Friday, May 30, 2008

Defining the white working class

Several commentators that I can actually take seriously are starting to talk about the real possibility of a Democratic Party split that could damage the nominee's chances in November.

But I'll get into that in the next post. I found this paper today online, The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class by Ruy Teixeira by Alan Abramowitz (Brookings Institute; April 2008). The title itself shows one of the problems I have with their approach: the idea of a "mass upper middle class" doesn't compute with me. But it's a serious approach to the issue of the voting patterns of the white working class.

They discuss the real problem of defining the working class for the purpose of analyzing voting patters. There are three basic approaches, they say: education, occupational categories and income levels. And they explain some of the data problems:

... education by definition does not capture the actual job a given individual holds and, therefore, departs from the traditional definition of class, which is rooted in a worker’s role in the economy. This can create anomalies: some individuals with low levels of education may have powerful or highly skilled jobs, while some with high levels of education may have very menial jobs.

Using occupation data to define the working class has the advantage of tapping directly into this traditional definition. A manual worker clearly belongs in the working class; a professional or businessman does not; and so on. But occupation data typically are not collected on political surveys. And when they are, the categories used vary wildly and typically leave out those not in the labor force, or even all those not holding a full-time job.

The third way to define the working class is to use income data. This method connects to the popular conception that one's class is determined by the amount of money one makes. By that measure, the working class is simply those who don’t have much money.
In other words, for all the chatter about the voting behavior of the white working class, no one can clearly define who that is. So even a approach like theirs in this paper has to be qualified by the data problem.


The better approach in my view is the second approach, defining people by occupational category, what I've called the "structural" approach. They use all three in their paper. And they get to a "mass upper middle class" by an overly-narrow definition of working class. And their income data relies on household income but they don't address the rise in two-income families from the 1930s to today. That's why I feel most comfortable with a structural definition. For instance, in my own experience, I would say that most accountants would define themselves as middle class and would consider their dignity a bit wounded to be counted part of the working class. But, structurally, unless the accountant is a senior manager or the proprietor of their own business, they fit into the economic structure of their companies in structurally the same way that the blue-collar assembly-line workers fit into theirs.

For all the limitations imposed by the available data, though, Teixeira and Abramowitz give a good description of how the Democratic Party lost a significant part of their blue-collar base over time:

First, there was the transformation of the white working class itself, discussed in detail above. The white working class become richer, more educated, more white collar and less unionized (to get a sense of how important the latter factor was, consider the fact that, in the late 1940s, unions claimed around 60 percent or more of the Northern blue-collar workforce).

Second, as this great transformation was changing the character of the white working class, reducing the size and influence of the Democrats’ traditional blue-collar constituencies, the evolution of postindustrial capitalism was creating new constituencies and movements with new demands. These new constituencies and movements wanted more out of the welfare state than steady economic growth, copious infrastructure spending and the opportunity to raise a family in the traditional manner.

During the Sixties, these new demands on the welfare state came to a head. Americans’ concern about their quality of life overflowed from the two-car garage to clean air and water and safe automobiles; from higher wages to government guaranteed health care in old age; and from access to jobs to equal opportunities for men and women and blacks and whites. Out of these concerns came the environmental, consumer, civil rights and feminist movements of the Sixties. As Americans abandoned the older ideal of self-denial and the taboos that accompanied it, they embraced a libertarian ethic of personal life. Women asserted their sexual independence through the use of birth control pills and through exercising the right to have an abortion. Adolescents experimented with sex and courtship. Homosexuals “came out” and openly congregated in bars and neighborhoods.

Of these changes, the one with most far-reaching political effects was the civil rights movement and its demands for equality and economic progress for black America. Democrats, both because of their traditional, if usually downplayed, anti-racist ideology and their political relationship to the black community, had no choice but to respond to those demands. The result was a great victory for social justice, but one that created huge political difficulties for the Democrats among their white working class supporters. (my emphasis)
The decline in unionization had a huge effect, as they indicate. Here is where the conservatism in both the unions and in the national Democratic Party over fears of Communist infiltration of the labor movement cost the Democrats dearly over the long term. That fight didn't just purge Communists from union offices, it also promoted a defensive mindset that discouraged aggressive organizing. In important ways, the labor movement never fully recovered from the effects of that period, which brought among other things the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act.

The civil rights movement meant that the New Deal Democratic coalition, which included the segregated South and the white Southerners who supported it, had to evolve and the Party had to adjust its approach. They give a pretty conventional description of the issues that became thorny ones for the Democrats among many low-and-moderate income whites. To my mind, they don't give central enough consideration to the regional aspects of the political shifts that became more pronounced from 1968 onward. From 1968 until 1992, California kept voting Republican in Presidential elections. And Southern whites started voting loyally for Republican Presidential candidates.

Here's one important consideration about that shift. The shift in the Southern votes to the Republicans in Presidential election was largely based on race; there are better figures on voting patterns by race than by class. And it was the alignment of the Democratic Party with minority rights, and the very real shift in the Republican Party away from concern with civil rights, that largely made that happen.

But it was also that new alignment that shifted California to the Democratic column in national elections. Clinton won the state in 1992, which was a novelty at the time. But once that fool Republican Governor Pete Wilson pushed a xenophobic, anti-immigrant initiative in 1994, Latino voter participation went up thereafter and Latino voting preferences shifted significantly toward the Democrats. So the nervous nellies who would like to see the Democrats back off the commitment to civil rights to hopefully recover some of those Reagan Democrats would also risk the Party kicking California back to the Republicans. Not a good idea, people.

The paper gets into some serious wonkery on the issue, which is interesting to me because the vague notions that commentators use in talking about the working class vote are really starting to bug me. If you prefer to skip over the heavy wonking, check out the trend chart on page 13. That's the kind of slide you want to have in your PowerPoint presentation. Because it tells such a clear picture that even an economist could see it: lower-income Southern whites shifted their votes away from the Democratic Party big-time. And the trend is definitely stronger for Southerners than for Yankees.

Here's how they describe that trend, with the class definitions they use:

White working class voters on average favor the GOP as we have discussed at length. But the extent to which they do varies considerably by area of the country and type of community. The south is the Democrats’ worst region, where they lost white working class voters by 44 points, 72-28, in 2004. Outside the south, they did better, losing by a comparatively small 15 point margin overall. Their best region was the east, where they lost these voters by 9 points, followed by the midwest, where they lost by 11 points and the west where they trailed by 26 points.
Buried in the paper's forest of wonkery, though, are other interesting findings. They found that anti-abortion sentiment was a much more significant factor in shifting votes of higher-income whites from Democratic to Republican than among lower-income voters. "It does not appear that cultural issues like abortion have played a major - and certainly not the major - role in the decline of Democratic identification among lower SES white voters," they write.

And, in examining the Congressional voting patterns in 2006, they see a good indication that the Democrats will be able to attract a significantly higher percentage of lower-income white voters in 2008 than in 2004:

Negative views of the economy and the Iraq war, anxiety about health care and disapproval of President Bush continue to run high among white working class voters, making it quite plausible that the Democrats could replicate their 2006 form among these voters. That would all but guarantee a bad outcome for the GOP in 2008.
Moreover, the pattern of election results in 2006 and 2007 suggests that appeals to cultural conservatism and generic toughness on national security, divorced from concrete problems like Iraq, are of diminishing effectiveness in steering white working class voters away from the Democrats. If so, this could make the GOP’s task in 2008 even harder. (my emphasis)
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