Home > World Events > The white working class (crosspost from CT)

The white working class (crosspost from CT)

September 27th, 2012

For quite a while now (pre-dating Obama, but more frequently since he was elected), I’ve been reading about the Democrats’ troubles with “the white working class”. In some ways, this is unsurprising. In every country with which I’m familiar, a substantial proportion of the working class votes for the more conservative/rightwing party. And, even compared to the most wishy-washy of social democratic and labor parties elsewhere, the Dems aren’t exactly fervent champions of the worker. Still, the Repubs are even worse, so it seemed surprising to read that they regard the white working class as their base. Other things I read (sorry can’t find links now) made things even more puzzling. On the one hand, in the US as elsewhere, higher incomes are correlated with voting for the conservative/rightwing party, which seems to cut against the thesis. On the other hand, I’ve read that the average income of the US working class is the same as that of the population as a whole, which goes against the whole idea of “working class” as I understand it.

All became clear(or, at least, clearer) when I discovered that US political discussion uses two very different (though correlated) concepts of “working class”. The first is the more or less standard one – people who depend on wage labor (normally in manual or low-status service occupations) for their income. The second, specific to the US, and standard in most political polling, is “people without a 4-year college degree”, a class which includes such horny-handed sons and daughters of toil as Bill Gates and Paris Hilton. More prosaically, it includes lots of small business owners, and (since college graduation rates were rising until relative recently), over-represents the old.

Data on US voting patterns is surprisingly scarce, but Andrew Gelman has a big data set confirming the point that Republican voting rises with income. Andrew kindly sent me the data, which classifies voters by education (5 levels), income (5 categories) and race/ethnicity(4), for a total of 100 categories, and gives, for each group the proportion voting Republican. I’ve used this to look at an income-based definition of working class, encompassing everyone with an income less than $40 000. I’m not sure of the exact definition of this variable, but it seems pretty clear that people with income at this level are unlikely to be living on income from capital or a high-status job. To focus on the claim about the white working class, I’ve divided the 100 categories into four roughly equal-sized groups: working class whites (income less than 40K), middle/high income whites with and without college degrees, and all non-whites. Then I’ve looked at how many votes the Republicans got from each group in 2008.

As the pie chart below illustrates, the biggest group in the Republican voting base, and the group with which they do best is that of middle/high income whites without college degrees (the percentage after the group name gives the Republican share of the vote for that group). There’s nothing surprising in this, since all three variables are correlated with Republican voting. It’s the practice of calling this group “working class” that causes the confusion.

Disaggregating, the extreme case is that of high-school educated whites with incomes over $150K, 81.7 per cent of whom supported the Republicans in 2008. They’re a small group of course, but not negligible at about 1 per cent of the sample (155 out of 19170).

The two remaining groups of white voters are split pretty evenly between Reps and Dems, while, as is well known, non-white voters strongly favor the Dems.

The Republican voting base
(percentages after each group give proportion of that group voting R).

To defend the “white working class problem” thesis, you might argue that the Dems, as the less rightwing party, ought to do better than a 50-50 split among this group if they were voting in line with their own economic interests, and obviously the politics of race and culture are playing a significant role here. But that would require a much more explicitly redistributionist position than the Dems have taken for a long time. The most obvious illustration is Obama’s determination to keep the Bush income tax cuts for the first $250 000 a year of income, a policy that greatly benefits the middle class and the rich, but does little or nothing for those with less than $40 000 a year, whose income is taxed mainly through the payroll tax. Add to that the fact that most politicians of both parties are millionaires and you can see why working class voters aren’t filled with enthusiasm for the Dems.

Note 1: Commentators who want to ride racial/ethnic hobbyhorses will be deleted. You know who you are.

Note 2: If any WP experts can tell me how to make the thumbnail a bit larger, but small enough to fit on the page, I’d be v grateful. Also, if anyone would like to do a proper analysis of the categorical data

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  1. TerjeP
    September 27th, 2012 at 10:37 | #1

    I always took the claim to be mostly a rhetorical device partly satirical aimed at Democrat claims to better represent minorities. Basically an assertion that the Democrats don’t represent the mainstream. We get the same here with claims that the government is wasting time on the same sex debate which is also an assertion that the left is disconnected from the concerns of “ordinary” people. I really wouldn’t bother trying to validate or refute such claims because unless you have a megaphone it misses the point and makes no difference.

  2. Tom
    September 28th, 2012 at 12:24 | #2

    @John Quiggin

    I apology beforehand if this derails the point this topic makes, but I think it a bit related. I’ve come to knowledge of this paper from a blog post by Bill Mitchell.


    The figures on page 23, table 2.8, also shows the ‘common believe’ that the ALP is backed by unions false.

    Specific figures:
    itemised corporate funding – 14,098,827
    itemised corporate funding (% of total funding) – 23.19%

    itemised trade union funding – 5,671,348
    itemised trade union funding (% of total funding) – 9.33

    Liberal Party:
    itemised corporate funding – 16 264 264
    itemised corporate funding (% of total funding) – 26.22%

    itemised trade union funding – 3,660
    itemised trade union funding (% of total funding) – 0.006

    Although ALP do receive less corporate funding compared to Liberal Party, it is still an inarguably large amount and more than double the funding they receive from unions. If the media is going to describe ‘union/corporate backed party’, the ALP should belong to ‘corporate backed ALP’.

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