in the low-education/high-income group tend to endorse authoritarian noneconomic policies and tend to oppose progressive economic policies. Small business owners and shopkeepers — particularly in construction, crafts, retail and personal services — as well as some of their salaried associates populate this group.”
In an email to Edsall, Kitschelt stressed:
“Unlike much of the current debate, the ‘white working class’ — concentrated in the low-education/low-income sector of the white population — is not the category that has most ardently realigned toward Republicans. It’s higher-income/low-education whites who are currently still doing well, but fear that in the Knowledge Society their life chances are shrinking as high education becomes increasingly the ticket to economic and social success.”
Edsall says the Republican Party can’t fully rely on this group of low-income whites without college degrees because “they frequently hold liberal economic views — that is, they support redistributionist measures from which they benefit.”
Kitschelt and Rehm say members of this group “tend to support progressive economic policies and tend to endorse authoritarian policies on the noneconomic dimension. In occupational terms, this group consists primarily of low-skill and intermediate routine blue-collar manufacturing or clerical administrative jobs (the ‘working class’).”
The authors point out that Trump’s constant assertions in the 2016 campaign that he would protect Medicare and Social Security was crucial to winning the support of the low-income whites. They assert that it was “noteworthy” that most voters perceived Trump “as substantially more moderate than his party, and as more moderate than most Republican presidential candidates since 1980.”
That was a con. Trump and his banana Republicans are targeting Medicare and Social Security while trying to shred the social safety net. He is probably America’s most anti-worker president. He has nominated Eugene Scalia to be the next Secretary of Labor. This man is a corporate lawyer who has spent his career defending big business interests over workers’ rights. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says, “This is a bit like nominating Typhoid Mary to be health secretary.”
Trump is determined to stir up a constant culture war over race and gender so we don’t notice how he is screwing all of us over. Democrats have to challenge his scorched-earth racism and sexism but also emphasize a positive alternative to this whirling circus of confusion and lies.
this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.