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The Working Class, Reconsidered

The central narrative of post-election analysis asserts that Trump won the election by riding a wave of white working class resentment; a wave that he’d activated and steered in dangerous directions. The narrative is partly right, but it needs to be subject to critical analysis, specifically regarding how we think about “the working class” and the role that “it” played in this election.

To begin, our conclusions regarding working class political behavior depend on how we operationalize the working class. Do we consider it based on education, income, self-identification? If we define the working class as those without college degrees, then, yes, Trump destroyed it with the white working class. Exit polls suggest that he won 67% of this demographic.

But many of Trump’s supporters, as Nate Silver pointed out months ago, are far from working class in economic terms. In fact, in the primaries their median income was $70,000. A Pre-election Gallup study suggested that Trump voters were not more likely to have lower incomes, or to be unemployed than other voters. Political scientist, Larry Bartels, has shown convincingly that low-income whites have actually been voting more consistently Democratic over the past half century. Whether this trend held true in the 2016 general election remains to be seen (as of now, I’ve yet to find exit polls with this data), but the reality is likely more complicated that the existing discussion recognizes.

So what is actually going on? My take is that Trump’s core supporters, regardless of income or education-level, have a particular image of the working class that they identify with; an image freighted with racial and gendered baggage. The dominant image of the working class is a white male worker, often in an extractive industry – a farmer, rancher, logger, coal-miner, roughneck or construction worker. A whole cultural politics flows from this image: members of the working class listen to country music and drive big trucks; they love hunting, fishing and firing guns; they respect law enforcement and the military, but they abhor the state; they’re hard working, straight shooting and old-fashioned in values (but certainly not too politically correct to engage in some good old fashioned locker room talk). As this image weaves its way into our political imaginaries, the small farmer is seen as working class, but the immigrant farm-worker isn’t. The white cashier at Walmart might be working class, but the Latina maid at a hotel definitely doesn’t fit. (The role of that popular culture plays in reinforcing this dominant image is another article for another day, but reality TV’s recent embrace of the working class – through shows like Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, Coal, Duck Dynasty, etc. – provides a perspective on labor in which people of color are entirely absent, and – with few exceptions – women only enter the picture as wives and mothers. It’s a selective view of “reality” at best).

My point is this: we can debate how to best define the working class all we want, but there’s a deeper political dimension that analyses of this election are missing. The very concept of the working class has been hegemonized by the political Right. It is the dominant image that societal discussions of the working class revolve around. Keep in mind that exit polls show that the working class writ large still voted Democrat in this election. And the white working class is more nuanced in its politics than its being given credit for. Yet, this hegemonic image of the working class has material consequences; as it worms its way deeper and deeper into societal common sense, more people (particularly white people) come to identify with this image, and feel threatened when it is threatened — through, say, environmental laws and regulations, immigration reform, or the election of a woman to the presidency. This enables voters who are outside of the working class, in terms of income in particular, to subjectively identify with a powerful working class image, and to justify their (often reactionary) politics in populist terms. And it no doubt trickles down into the politics of the actual white working class too.

As many have recognized, this is, in part the fault of the Left. There’s a long counter-narrative, an alternative history and vision of the working class, that the mainstream left has intentionally been silent on in recent years (as the strategy of “Third Way” Democrats ruled the day). This alternative is the radical image of working class solidarity across difference; an image that has the added merit of accurately capturing the demographic realities of today’s working class – a diverse, multi-racial and multi-gendered constituency. The Left needs to recapture the working class by reminding folks who the real working class is, and by creating the organizational forms – new unions, worker centers, community outreach programs, etc. – that could facilitate political engagement and mobilization with the actually-existing white working class.

As it stands, the hegemonic image of the working class has helped to create the conditions of possibility for a racialized, cross-class alliance between the Trumps of the world and down-trodden whites, who have come to see their savior in a snake-oil salesman.

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