The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect

Andrew Levison’s book on the White Working Class is a great piece of political strategy. It’s also a great piece of self-help for the professional-managerial class who know less than they think about how ordinary people think and live.

I just finished reading Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today. (Uptight disclosure: Levison, as editor of The Democratic Strategist, has published a couple of my pieces and is a cyber-friend of mine.) The take-away blurb is, yes, buy the book if you’re at all interested in political strategy, rhetoric, or the future of the Democratic party. But it’s worth saying a bit more about what the book teaches, and in particular what books like this can teach the kind of out of touch, self-appointed opinion leader that I used to be.

Levison doesn’t do original research; he draws on existing polling and ethnography. But he synthesizes a lot of deep, careful studies of white working-class culture that I didn’t know about (though few, he acknowledges and laments, are that recent; I was wondering a while ago whether anyone still wrote books like Canarsie; it turns out the answer’s no). And he draws new insights from polling data largely through the statistically easy but cognitively hard act of disaggregation: the Republican lead among working-class whites is a blowout in the South but things are competitive elsewhere; contrary to wired-worker fantasies, most white working-class men, defined by education or self-definition, do work that may not be industrial but is still blue collar by most intuitive definitions (as mechanics, truck drivers, warehouse or construction workers, cops); a near-majority of white working-class women work with their bodies as well (waitressing, driving buses, cleaning, cooking, assembling or packing things). Of course the sociological details, beyond the aggregate numbers, matter a lot. For instance, because working-class men no longer work overwhelmingly in factories, and interact constantly with both customers and their employers—work groups are much smaller than they were—the class-conscious, us-vs.-them shop floor ethos speaks far less strongly to them than it used to, and that’s not likely to change.

The purpose of the book is to help Democrats do better among a group where they currently trail. But Levison doesn’t oversell his analysis. He doesn’t claim that Democrats should try to recover a New Deal coalition centered on working-class whites (a fantasy that died hard: I remember John Judis around 2000 writing that the Democratic party was just gosh-darned unimaginable if it wasn’t going to compete for West Virginia’s presidential vote). He doesn’t even think Democrats need to, or should try to, win a majority among them. He merely claims that Democratic and progressive politicians and strategists, without serious compromises of  policy positions, can hold the Republican advantage among working-class whites to manageable proportions, and win more elections more easily, by doing a few things better. They, or I guess we, must spend more time learning about, and speaking in terms of, the social institutions from which the working class draws its values: the military, the church, the school system, and small business, which added together yield a worldview that is “culturally traditionalist” but not necessarily ideologically conservative. While a big chunk of working-class whites are deeply attached to the religious Right or Rush Limbaugh, another chunk is much more moderate and open to the right kind of persuasion from people who don’t mock their basic beliefs and don’t assume, with phenomenal condescension, that working class voters who reject liberal values must have been duped by the media.

Though he’s polite about it, Levison’s analysis takes particular aim at the vulgar-populist fantasy that imagines, against overwhelming contrary evidence, that working-class people are deeply anti-business and are burning for a leader that will lead government in a crusade against it. Working class voters distrust corporate behavior but doubt that anything can be done about it. And while they hate the corrupt nexus between government and moneyed interests, they tend, not so unreasonably, to blame that not just on Republicans but on all politicians, and are prone to derive from their hatred of corruption conclusions that are at least as antigovernment as antibusiness. Nor does working class voters’ attachment to family and good character—and, for those lucky enough to have skilled work, pride of craft—along with their suspicion of the upper-middle-class’ obsession with ambition and success, necessarily make them more critical of Republican elites than of Democratic ones. Though Levison doesn’t put it this way, his portrait of an ambivalent group that both upholds small-business values related to work, self-reliance, and debt avoidance and believes strongly that only government can provide crucial public investments suggests that President Obama’s mixed messages on matters of spending and debt may be smarter, in terms of appealing to swing voters, than many have given him credit for.

All of this provides material to occupy and fascinate political strategists—real or armchair—in all kinds of ways. And the book’s flaws are forgivable in a work that avowedly aims to supplement existing books on strategy, which neglect working-class white men or else propose conservatism as the way to win them over, rather than to provide a grand theory of all politics. (These flaws include a certain male-centeredness and job-centeredness, which lead Levison to neglect some genuine working-class issues like contraception, child care, and health care costs—at one point he writes about working Americans who come to question their values due to a “friend or sister’s” unplanned pregnancy—as well as his suggestion that consistent working-class disapproval of immigration is a smaller deal than it is.) The book’s biggest oddity occurs at the end, where Levison abandons polls, ethnography, and focus groups and asserts, without evidence, that working-class voters would thrill to a party that endorsed more direct democracy: citizen assemblies, chosen by lot, that deliberate directly on policy issues, and citizen panels to audit government agencies. Besides being skeptical of such proposals on substance, I see no reason to believe they would be any more popular than jury service is, and Levison provides none. (When British Columbia sent out random invitations to a citizen assembly to redesign its provincial constitution, fewer than one in twenty addressees showed up at the meetings they’d been invited to.) But the virtue of Levison’s approach is that it’s self-correcting. Because he lives by data, from polls and focus groups as well as ethnography, his proposals could easily, if unpopular, die by them.

One aspect of the book that’s a bit of an aside for Levison is particularly important to me: his account of why Democratic elites are out of touch with working-class whites and their values. Part of his story concerns the decline of the street-level institutions, especially unions and urban machines, that used to connect Democrats organically to the working class. Levison calls for, without seriously expecting, more ethnographic studies of working-class life, studies that modern universities, whose race-class-and-gender ideology in effect means race, gender, and no class, no longer commonly provide. (I would have been even harder on elite universities than Levison is. Not only is the professoriate drawn from a professional-managerial class that is out of touch to begin with, but university administrations, desperate to cultivate wealthy donors and, especially in the case of public universities, corporate partnerships, actively shrink from class issues.) And Levison repeatedly praises, with reason, Working America: the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate that substitutes neighborhood canvassing, on a massive and successful scale, for the factory-floor variety that has declined for decades and will never return to its New Deal level. Organizing is of course a matter of votes and organization but also of epistemological connections. Levison is great on how modern political communication, based on advertising backed by meticulously deliberate fundraising, makes newly possible, and dangerous, a distance between party elites and ordinary voters that would have been unimaginable back when when those strategists themselves had come up from the union hall or the Pendergast organization and continued to rely on both to communicate with voters.

A book like this will greatly help Democratic strategists. But it also can do more good than Levison probably imagines for progressive intellectuals. The revolt of the elites has left a lot of highly educated people who opine about politics really out of touch. To get personal: I arrived at Harvard in 1986 as a partisan Democrat and self-styled liberal but one who was largely unaware that anyone much might rely on government programs to make ends meet; totally ignorant of what a working class job meant or how a family relying on such would view the world; and all too easily convinced that a kind of bloodless, snarky, New Republic liberalism was as far left as any reasonable person would want to be. This was by no means uncommon and has become more common since then. At private universities and the upper reaches of public ones, an active liberal or progressive is a hell of a lot more likely to know and care about the Iraq war, or abortion, than about the Earned Income Tax Credit or how much someone who works at Walmart pays each month for health insurance; much more likely to get his or her economic views from an intermediate micro class than from a weekly budget. (This is not to say that economics is everything or to deny that Iraq and abortion are real issues. But a commentariat that has no idea what lived, constant economic scarcity might feel like is, I submit, a strange and scary thing—and book learning is particularly unlikely to prevent that thing.) All too often, such people graduate to become the next crop of strategists and commentators, with excellent educations but very little knowledge. One of the neglected highlights of Thomas Frank’s otherwise dubious What’s the Matter with Kansas? is his account of how clueless about the economic concerns of working- and middle-income people, though obsessed with politics, he himself was in high school and early college. I submit that Frank’s shoddy argument about how the working class betrays its own obvious interests—complete with lashings of false-consciousness theory and completely divorced from real data about how working-class people actually form opinions (much less vote)—is an example of what can happen when such cluelessness is corrected late and overzealously.

My real political education derived partly from accidents, including my volunteering, more or less at random, for the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. But it largely due, crazy as it sounds, to my picking up and reading Robert Kuttner’s The Life of the Party. That book argued that Democrats would never start winning elections unless they stopped obsessing about culture and foreign policy and embraced the interests and concerns of the working and middle class—and Kuttner wrote down what those were. It wasn’t even a very deep book. In many ways its populism was outdated. But it provided a wedge whereby a privileged kid who thought he was Fortuna’s gift to political strategists everywhere could be induced to learn something about ordinary people’s lives. And once I learned something, I wanted to learn more.

Fortunately, democratic politics is like that. If you want to win, in the long run, you have to make it your business to stay in touch with people well outside your own narrow circle. And if, as a political observer, you want to feel the vicarious thrill of thinking like a winner, you have to know something about that business. By serving up working-class ethnography and polls (which Judith Shklar rightly called a genre through which social science grants dignity to ordinary people) in the package of strategy, a book like Levison’s doesn’t just provide therapy for a political party. It provides therapy for the kind of person, all too common, who thinks he or she knows “politics” but lacks the inclination or ability to learn in any detail about the people whom democratic politics is supposed to serve and whose opinions it’s supposed to respect: everyone.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

7 thoughts on “The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect”

  1. Great analysis, thank you. It is so darn hard to get into the minds of others, to even slightly grok them, especially when one doesn’t live in their world, or at least spend considerable time getting to know it.

    People want politicians and pundits to “get” them. I finally watched Game Change last night, and was struck by a point in the movie in which a McCain staffer tells Palin that Washington essentially isn’t for her, that she’s merely a Hockey Mom from Wasila. And in the sense of her being mind-numbingly ignorant, it isn’t for her. Yet at the same time, support for her among working class whites could largely be seen in terms of her being someone who “gets” them, and is seen as their champion. It would seem that indeed what she is championing is not really policies, or political strategies or tactics, but rather as someone who understands their fears and aspirations.

    Obama has just now made his comments on the Zimmerman verdict, and he will surely shore up again his support among minorities who feel he “gets” them, in a way the white GOP just never will. No matter how smart a GOP politician might be – heck, even if he shares many conservative social positions, if people don’t feel he gets them, he’ll never win these communities.

    What’s interesting is the degree to which working class voters find appeal in someone who understands them, in ways that upper-SES voters don’t. I wonder if it isn’t based in the degree to which their concerns are real and personal, as opposed to abstract. For interest, as a college educated liberal, much of what I support in politics is about abstract principles in my own life, and real concerns in the lives of others. For instance, I’m not so worried about education or access to health care or mass transit because I have the capital to leverage without being as dependent on others, yet I know these things are crucial to those who won’t have much choice in the matter.

    I do prefer someone who I feel is on the same wavelength as me. But it can be overlooked with the right policy calculations. Yet in the case of Palin’s supporters, who she *was* was as important as what she believed; there was a profound need to have in a candidate someone they could identify with. Politician’s playing to cultural preferences seem centered around this certain sort of identity-driven constituency, for whom culture is on par with policy position.

  2. I think that the end of the military draft is an overlooked source of the disconnect between today’s Democratic elites and what used to be called “the common man”.

    Between 1941 and 1970, a substantial portion of those who became political leaders had spent months or year living and working with people from all over the nation, from all socio-economic classes. After Truman desegregated the military, that exposure included black people.

    Forty years later, in an ever-more-stratified America, such broadening experience is increasingly rare. Diversity in university admissions perhaps provides some experience of racial and ethnic differences, but hardly any exposure to members of the lower socio-economic classes.

    The common military experience of WWII forged a shared national narrative of “we’re all in this together”, and a conviction that government could be used to pursue common ends, that has since decayed to a Reagan/Thatcher vision of a society of disconnected consumers motivated primarily by economic incentives. This is an enormous loss.

  3. Well, I made it all the way to the end.

    I’d say the problem for the left is that suburban land use is almost entirely private. The only visible public goods are highways and free parking, so that’s the only thing suburban voters care about it.

  4. Thanks for a thoughtful and moving post. I especially liked your comments about business and govenment.

    I wonder whether Levison discusses an issue some other people have mentioned, namely, that working class people (and others) are given very little sense of how much we all use govenment programs. This leads to the well-known absurdity of someone yelling “keep your government hands off my Medicare”.

  5. Lots of words and yet, doesn’t it boil down to just do a New Deal infrastructure rebuilding and redevelopment already, plus put up tariffs to jump start the industrial sector and reinvigorate unions with labor law reform? I don’t think it needs to be focused on whites, blacks or in between skin colors.

    I am also struck by the snarky attack on Thomas Frank. I read the book and found it more subtle than Andrew thinks it is. He is saying Republicans speak more effectively in many parts of the nation to cultural fears with solutions that involve government while Democrats especially since the 1980s don’t speak to the economic fears in any coherent manner that involves government the way I just did in the first paragraph. Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders get far more white working class votes when they speak on economically populist issues because again they support exactly what I wrote about in the first paragraph. Yet, we don’t get presidential candidates that do so in any strong way because those two are marginalized by a corporate media commentariat.

    The role of propaganda is missing from Andrew’s analysis and Frank at least recognizes its power. Andrew’s attack on “false consciousness” is simply an acknowledgement of that failure to analyze the role of propaganda in corporate media. The fact that a white working class member can think they oppose Obamacare because it’s “big government” and yet want to protect Medicare is a testament to incoherence promoted through propaganda. Andrew should spend less time snarking on Thomas Frank if he wants to understand better the white working class voter.

  6. A fine description of a typical Third World élite.

    ” …. studies that modern universities, whose race-class-and-gender ideology in effect means race, gender, and no class, no longer commonly provide.” This loss is part of the price of the death of Marxism, which forced the bourgeois intellectuals who wrote most of its copy into thinking hard and continuously about their own relationship to the working class.

  7. They, or I guess we, must spend more time learning about, and speaking in terms of, the social institutions from which the working class draws its values: the military, the church, the school system, and small business, which added together yield a worldview that is “culturally traditionalist” but not necessarily ideologically conservative. While a big chunk of working-class whites are deeply attached to the religious Right or Rush Limbaugh, another chunk is much more moderate and open to the right kind of persuasion from people who don’t mock their basic beliefs and don’t assume, with phenomenal condescension, that working class voters who reject liberal values must have been duped by the media.

    This is an important point that I hope won’t be lost on a certain “democratic elite” blogger here who has been sponsoring a spate of two-minutes-hate sessions directed at libertarians this week. As a left-libertarian-leaning independent voter, I have enthusiastically supported and voted for Democratic candidates — I’m a big fan of my state’s Democratic governor, Jay Nixon. But the sheer condescending animosity of being asked to answer such gross misrepresentations of libertarian values as “Do you agree with him that only white people are really entitled to be Free Men, and that the freedom of white people to oppress non-white people is a core libertarian value?” and it’s implied accusation of guilt-by-association is not lost on me. (Not to mention the fact that Rand Paul didn’t actually say anything to this effect — it is a hyperbolic extrapolation based on his professional association with someone “to which the Senator has voluntarily linked himself”.)

    Whenever I contemplate voting for a Democrat, I cannot help but take into account the fact that I am considering voting for a member of a party whose most vocal members are so often openly and vigorously hostile to my political identity. In that sense it feels like I would be voting against my own best interests. Being aware of the fact that the Republican party has misappropriated and grotesquely disfigured a few cherry-picked aspects of libertarian values (much like they have also done with Christian values) does nothing to change that, it merely means that I’m discouraged against voting for any of them either. For Democrats wise enough to acknowledge that the Tea Party does not accurately represent the values common to libertarians and classical liberals, there is much opportunity to attract left-libertarians to their causes and candidates. Unfortunately, it seems that for the most part, the opportunity is enthusiastically thrown out with the bathwater.

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