Working Class Political Identities

Working ClassOnly in the last ten years have scholars begun to think of the working class as a political identity rather than simply an economic status. The thoughts below are the first on a series of posts based on political identity. Justin Kempf reflects on working class as a political identity through a reflection of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land.

Politics of the Working Class

The politics of the left never made sense for the working class. Long ago, Robert Michels recognized a divide within socialist parties between the oligarchic party leaders and the rank and file. The left has never truly understood the working class because it did not emerge out of the working class. The most dominant historical figure of the left remains Karl Marx. He serves as an economist, philosopher, and sociologist. Few doubt his brilliance. But his ideas did not emerge from his experience as a laborer. They came from an intensive program of study. Indeed, the left has always belonged to the intellectual class rather than the working class. 

Today the left remains puzzled as the working class has shifted their support to the parties of the right. The alliance between the affluent and the working class is not a natural fit. Even today it sounds odd to observe the fierce and unwavering support of rural and working class Americans for a Manhattan billionaire real estate investor. Indeed, his wealth was not a liability, but an asset. His wealth became a sign of competence and success. Moreover, he argued his vast wealth meant he did not depend on the donations of others for his campaign. It made his appeals more genuine. 

Of course, the rise of Donald Trump and the case he made to his supporters is based on a mountain of contradictions. For example, even if Trump continued to refuse to accept any donations from the affluent or PACs, he was unable and unwilling to distance himself from the influence of his own business interests. Worse yet, his business success was largely dependent on political influence. He claimed to understand the swamp because he had navigated through it for so many years. 

Evolution of American Political Parties

The American left often argues the Republican Party has built their support of the working class through subtle racist signals. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson acknowledged the Democrats would likely lose the support of the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it took far longer for the South to complete its realignment. The South continued to reelect Democrats to Congress and the Senate for thirty years afterwards. The Republicans did not truly stake its claim to the South until they took the House in 1994. Before then Southern Democrats increasingly found themselves voting Republican, especially for President. But many identified as Reagan Democrats rather than Republicans. 

Political parties are not static organizations. Their identities change as the composition of their membership changes. The gradual shift of many working class voters from the Democrats to the Republicans changed American politics. The success of Reagan and Thatcher also marked a paradigm shift in politics around the world toward what has been called neoliberalism. Changes in American politics are often attributed only to race. But the incompleteness of this explanation is exposed in the experience of other liberal democracies with racially homogenous populations. France and the United Kingdom have increasingly diverse populations but have never confronted racial inequities to the degree of the United States nor have the remaining inequities and inequalities continued to haunt their politics in the same way. 

Working Class Becomes Middle Class

Nonetheless, the parties of the left did abandon their social democratic philosophies for a softer version of neoliberalism during this period. Sheri Berman, Thomas Piketty, and many others attribute the crisis of left-wing politics to its failure to remain committed to the problems of the working class. But the working class was disappearing. Over time the working class became rebranded as the middle class. The middle class is different. They have better educations and are less likely to work in manual labor.

Yet the middle class resembled a working class in many ways. The middle class was no longer composed of independent professionals. It had become an educated workforce employed by large companies. Their economic fates depended on the success of their employers. Moreover, their education became increasingly oriented toward their career. A high school diploma became necessary for employment and over time a college degree began to replace the diploma as the barrier for entry into the middle class.

The left, for its part, has long been the political philosophy of the intellectual, but the parties of the right have traditionally claimed support among the educated. Universities have long been considered institutions of the left, yet its graduates have often become voters of parties on the right. Many assume political views change over time. Indeed, there is an old saying, ’If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain.’ But the far more significant relationship is between education and income. Because the more educated command higher salaries, they are more likely to support political parties opposed to redistribution.

The Intellectual Class

But the link between education and intellectualism has also become broken. As education has become recognized as a path toward higher incomes, it has become a means toward an end rather than an end in its own right. Many young scholars are better described as apprentices who attend university to learn a trade like engineering or business. Even those graduating with liberal arts degrees pursue a degree in part to open doors for career advancement. Nonetheless, the dramatic expansion in access to education has increased the number of those who consider themselves intellectuals. The increase in literacy alone makes possible the number of independent amateur scholars, but the dramatic expansion in secondary and university education has brought about an explosion in the intellectual class or what Piketty calls the Brahman left. 

The left has always belonged to the intellectual class, just as the right has belonged to the wealthy. But the intellectuals were never numerous. A lot has been made of the wealthiest 1%, but the intellectual class has historically represented a small subsection of the population as well. The number of Americans with doctorates in 2000 was just 2%. By 2018 it had more than doubled to 4.5%. The number of doctoral degrees had undergone exponential increases for decades beforehand as well. The number of doctorates obtained in 1990 had increased four fold from 1960. Historically, a doctorate meant a person belonged to a sort of intellectual 1%. Of course, it is not necessary to have a doctorate to be an intellectual. But the dramatic expansion of intellectual activity meant a dramatic increase among those whose identity was constructed from their education rather than their income. 

Intellectual Dominance of the Left

The exponential expansion of the intellectual class increased their power among the left. The interests of intellectuals had always diverged from the working class on important economic policies. The neoliberal policies of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton reflected the increased influence of intellectuals among the left. Moreover, globalization exacerbated this shift as the knowledge economy expanded. As the left abandoned policies of radical redistribution, working class voters found they had less to gain from their policies and as the left embraced globalization, the working class found they may even have more to lose from those policies. 

Many scholars from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson to Thomas Piketty believe the left must embrace policies of redistribution to win back their working class base. Sheri Berman has explicitly argued for a return to the social democratic policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Many believe policies of redistribution are not simply the right policies, but they also make political sense in an era of populist discontent. Yet many of these policies come across as shallow to working class Americans today. They represent the ongoing battle between the intellectual class and the business class. These policy offerings rarely speak to their concerns. 

The Great Paradox

Arlie Russell Hochschild refers to the failure of working class Americans to embrace redistributive economic policies as the great paradox. She travelled to Louisiana to meet working class Americans who reject liberal policy solutions despite a polluted environment, poor schools,, and low incomes. Many liberal scholars believe Republicans win the support of working class Americans despite their economic policies. But Hochschild found widespread support in the South for conservative solutions to economic and environmental challenges. Often their support persisted despite damaging and destructive results. 

The key issue for Hochschild’s research was the environment. Ronald Inglehart is among many who consider environmentalism as part of a shift toward post-materialist values. But Hochschild thinks of the environment in quite materialistic terms. Too often the environment is considered in abstract notions. Global warming is an example of an abstract problem because its repercussions always existed in the future. Only recently have the implications of global warming begun to become a clear and present danger. But Hochschild is not focused on environmentalism as a movement. She is focused on actual effects of environmental pollution in a community. Her sense of environmentalism is more like traditional conservation. Environmentalism has become a polarized issue, but conservationism was a bipartisan issue for decades with support from Republicans and Democrats. 

Working Class Values and Political Language

Hochschild finds residents want a cleaner environment, but find they have a sense of hopelessness regarding the issue. They believe a tradeoff is necessary between the creation of jobs and the protection of the environment. The residents accept the destruction of the environment as the price for well-paying jobs. Hochschild finds the tradeoff is not necessary, but this is not the point. The political language of conservatives speaks to working class values. It isn’t just religious values like the politics of abortion or homosexuality. Conservatives speak to the values of hard work and community. 

The intellectual left has never truly understood the working class. They believe policies of redistribution are the answer to the problems of those left behind. But the working classes do not want a handout. Dependence upon social programs represents a step backwards for them. The working class never wanted to become a state dependent class. They want benefits they believe they deserve through their commitment to hard work. Ultimately, they want to work. They want their contributions recognized and valued. Social Security is a redistributive program, but its rewards are provided after years of contributions. Workers believe they deserve its benefits, because they had contributed throughout their lifetime. But many redistributive programs are designed to confer benefits on those unable to contribute. The logic runs counter to working class values.

The Failure of the Left

The intellectual left’s solution to the problems of globalization has never made sense for working class Americans. Intellectuals believe the solution to job displacements is found in job trainings. While many discredit these job training programs because they never materialized, the working classes may never have embraced them. Most steelworkers do not aspire to become computer programmers. A substantial part of their identity is found in their occupation. A career changes does not simply represent a change of what they do, but also changes who they are. In this light, environmental policies designed to shift the economy away from coal and oil threaten the identities of coal miners and oil field workers. Moreover, job training programs do not ensure the local community offers these new career opportunities.  Neoliberalism demands efficiencies not just in resources but also in labor. Relocation becomes a part of the program. 

The alliance between the affluent and the working class is riddled with contradictions. But the alliance of the intellectual class and the working class has many contradictions as well. Hochschild refers often to an imaginary line. A lifetime of hard work is the moral currency to move up the economic and social ladder. But they find these days others cut ahead in line. They patiently wait their place, while others receive preferential treatment.

Her explanation brings to light the distinction between the values of the working class and the intellectual class. The working class emphasizes hard work. They believe inequalities in wealth are justified when they are based on hard work and effort. Moreover, they want to believe differences in income are the result of hard work. But capitalism does not reward work based on effort. Its rewards are based on outcomes. Moreover, it does not matter whether these outcomes are deserved. 

Working Class Identity

The business class and the intellectual class largely understand the modern economy. They focus their efforts on areas where they produce results. Modern elites embrace the maxim, ‘Work smarter, not harder.’ But this leaves behind so many. They tell everyone else to work hard. But when their situation does not improve, elites tell them to work harder. Their contributions become devalued over time. Their industry is no longer profitable. Even their trade contributes to pollution and global warming. Moreover, their community has little to offer society or culture. In the end, they must move somewhere else. We ask them to change their job and leave their community. We ask them to become someone else. 

Related Content

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on the Plutocratic Populism of the Republican Party

Takis Pappas on Populism and Liberal Democracy

Thoughts on Cas Mudde’s The Far Right Today

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