The white working class is a political fiction

American media needs a better understanding of class if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The white working class is a political fiction

American media needs a better understanding of class if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.

In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s victory, as I’m sure you’d like to forget, two primary narratives coalesced around the white working class: pity and scorn. Commentators either gazed upon these wretched souls with a restrained sympathy, believing they’d been driven to the polls as victims of automation or bad trade deals that plagued their communities, or else they saw them as essentially backwards, ignorant racists who had been duped into voting against their economic interests by a demagogue willing to flirt with their reactionary worldview. The former comprised the infamous “economic anxiety” thesis; the latter mutated into a perverse satisfaction that struggling Trump supporters were getting what they deserved.

If the 2016 election coverage was the initial tragedy, 2020 election coverage is on its way to becoming the farce. As The New York Times and prominent voices in the political sphere would have you believe, white working-class voters have remained the base of Trump’s support. They also, to be sure, have remained an easy target for an anxious liberal media that has yet to rally behind a single candidate.

But despite what pundits and their favorite polling data may suggest, the reality is simple: the white working class doesn’t exist. It is a political fiction, one that explains nothing by attempting to explain everything.

On its face, “white working class” seems like a self-evident concept. There are white people, and there are working-class people. Gather those individuals who meet both criteria and, voila, you have a political demographic. But researchers generally use narrower parameters to define the white working class, focusing on three key attributes: a non-Hispanic white racial identification, the lack of a four-year college degree, and a non-salaried job.

This definition is fraught, if not totally incoherent. First off, the existence of the many white Americans with a four-year college degree who hold non-salaried jobs, myself included, poses a crucial question: Why would college degrees disqualify me and other educated people from the working class? Given the tremendous amount of debt many of us now have as a result of said degrees, our lives are increasingly defined by profound financial precarity that contradicts any traditional notion of middle-class stability.

This can be explained by the definition’s more troubling mistake: a conflation of class with education. Whites without college degrees are often defined in opposition to whites with college degrees (the only race for which pollsters make this distinction). The implication here is that educated whites are more financially comfortable, and for this reason likely have different political interests. But as the existence of a growing pool of educated yet dismally compensated adjunct instructors and bartenders and “independent contractors” proves, education is not a guarantor of financial stability. While it may have once been a reliable indicator of one’s class position, this is no longer the case. And of course, plenty of successful people never attend or finish college, especially if they happen to have been born into wealth (as people with wealth generally are).

Poor and working-class people are overworked and disenfranchised. Cynicism and lack of enthusiasm, combined with deliberate strategies to suppress turnout, prevents most from even voting.

Some of this confusion stems from polling data. When researchers sort white voters by education, it’s true: “non-college whites” prefer Trump by huge margins (between 24 and 26 points, depending on who he’s running against). Combine this with a broader misconception that lack of education implies lack of financial success, you seem to have sufficient evidence that his support comes overwhelmingly from uneducated, working-class whites. It’s those down-and-out, rural laborers and factory workers barreling toward obsolescence.

What those polls don’t tell you is this: despite higher rates of enrollment to the general population, over half of small-businesses owners have no college degree (including Mark Zuckerberg, whose own little business has done quite well). Who, we might ask, has historically supported Republican policies that lower taxes? Small-business owners.

The middle class, to which small-business owners belong, proved far more important to Trump’s success. Like the white working class, “middle class” is a fraught and loosely defined term. While I prefer to focus on relationship to capital and management, most researchers simply limit this class to the middle-third of income distribution (between $42,000 and $125,000). By this metric, Clinton won voters making less than $50,000 and effectively broke even with the wealthy. Those in the middle went for Trump. As everyone’s favorite smart guy, Nate Silver, noted before the election, the median income of Trump’s support was about $72,000.

Crucially, and in contrast to members of the working class, this demographic also has the motivation and means to vote. Poor and working-class people are overworked and disenfranchised. Cynicism and lack of enthusiasm, combined with deliberate strategies to suppress turnout, prevents most from even voting: of the 117 million eligible voters who didn’t show up to the polls in 2016, 56 percent made less than $30,000. Of the 138 million who did vote, meanwhile, only 28 percent made less than $30,000.

None of this is as predictive of voting behavior pundits suggest. Across all demographics, people vote for complicated, sometimes seemingly counterintuitive reasons. There are non-white business owners who want lower taxes, and are willing to ignore racist remarks if it will help them. And there are, to be sure, racist white people willing to vote for a progressive agenda that helps non-whites, so long as they understand it is helping them, too.

Nevertheless, the media continues to treat uneducated whites as a monolith, one that not only votes as cohesive block but is so staunchly resistant to progress that their behavior is effectively predetermined. At The Nation, Stephen Philips dismisses the demographic altogether, arguing that “since non-college-educated white Americans will be the last to leave the Trump ship of state, it is foolhardy to spend significant time, money, and attention trying to change their minds.” A recent study by the Center for American Progress, cited in The Atlantic, similarly treats uneducated whites as Trump’s only hope for winning: “For Trump to win the popular vote, he needs—above all—to increase his support among his strongest demographic: white noncollege voters.”

Where uneducated whites are not mentioned directly, writers tacitly lump them together by noting Democratic support among “college-educated whites and minorities.” As real as this support may be, it again accepts that uneducated whites fall outside the purview of Democratic politics, and therefore candidates need not appeal to them.

This is a bad strategy. While it is, of course, true that some uneducated whites are staunchly Republican, not all of them are. More importantly, I would argue that the voters who are likely to support Trump are not the ones we associate with the label, but rather the wealthier middle-class whites who have found success without a college degree. Poor and working-class whites, meanwhile, have concerns similar to the rest of the working class, but instead of being invited into a working-class movement they are de facto treated as an electoral problem that needs to be solved.

The framing of this issue is not an accident. Whites with a college degree — to which pollsters and pundits and “expert” mainstream media professionals belong — are predominately liberal, and they understand the world through a lens of meritocracy. For this reason, they tend to have a very poor understanding of class. Just look at the “white working class” label, which treats “working class” as an ascriptive identity no different than race or gender. It turns the working class into something people are, not a function of what they do. It becomes a cultural description totally divorced from labor and wealth, only to be gleaned from outward displays of “class” that come with intelligence, appearance, taste, and all those things that make up meritocratic ideas of “workers.”

This is why a term like “white working class” is so misleading: in its attempt to function as a catch-all explanation, it fundamentally misunderstands the class dynamics at work and elides the complicated factors that determine political behavior. It ignores competing material interests within a demographic it imagines to be reliably uniform, and does nothing to address the fact that working-class people have a deep distrust in a two-party system that has historically done very little for them. In the process, it encourages the sort of uninspiring political strategy that failed to mobilize voters in 2016, and will fail to mobilize them again.

In other words: If we want to correct the tragedy and avoid the farce, we don’t need to worry about the white working class. We need to worry about, and actually address, the needs of workers everywhere.

Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is a writer and musician based in Chicago. His first book, No Home For You Here (Reaktion Books 2020), is a political memoir that explores the intersection of class and culture.