Setting the Record Straight About the White Working Class

Published October 17, 2013

The American

One of the most talked about groups in recent elections has been the white working class. Although the group has declined as a share of the nation since World War II, it is still very large at nearly 40 percent of the national electorate. Understanding its views and values is essential to political victory, so it isn’t surprising that politicians of all stripes are working hard to gain such an understanding. Andrew Levison’s insightful new book The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support tries to provide his fellow progressives with a road map for success with a group Democrats have lost by double digits in recent elections. But the book is more valuable as a source of data and information crucial to strategists of all ideological stripes.

Levison argues that the white working class, contrary to most elite opinions, is not a largely Republican constituency even though Republicans have won the group by double-digit margins in recent elections. He persuasively documents this with opinion surveys that show that these voters are less ideologically conservative than generally recognized. He further shows that many white working class voters hold contradictory views on most issues, views that blend themes from the right and the left. Accordingly, Levison argues that progressives can target these “moderates” by changing their message from a “we know best” top-down approach to a “you’re right, and we’re here to help you” bottom-up one. This message can succeed, he says, only by engaging in a serious ground game that literally meets these voters where they live and brings their voices to Washington year-round.

Levison is at his best when describing the attitudes and lives of today’s white working class. Census data, for example, demonstrates that white working class voters earn less and work more in physically demanding jobs than do more educated whites. Working class men and women are very likely to work in jobs that pay them an average of $21,000 (women) to $31,000 (men) a year. At these wages, it would take two full-time average jobs for a family to earn the median American family income, which perhaps explains why divorce rates are much higher among working class couples today. A single working class mother, however, must be under even greater stress. With her meager earnings, she is highly likely to require government aid to pay for medical care and child care, which places the Obama campaign’s Julia film (and his electoral success among single women) in its proper context.

The Working Class Divide: Big Ten versus SEC

All members of the white working class are not alike, of course, and it is essential to look carefully at their differences. The most important but overlooked traits are religion and region.

There is a very large difference between how southern and non-southern working class whites vote, one Levison indirectly points toward. He finds, as one might expect, that evangelicals hold more conservative views on most issues than do mainline Protestants, especially those dealing with morality and religion. But on core issues of the size of government or the need for government to help the poor, both branches of Protestantism are largely in agreement, only slightly favoring a smaller government and largely supporting more help for the needy even if it means going further into debt. These findings give Levison hope that progressives can win moderate working class voters.

However, it is not clear whether Levison has much to worry about. Only 20 percent of evangelicals hold a BA or higher, which means that attitudes specific to evangelicals are more likely to be found among working class voters. But since evangelicals disproportionally live in or near the South, that means as an electoral matter their views (and their Republican voting patterns) are more of a southern phenomenon than a working class one. Other working class voters who live in large numbers outside the South are less socially conservative and less focused on religion, and hence are less likely to vote Republican.

A deeper dive into the data sources Levison examines further documents this North-South white working class divide. White Catholics, a group Levison curiously overlooks, represent about 17 percent of Americans and are a much higher percentage in key midwestern swing states such as Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The Pew data for Catholics show they are much closer to mainline Protestants than evangelicals on social and economic issues. Since most working class whites living outside the South and border states are either Catholics or mainline Protestants, one would expect to find that support for Democrats and President Obama is much greater among northern and midwestern working class whites than among southerners.

That is in fact what the data show. Political scientist Larry Bartels, writing in the respected electoral blog The Monkey Cage, finds that President Obama won a majority among non-southern whites in households earning less than $45,000 a year. The president’s margin among Levison’s core working class white households — those earning $30,000 a year or less — rises to 55 percent. This figure is supported by exit poll data cited by the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein that shows President Obama carried whites without a college degree in Iowa, received 49 percent of their votes in New Hampshire, and 45 percent in Wisconsin. In each state, between 52 and 55 percent of residents are either mainline Protestant or Catholic. Unless Levison hopes for even larger margins, it seems progressives already are attractive to moderate, non-evangelical working class whites.

The Conservatives’ Midwestern Mind

These findings suggest that conservatives, not progressives, are the ones in need of an electoral strategy to capture this key segment of the electorate. The data Levison provides should serve as a starting point for any thoughtful conservative who wants to regain the White House and the Senate.

Conservatives currently rely on three primary messages to reach these non-evangelical white working class voters. First, delegitimize government by arguing that it is unable to help them get ahead and raise their families whereas the private sector can. Second, argue that when government does act, it too often does so on behalf of undeserving groups, usually illegal immigrants and those who refuse to work. Third, emphasize that conservatives stand on the side of religious liberty and traditional moral values. However, data show that the white working class is not nearly as receptive to these messages as many conservatives hope.

The data show that the white working class does not like government, but has serious questions about whether it can get ahead in today’s economy. A 2011 Washington Post poll found that 43 percent of whites without college degrees believed that hard work was no longer a guarantee of success. Nearly half thought they did not have the education or skills to compete in today’s job market. Attitudes like this strongly suggest that many working class whites do not instinctively see personal benefits flowing from an untrammeled market.

Many members of the white working class are particularly suspicious of the idea that business leaders and financial experts have their interests at heart. Levison cites data for the white working class from a 2011 Pew survey, Beyond Red vs. Blue, that shows that well over half believe that business makes too much profit and that Wall Street does more to hurt than to help the economy. Three-quarters believe that a few large companies hold too much power. These voters do see government as a problem, but they also believe that big government is not the only obstacle in their paths.

Working class whites also hold more nuanced views on immigration and government’s role to provide for the poor than conservatives usually surmise. Levison shows that large majorities of working class whites think increased immigration is bad for America and favor increased border security rather than immigration reform. But they also strongly oppose free trade agreements. Pew found that the poorest and least-educated part of the white working class, labeled “Disaffecteds,” think free trade agreements are bad for the United States by a two-to-one margin. These people are being pressed by competition from foreigners at home (immigration) and abroad (free trade), and they don’t like it. Conservatives therefore often do not gain the political advantage on immigration that they seek because their free trade views convince working class whites that conservatives are not on their side.

Working class white attitudes toward government help for the poor are also nuanced. The Pew study found that half of the white working class believes poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough and that government should go deeper into debt to help needy Americans. This attitude exists even among usually conservative evangelicals.

Most importantly, delegitimizing government does not cause the white working class to distrust or oppose all government activity, especially those programs that directly impact them. For example, the Pew survey found that 82 percent of “Disaffecteds” oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare to help reduce the federal budget deficit. Only 17 percent favor focusing on cutting major programs to reduce the deficit compared with 59 percent of “Staunch Conservatives.”

Conservatives since 1980 have hoped to garner the votes of these economically moderate voters by emphasizing “social issues.” It is true that white working class voters are likely to say that religion is an important part of their lives, and even among Pew’s economically distressed “Disaffecteds,” 41 percent say they attend religious services at least weekly. But that formal religious commitment does not extend to making social issues a top voting priority.

Levison’s data show that the white working class is at best morally moderate. Only 52 percent of whites who have never attended college say that a belief in God is needed to live a moral life. They oppose efforts to get government more involved in protecting traditional morality by a 50-39 percent margin. On homosexuality, 55 percent of whites with a high school degree or less think homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Data for non-evangelical whites with no college experience are not provided, but we should assume given what the data do show about evangelicals generally that these numbers would be even more tilted towards the moral moderation of mainline Protestants and Catholics in this group. Outside of the South and evangelical outposts, then, the stereotypical Reagan Democrat simply doesn’t exist.

These data should not come as a surprise to conservatives or the GOP political class. Canadian conservative political wunderkind Patrick Muttart discovered these trends of economic and moral moderation among the Canadian white working class, especially its Catholic members, back in the middle of the last decade. He used that information to propel Prime Minister Stephen Harper to three straight election wins. Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende has noted that Ross Perot in 1992 hiked turnout and got a large vote share in regions of the country dominated by white, non-evangelical working class voters by running on such an economically and socially moderate platform. This “Perotlandia” is also the part of the country that saw the largest declines in turnout between 2008 and 2012. Nevertheless, I suspect these data remain shocking to most on the right.

Do Conservatives Really Love Raymond?

Conservatives ought to be worried about these findings, but they ought to be more worried about the moral consensus that animates them. Today’s conservative movement increasingly emphasizes “getting ahead,” “owning your own business,” and economic dynamism as essential to the American dream. That’s what “you built that” was all about. For whites without any college education, however, these are largely alien concepts.

Levison does a great job in outlining the moral worldview of these voters. They aren’t simply not attracted to these goals; they define themselves in opposition to these goals.

Levison draws on ethnographic studies to show that for the typical white working class person, family and stability are more important than career and upward mobility. They saw their middle-class bosses as people who “worried all the time,” were “cold and snobbish,” and as “arrogant, very arrogant people.” They saw their work as “just a job,” not a rewarding activity of itself. As befits people who work in teams and do heavy labor, they saw collegiality and practical knowledge to be of greater worth than individual striving and theoretical knowledge. Levison describes this combination as a “distinct combination of viewing work, family, friends, and good character as central values in life while according a much lower value to wealth, achievement, and ambition.”

Perhaps this is the conclusion of a progressive seeing the white working class world through very rose colored glasses. But why, then, did über-conservative Patrick Muttart find exactly the same values among white workers in his studies?

Muttart expressed nearly identical sentiments in an extended interview he gave me in 2010. Working class whites, he told me, are fiscally conservative (low taxes) but economically populist (suspicious of trade, outsourcing, and high finance). They are culturally orthodox but not generally concerned with social issues because their lives won’t change much no matter the outcome. Most importantly, they are modest in their aspirations for themselves. They do not aspire to be “Type A business owners”; they want to go to work, do what’s asked of them, not have too much stress in their lives, and spend time with their families. They want structure and stability in their lives so that things they need are taken care of and they don’t have to worry.

If Muttart and Levison are correct, and I think they are, then both parties have huge problems attracting these voters. But conservative Republicans have the greater problem because these voters have resisted orthodox Republican economic policies, such as reducing entitlement spending, for decades.

Packers and Lions and Bears: Oh My!

Conservatives who want to regain the presidency cannot ignore these facts. The road to the White House runs through the working class voter, whether he is white and non-evangelical, as is the case in the Midwest, or Hispanic and marginally Catholic, as is the case in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. To win their votes, conservative Republicans must first win their trust.

They can do that if they demonstrate that they understand and respect the moral underpinning of working class life. That moral view places emphasis on hard work and effort and gives respect to those who perform it, regardless of how much money is directly earned. It is one that emphasizes that life is about much more than making money or getting ahead: it’s about family, friends, and experiencing the time we have on Earth. Such views cannot be derided as “whiling away the time”; they are central to the working class world and must be respected.

These views lead to a substantial, but not a dominant, role for government in people’s lives. Government should be prepared to help people where they cannot always help themselves, through regulation and redistribution if necessary. Even school vouchers, a conservative Holy Grail, is at heart a redistributive policy that taxes the well-off to give money to the working class to afford a decent education for their kids.

But a conservative theory of government will be substantially different from a progressive one because conservatives understand better than do progressives that working class voters are makers of their own lives. A conservative approach would emphasize that help would only go to those who help themselves and to those who need it. That means strong work and behavior conditions attached to entitlements and welfare policies, and sharply reducing corporate welfare and tax deductions for the well-to-do. A conservative approach would reduce where possible government’s monopoly provision of services and let people choose from among providers competing for their favor. A conservative approach would recognize that citizenship means more than voting, and accordingly do more to help people whose lives are unduly stressed because of economic dislocation.

Progressives offer the working class handouts and hands-on regulation of their lives. Libertarian-inspired Republicans offer them a hands-off society that is indifferent to their fate. Conservatives should offer them a new deal. They should offer them what they really want: a hand up.

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