Every four years we Americans become spectators in a circus known as the presidential election. For most of us, participating in the process of electing the next president involves watching televised debates, discarding flyers from local and state candidates, and muting the slugfest known as campaign advertising. We’re spectators in the sense that we are watching, listening, and processing the event, but most of us remain far from the table of influence, which is increasingly reserved for a very small, very white, very male, and very rich group of individuals. These individuals— titans of industry, captains of retail, lords of finance—are the pipers calling the tune.
That’s not to say that politics hasn’t always been a game dominated by elites. But generations ago the power elite included the labor movement and the millions of working-class people organized through that now threadbare remnant of economic democracy. Over the past fifty years, as labor’s political influence has waned, the power of the wealthy has mushroomed, aided in great part by several Supreme Court rulings that opened campaign spending floodgates. But perhaps one of the most effective, and cynical, strategies to trample the interests of the working class has been a very strategic and deliberate use of race to undermine class-based solidarity. Finally, there’s the stubborn and historical gap in voting, in which college-educated and more affluent voters almost always show up at the polls while the working class watches from the sidelines.
But speculation about how the working class will vote— especially white working-class men—is a favorite topic of the political pundits. The conventional wisdom is that this group is solidly and impenetrably conservative and a predictable base for Republican candidates. But on some key issues about the role of government and the power of big money in our political system, the white working class is actually much more liberal than its college-educated counterparts, revealing key opportunities for progressive candidates to earn their votes.
Let’s be clear. The Sleeping Giant, with its larger share of women and people of color, is shifting the center of gravity in politics. Thanks to largely working-class movements such as the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter, candidates of both political parties have been compelled to address economic and racial inequality in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. There is more working-class solidarity right now in the United States than at any time since the 1970s, and on almost every measure this new working class is much more progressive than its college-educated counterparts. But it would be a mistake to consider the working class a monolith when positions on some key issues still diverge by race and gender.
Who Are the New Populists?
One of the most stubborn pieces of conventional wisdom about the white working class is that they are red-meat conservatives, with a strong knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacks of a government program. But an extensive survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) uncovered a populist streak among the white working class that is way more Elizabeth Warren than Jeb Bush or Rush Limbaugh. Take, for example, the fact that white working-class Americans are more likely than white college-educated Americans to report that a lack of good jobs (67 percent vs. 52 percent) and a lack of opportunities for young people (56 percent vs. 46 percent) are major problems facing their communities. Moreover, 70 percent of working-class whites believe that the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy, 53 percent say one of the biggest problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life, and 62 percent favor raising the tax rate on Americans with household incomes of over $1 million per year. And finally, nearly eight in ten white working-class Americans say that corporations moving American jobs overseas are somewhat (25 percent) or very (53 percent) responsible for Americans’ current economic distress.
But this populism fractures when it comes to issues of race. Six in ten white working-class Americans (60 percent) believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, compared to only 39 percent of white college-educated Americans. And nearly half (49 percent) of white working-class Americans believe that over the past few decades the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities, compared to 32 percent of white college-educated Americans. It’s important to note that the belief that too much attention has been paid to blacks and other minorities garners majority agreement only among southern white working-class voters, reflecting a racial anxiety steeped in the region’s brutal history of racial antagonism and terror. Today the racial anxiety expressed by working-class whites also extends to other people of color, namely immigrants. White working-class voters, unlike college-educated whites, blame immigrants for taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to them. Again, the PRRI survey shows a gulf between southern white working-class voters and their counterparts in the rest of the country. In fact, the South has retained its racial animosity to an incredible degree, and there is no dearth of politicians who still tap those reserves to win elections and stoke antigovernment sentiment. And the use of race to appeal to white working-class voters has a long and ignoble history, and today is being deployed most stridently and effectively by Donald Trump, with the other Republican candidates for President mimicking his nativist rhetoric.
The Big Class Divide
When we look at how Americans view the role of government in addressing poverty and providing opportunity, it becomes very clear that there are two Americas, one in which the people who live in comfort exhibit little empathy for those in the other America, who struggle. In one of the more illuminating yet depressing examinations of the difference between the fortunate and unfortunate, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press com- pared the responses of financially secure and financially insecure individuals to one of their major surveys conducted in 2014. The groups were created using an index of ten measures of financial security and financial distress, with individuals categorized into five groups, each representing roughly 20 percent of the population. At the ends are the most well-off and the least well-off. A glimpse at the demographics of the two most financially insecure groups reveals a near perfect overlay with the new working class— women, people of color, and people without four-year degrees. In fact, only 7 percent in the least secure group had a college degree.
The findings reveal, unsurprisingly, that when it comes to support for the safety net, views about poverty, and perceptions of business, financially insecure Americans hold much more consistently liberal views than their better-off counterparts. When given a choice between two statements about government’s role in helping the needy, over 60 percent of the most financially secure Americans chose “The government can’t afford to do more to help the needy,” while 60 percent of the least financially secure Americans chose “The government should do more for the needy, even if it means more debt.” One of the likely reasons the well-off don’t support providing more help for the needy is that they think the poor have it easy in this country. Just over half of the most secure Americans agree with the statement “Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return,” while two-thirds of the least secure Americans agree instead that “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.” Keep in mind that in 2013 just twenty-six out of every one hundred poor families received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, down from sixty-eight families for every one hundred in poverty in 1996, the year that President Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it.”
This polarization by class extends to views about business, with two-thirds of the least secure Americans believing that corporations make too much profit, while less than half of the well-off believe that to be the case.
What the Pew analysis shows is that on pocketbook issues, the new working class desires more action from government to improve their lives while the affluent exhibit very little support for such action. The implications are profound, given what we know about who participates in our political system, who contributes financially to our elections, and whose opinions get preferential treatment once candidates are in office. But the views of the least secure aren’t consistently liberal. In fact, of all the questions Pew asked, there was one economic item on which the least secure held more conservative opinions than the financially secure, and that was on the economic impact of immigrants. Forty-four percent of the least secure, compared to just over a quarter of the most financially secure, say that immigrants are a burden on the United States because “they take our jobs, housing, and health care.”
On other social issues, America’s class divide disappears. The well-off and the working class have similar views on regulation, government’s effectiveness, and national security. And on the question of black progress, the working class and the well-off are nearly identical in their opinions, with close to two-thirds agreeing that “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.”
Missing at the Ballot Box
There is no doubt that the United States has a serious voter turnout problem. Over the past four decades, turnout in presidential elections has hovered around 60 percent. In 2012, 62 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. And among that meager percentage, wealthier and white voters show up in greater numbers than others. In 2012, 26 million eligible voters of color did not vote, and among eligible voters earning less than $50,000, 47 million did not vote. The big questions are why this is the case and whether it matters. For decades political scientists concluded that voters and nonvoters essentially held the same views, in essence meaning that low turnout among working-class voters or voters of color was insignificant in terms of representation. But this research examined only candidate choice—whether nonvoters would have voted for the Republican or the Democrat. There are lots of practical reasons that working-class and poor voters may not vote, such as time constraints and registration obstacles. But what if they don’t vote because they sense there isn’t much difference between the two candidates’ positions? It turns out that compared to higher-income voters, low-income voters have a much harder time discerning meaningful differences between the two political parties.
In their book Who Votes Now?, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler examine differences among lower-income and higher- income voters in rating each of the presidential candidates’ ideology on a liberal-conservative spectrum and on the question of government’s role in guaranteeing a job for everyone who needs one. What they found is that in both the 2004 and 2008 elections, high-income voters perceived a much greater difference in the ideology of the two candidates, while low-income voters saw each candidate as less ideological and had a harder time perceiving his stance on the issue of government guarantee of jobs. This matters because the perception of a real difference in the positions of the candidates affects whether someone thinks it matters to vote. The finding that lower-income voters don’t perceive candidates to be either strongly liberal or strongly conservative is telling, and reflects how neither party is directly speaking to the economic concerns of the working class while being quite effective at communicating the party’s positions to people with higher incomes. Without a meaningful perception of a difference between the presidential candidates, many working-class voters make the rational decision not to cast a ballot—and our nation’s policy priorities are skewed as a result.
Since 1972 the difference in the policy preferences of voters and nonvoters about government’s role in our society has widened, with voters much more aligned with conservative preferences and nonvoters more aligned with progressive policy preferences. Missing voters, who are more likely to be low-income, are more liberal on questions of redistribution in particular, specifically on the need for government to provide jobs, services, and health care.
Politicians focus their campaigns, and all of their polling, on motivating “likely voters” to cast their vote for them. But structural barriers, including burdensome registration procedures, combined with an enthusiasm gap means that the working class is more likely to be missing from the pool of “likely voters.” And so the agenda is set by an electorate that is more white and more affluent than the nation as a whole. This has profound consequences on the types of issues candidates campaign on and what they prioritize once in office. And those decisions have deep implications about the kind of social contract our elected leaders deem appropriate for our country, generation after generation.
Research on turnout and policy outcomes in other countries corroborate the idea that countries with less class bias in voting and higher turnout have more generous social welfare policies. Researchers examining our nation’s depressed levels of voting came to the conclusion that “low turnout offers a potentially compelling explanation why the American welfare state has been so much less responsive to rising market inequality than other welfare states.” A study of eighty-five democracies found that higher voter turnout leads to higher total revenues, higher government spending, and more generous welfare state spending.
One could conclude from this research that the recent conservative attacks on voting rights—from requiring photo identification to shortening early voting opportunities, both of which dampen turnout among younger, lower-income voters, as well as voters of color—are clearly designed to preserve an ideological hegemony that doesn’t reflect the needs of all the people in our democracy. Most recently, in 2013 conservative legislators were given even more leeway to curtail voting rights by the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, the justices struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of voting discrimination (mostly southern states) to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting laws or practices. In the year immediately following the decision, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Mississippi all enacted strict new voter identification laws, which either had been blocked under “pre-clearance” or would likely have been blocked. North Carolina went a step further and repealed a series of laws that increased turnout, including early voting.
Our democracy is far from inclusive of all the people it purports to represent. And that status quo is highly desirable to, and vigorously defended by, elites of all stripes, using a combination of suppressive voting laws and big-money donations that undermine the Sleeping Giant’s political power.
This is an excerpt from the book: SLEEPING GIANT: How The New Working Class Will Transform America, by Tamara Draut.
Copyright © 2016 by Tamara Draut.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.