The Democrats and Social Classes
By Jack Metzgar
November 15, 2010
It's more than a little frustrating trying to follow
Democrats' analysis of social classes in this country.
Most of the time now, there are only two classes - the
rich (very precisely defined as those with at least
$250,000 in annual family income) and the middle class,
which includes everybody else. But in the analysis of
elections a "working class" shows up, one which is
invariably "white" and, it seems, predominantly male.
Most Democrats, and especially the more progressive
ones, know that moving the white working class away
from its decades-long lopsided loyalty to the
Republican Party is crucial to achieving a long-term
governing majority. But instead of appealing to this
demographic electoral block directly, it seeks to lump
them in with what Dems think is a universally beloved
"middle class." This is a tactical mistake, as in many
working-class precincts calling somebody "middle class"
is meant as a put down and an insult - somebody who
doesn't live "real life," lacks common sense, and yet
thinks they're "all better." Believe me, I've been on
the front end of this insult, sometimes deservedly so.
Of all the ways of defining class in America the one
that gets the least attention is how people self-
identify - that is, what class people see themselves as
being in. In exit polls, for example, you get a choice
of "White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Other" in
defining your race. There is no such question for
class. Rather, pollsters ask questions about education
and income, and then analysts assign people to various
classes based on the analysts' own definitions. As is
often pointed out on this site, the one national survey
that consistently asks people to identify themselves by
class has for decades found about 46% self-identify as
"working class" and another 46% as "middle class."
Nobody has any idea how voters who see themselves as
working class have actually voted - ever.
Over the last decade, through what has often been a
rich debate among political scientists, journalists,
political operatives, and statisticians, the presence
or absence of a bachelor's degree has come to be used
as a marker identifying voters as either "working
class" or "middle class." Because having a bachelor's
degree correlates pretty strongly with having a
professional or managerial job and because these jobs
correlate with higher incomes, this is a serviceable
marker for "middle class." Likewise, because the two-
thirds of jobs that are not professional or managerial
usually do not require bachelor's degrees and have
lower average incomes, the absence of a bachelor's
degree is a good-enough way of locating the "working
class" among voters. Until exit-pollsters provide
voters with a range of choices on class, as they do now
for race, this education marker is the best we can do
in measuring how social class affects voting.
Problem is that in the last two elections, these two
broad classes voted almost exactly the same way. In
2008 both "college graduates" and "no college degree"
voters voted for Barack Obama by a margin of about 53%
to 46%, whereas both groups in 2010 voted 52% to 46%
for Congressional Republicans. So, there was a big
swing in the last two years, but both the working class
and the middle class swung exactly the same way and to
the same degree. Thus, class by itself seems not to
affect how people vote.
If, however, you measure class along with race, then
class matters a bit more. Neither class of whites gave
Obama a majority in 2008, but middle-class whites gave
him 47% of their vote, while working-class whites gave
him only 40% of theirs. Meanwhile, among non-white
voters (lumping together all "Black, Hispanic/Latino,
Asian and Other" voters), there was a similar degree of
difference by class but in the opposite direction -
working-class non-whites gave Obama a larger majority
(83%) than middle-class non-whites (75%). A similar
race-class pattern occurred in the 2010 Congressional
elections, with working-class whites giving Republicans
62% while middle-class whites gave them 57%, whereas
working-class non-whites were more decisively Dem at
77% than middle-class non-whites at 71%.
Two conclusions emerge from this breakdown:
One is that race matters way more than class. In fact,
very few large groups of whites have voted majority
Democratic at the national level for decades. Using
only the exit polls, which do not cover all possible
groupings, the only whites who gave Obama a national
majority in 2008 were Jews (83%), whites with "no
religion" (71%) or "other religion" (67%), and 18-
to-29-year-olds (54%) - though it is important to add
that Obama won white majorities in 19 states and in the
Northeast as a whole.
The other conclusion is that the single largest race-
class grouping, the base of the base of the Republican
Party in America, is working-class whites. Even though
declining as a proportion of the electorate (as non-
whites increase faster in the population and as more
whites get bachelor's degrees and are, therefore, no
longer considered "working class"), working-class
whites are still almost two of every five voters, and
until 2010 they had been voting in the neighborhood of
60/40 for the GOP in national elections.
In parts of the country outside the South, however, the
white working-class, like whites in general, has been
drifting toward the Democrats over the past few
decades, culminating in the 2008 election when, for
example, Obama won majorities of white workers in 14
states and got into the high 40s in four others. That
drift was reversed big time in the 2010 Congressionals.
According to the guru on these matters, Ruy Teixeira:
"The most significant shift against the Democrats [in
2010] occurred among the white working class.
Congressional Democrats lost this group by 10 points in
both 2006 and 2008. Yet that deficit ballooned to 29
points in 2010."
That's a huge move toward Republicans who were against
saving the American auto industry and who voted against
infrastructure investments and jobs, (very) partial
bailouts of state governments, extensions of
unemployment insurance, and health care reform and tax
policies that benefit working-class whites more than
any other race-class grouping (in absolute numbers
though not proportionately). And this massive swing
occurred nowhere more strongly than in the Great Lakes
states, including strong union states Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
What accounts for this swing of previously Democratic
white working-class voters in 2010 will be the subject
of my next blog. Until then, I can do no better than
recommend that all Democrats look at a conservative
Republican's class analysis of "Midwest at Dusk."
Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies
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