Class Resentment and the Center-Left, or the Politics of “We Are the 80%”

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Class Resentment and the Center-Left, or the Politics of “We Are the 80%”

I’ve just read the suitably downbeat piece by Thomas Edsall about the travails of the Democratic Party in today’s New York Times.  Edsall, citing a recent symposium of political strategists in The American Prospect and a report by Priorities USA, a DP polling outfit, describes the widespread abandonment of both the center and the left by a wide swath of the American working class.  As he says, it’s not just that working class (non-college) Trump voters have opted for “populism”; their political disposition radically excludes activist government programs, multiculturalism, and other principles that no one on the left could reasonably run against.

Evidence from public opinion polls depends on the questions pollsters take to the people.  Questions are framed in particular ways to test the suppositions in the pollsters’ minds, which means it’s difficult to find evidence for suppositions they aren’t considering.  That in turn means that those of us with different hypotheses can only speculate, at least until the stories we tell get enough traction that pollsters and focus group organizers decide to test them out.

A further caveat is that the population is extraordinarily diverse, and almost any hypothesis is going to be true for someone.  The question is not who is “right”, but how influential particular political trends are among various portions of the electorate, in combination with other trends.

So here is one approach, based on a quote Edsall culled from Nick Gourevitch, a contractor for Priorities USA:

So it may be that within economically distressed communities, the individuals who found Trump appealing (or who left Obama for Trump) were the ones where the cultural and racial piece was a strong part of the reason why they went in that direction. So I guess my take is that it’s probably not economics alone that did it. Nor is it racism/cultural alienation alone that did it. It’s probably that mixture.

How to think about this interaction?

When the left thinks about inequality and the legitimate grievances of the working class, its target is generally “Wall Street” or the “billionaire class”.  The pitchforks should be waved at the one percent of the one percent, the tycoons who wield inordinate influence over government and get policies that enhance their wealth and power at the expense of the rest of us.  But the “populist” vote in 2016 went for a billionaire (or someone who claims to be while hiding his tax records).  What gives?

I suspect most people upset with inequality tend to blame the class directly above them, the one they interact with most.  If so, consider a rough four-class model of the US.  On the bottom are the poor and the precariate, desperate to make ends meet month to month or even day to day.  Relatively few of them vote, and when they do they tend to go for Democrats because they know how much they depend on social programs.  They are driven less by ideological fervor than flat out necessity.  Above them is the main portion of the working class.  They are vulnerable to shocks like severe accidents or illnesses or regional economic downturns, but for the most part they don’t feel they have to vote for reasons of personal protection or benefit; they have the luxury of ideological voting.  They’ve gotten shafted for generations.  Going up the ladder, the next group we find is the upper-middle class, roughly the upper 20%.  They’ve had some periodic stress, but overall they’ve made out rather well.  Nearly all the economic growth we’ve experienced in this century has gone to them.  They tend to have economic views in line with their station and otherwise adopt a relatively cosmopolitan perspective, itself a reflection of their roles in the “new economy”.  And at the top is the capitalist class, those who own or control the bulk of society’s wealth.  While no cutoff is perfect in identifying them, they represent approximate the upper .01% of the income distribution.  They play the largest role in funding and positioning the two major political parties.

Now here’s the thing: what happens if classes blame the one above?  If you’re in the upper-middle class and you’re angry about how unequal this society has become, your target is the ultra-rich.  There’s no one else to blame unless you want to denounce yourself and your friends.  Hence “we are the 99%”.  But if you’re in the main portion of the working class, and you feel the country has become fundamentally unfair, you’re likely to take it out on the upper-middles.  These are your direct bosses, people in government offices that give you a hard time, teachers who send notes home with your kids, and media people who tell you how backward and misguided you are.  Those are the “liberals”, the ones who think more education and a cushier job gives them the right to ignore you.  Whenever the problems of lousy jobs or no jobs comes up, their one solution is to tell you to go back to school, get better grades this time, and be like them.  Resentment is not hard to come by.

My experience in the classroom is that few students from working class backgrounds even know there is a capitalist class or that it has influence.  They see the country being run by folks like me, and politics comes down to whether you think that’s good or bad.

So what about racism and nativism?  The dynamics are complicated, but I suspect an aggravating factor, and one that brings economics and bigotry together, is that the push for multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is seen as coming from the upper middle class.  From a purely logical or empirical point of view, there’s not much basis for the notion that working class hardship is the result of affirmative action, immigration or even specific trade deals (with the possible exception of the accession of China to the WTO).  Most of it is about the evolution of capitalism, which has resulted from a range of political decisions and non-decisions under the guiding influence of the capitalists themselves.  But if economic protest takes the form of resenting the class one rung above, the fact that the upper middle class is strongly identified with liberal values and programs is how economics and culture come together for a large number of workers.*

Incidentally, the campaign of Hilary Clinton was disastrous from this perspective precisely because it combined an aggressive advocacy of cultural liberalism with an economic outlook oblivious to the problems faced by the majority of the population.  It was practically an advertisement for right wing populism.

Again, all of this is speculative.  I have no evidence to back up any of this, other than personal observation, and that may be wrong too—I might be misinterpreting what I hear.  But it would be interesting to do some opinion research to find out if there’s an element of truth.

*Note that I use the term “working class” and not “white working class”.  The Democrats have suffered an erosion of support across the working class, and it would be a mistake to assume that workers of color automatically favor government programs to aid people of color worse of than them or more liberal immigration policies—or at least that their advocacy is strong enough to convince them to cast a vote.