Myths of the White Working Class

On September 22nd, Politico reported on how rank-and-file union members were snubbing Biden for Trump. Perhaps inadvertently, the second sentence reveals what kind of trade unionist this means: “To rank-and-file members in some unions, especially the building trades, it doesn’t matter. They’re still firmly in Donald Trump’s camp.” Historically, construction unions have operated as a white-only job trust and would be naturally part of Trump’s hard-core support. While Anthony DiMaggio debunked the myth of Trump’s “blue-collar” populism in CounterPunch, Democratic Party pundits insist that unless it connects with these types of workers, it will lose to demagogues like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Just hot off of OR Books press, David Roediger’s “The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History” digs deep into the origins of this line of thinking and concludes that it is time to put it to rest. Despite the book’s title, the subject is a demographic that academics and journalists describe interchangeably as the middle-class or the white working-class. Since Black people tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party politicians, Roediger’s chief concern is to interrogate how this obsession developed.

Roediger has been writing about race and class in the U.S.A. ever since his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” that paired him with Theodore Allen and my good friend, the late Noel Ignatiev. For these three scholars, the task was to explain how the white working-class could identify with ruling-class values. Speaking for myself, I always attributed that to the phenomenon Karl Marx described in “The German Ideology.”

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

Roediger begins by putting Stanley Greenberg under a microscope. While I was vaguely familiar with Greenberg as a pollster, I had no idea how instrumental he was in convincing the Democratic Party to begin wooing the white working-class, even if it meant that Black people got short shrift. It all goes back to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, who, like Trump, seduced traditionally blue-collar Democrats to vote for against their class interests.

Greenberg went to Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit, and discovered that white auto workers were rotten-ripe for the kind of message that the Gipper was spouting. After polling the workers, he concluded that the Democrats could only become winners again by “keeping demands for racial and gender justice meager.” For Greenberg, the terms middle-class and white working-class were interchangeable.

The reactionary drift in Macomb County was not unexpected. In the 1972 Democratic Party primary, George Wallace got more votes than George McGovern got in the general election. Macomb County was typical of the “white flight” in the sixties as workers with well-paying union jobs left the inner cities behind. For a white worker making good money in the auto industry, Detroit had become a “shithole.” Macomb was where a worker could enjoy the good life. Roediger points out that its average income exceeded by half the rest of the nation. It also had the highest number of boat owners per capita in the country.

Greenberg set up focus groups to figure out what made these workers tick. All were white, and all voted for Reagan in 1984. Greenberg distilled the essence of their views: “Not being black was what constituted being middle-class; not living with blacks was what made a neighborhood a decent place to live.” Eventually, Greenberg’s study became part of the core philosophy of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) that served as the premier thinktank for politicians like Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Bruce Babbitt, and Dick Gephardt. It was also home to campaign managers like James Carville, who eventually founded a consulting company with Stanley Greenberg that groomed politicians in the centrist politics that has dominated the Democratic Party to this day. They have also lined up clients with little to do with the DLC’s pro-working class orientation, even if bogus. They include Monsanto, BP, and Boeing.

Despite the low regard that the DLC had for racial and gender justice, it did not prevent Hillary Clinton from posing as a supporter of Black and women’s issues, even if only verbally. When she lost, Mark Lilla blamed her for neglecting the working class, even if Lilla likely saw it as the same kind of voter that lived in Macomb. It is a delicate balancing act that politicians like Clinton and Biden have to carry out. They understand that they have to offer incentives to a middle-class voter but not to the point of alienating their major funders. Biden made a point of reassuring them that their interests were the same as his, as reported in the Washington Post.

He proposed banking at the post office and that the Federal Reserve guarantee all Americans a bank account. Such “socialist” measures perturbed Wall Street bankers to the point that his campaign had to phone them up and tell them to relax:

“They basically said, ‘Listen, this is just an exercise to keep the Warren people happy, and don’t read too much into it,’ ” said one investment banker, referring to liberal supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The banker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks, said that message was conveyed on multiple calls.

After mincing and dicing Greenberg, Roediger next surveys the literature about the middle-class. For those seeking social change up to and including a socialist revolution, the white working class has always presented itself as a problem to be overcome. Like Ahab pursuing Moby Dick, socialists and liberals don’t hope to kill the beast but harness it as an unsurmountable force for good. It was only during the Great Depression that such hopes appeared realizable. Yet, the American victory in WWII soon led to a Macomb-like retreat into suburbia, gas-guzzling cars, shopping malls, and racism.

Even if the term middle-class did not appear in Werner Sombart’s 1906 “Why is There no Socialism in the United States?,” he was grappling with the same phenomenon. Wouldn’t the ability of a country endowed with such rich natural resources and unlimited land always be able to allow any hard-working family to make it? Why fight for socialism amidst such bounties. The term “exceptionalism” soon became a one-word descriptor for TINA (there is no alternative to capitalism) without the Margaret Thatcher baggage.

In 1955, Louis Hartz came out with “The Liberal Tradition in America” that denies that revolutionary change is possible. Unlike the neocons, Hartz found this prospect dispiriting. Roediger describes him as a radical writing with sadly with a deep awareness of Marxism.

In 1996, Seymour Martin Lipset revisited Hartz’s ideas. In “American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword,” he wrote of a nation “dominated by pure bourgeois, individualistic values.” Unlike Hartz, he was “gleeful” over this fate in keeping with his neocon values. I suppose that I lean in Hartz’s direction even though I still believe a socialist revolution is possible, if not necessary. Books such as his and Lipset’s appeared at a time when the U.S.A. was still enjoying phenomenal economic growth and before the environmental crisis had reached catastrophic dimensions. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning that all of the self-assurances about a prosperous middle-class and other stabilizing effects of exceptionalism might have a limited shelf-life.

In the early 80s, I met with Peter Camejo and an old friend looking for some investment advice. Peter had no other options except making a living as a stockbroker since a lifetime of activism had made a decent-paying entry-level jobs impossible. At some point in our meeting, the subject of socialism came up with my old friend taking a position close to Hartz’s. As much as he would prefer socialism, the workers were too bourgeois to make a revolution. Private homeownership guaranteed that. I was expecting Peter to counter that argument. Instead he said, “You’re right.” If Peter had lived long enough to see the disaster we are living through now, I am sure he’d be thinking in more apocalyptic terms.

In the final two chapters, Roediger addresses a left trying to make sense of our opportunities and obstacles. In chapter four, titled “How the Left Has Lived With the Problem of the Working-Class,” he tries to clarify the term working-class that might not apply in a strictly Marxist sense to the wage-earners in motion today, which are not in the factories but the schoolrooms, government agency offices, and hospitals:

But as important as it is to recognize that teachers, nurses, and millions of less adequately paid office and sales workers are key elements of the US working class, contradictions of everyday life won’t let us rest there What are we to do with a teacher, or nurse, or sanitation worker, or meatpacker from Green Bay who becomes a labor activist while professing to still (or also) be middle class? Must she pick? Should labor scholars decide for her? These questions are especially vexed because the working class is largely defined by a relation to capital and management, while the middle class includes a variety of such relationships and often turns significantly on personal choice.

Speaking of personal choice, these are questions that took on an existential character for me in 1978 when the Socialist Workers Party ordered me to either get into the working class or get out. As a programmer since 1968, I never thought much about what I did for a living. I did realize that I didn’t belong to the same class as my shopkeeper father. Yet, it didn’t matter much to me if I was a worker or not, as long as I was helped to build the party. However, it did matter to the party chief who considered me as a problem to be solved, just like James Burnham. Eventually, all of our comrades, who were like those Roediger described above, were given a choice. Either get a factory job or get out. These middle-class elements included schoolteachers, social workers, librarians, and other people having the same kinds of jobs as those in the front ranks of the Madison, Wisconsin revolt against Scott Walker.

I left the party in 1979 and went back into programming. Seven years later, I came into contact with people in Nicaragua trying to get TecNica off the ground, a small-scale, radical version of the Peace Corps that placed volunteer programmers, engineers, and skilled tradespeople in government agencies.

Some years later, in reviewing my experience in Nicaragua and the failure of the SWP to become anything resembling the worker-Bolsheviks they set out to be, I tried to sort out the class contradictions of an imperialist countries like the U.S.A. that facilitated a Macomb type existence. I wasn’t nearly as adroit as David Roediger but would like to end on a note from my article. I use the term petty-bourgeois, which is simply the approved Marxist term for middle-class. I would also mention that after James Burnham left the Trotskyist movement, he wrote a book titled “The Managerial Revolution” that ruled out the possibility of a revolution in the U.S.A because the middle-class management strata had taken control:

Trotskyist sectarianism turns every serious political fight into a conflict between worker and petty-bourgeoisie. Every challenge to party orthodoxy, unless the party leader himself mounts it, represents alien class influences penetrating the proletarian vanguard like fluoride penetrated Colonel Jack D. Ripper’s water in “Doctor Strangelove.” Every Trotskyist party in history has suffered from this crude sociological reductionism, but the American Trotskyists were the unchallenged masters.

Soon after the split from the SP and the formation of the Socialist Workers Party, a fight broke out in the party over the Soviet Union’s character. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern, and James Burnham led one faction based primarily in New York. It stated that the Soviet Union was no longer a worker’s state and saw the economic system as inferior to capitalism. This opposition also seemed to be less willing to oppose U.S. entry into WWII than the Cannon group, which stood on Zimmerwald “defeatist” orthodoxy.

Shachtman and Abern were full-time party workers with backgrounds similar to Cannon’s. Burnham, a horse of a different color, was an NYU philosophy professor born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reputedly would show up at party meetings in top hat and tails, often on the way to the opera.

Burnham became the paradigm of the entire opposition, despite Shachtman and Abern’s family backgrounds being identical to Cannon’s. Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the petty-bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it. It was the immense pressure of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia outside the SWP that served as a source for these alien class influences. Burnham was the “Typhoid Mary” of these petty-bourgeois germs.

However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between an intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-bourgeois acceptance. The workers have shown themselves just as capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory. It was not coal miners or steelworkers who provided the shock-troops for the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. It was lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did. Furthermore, it would be interesting to do a rigorous class analysis of the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern opposition. Most of its rank-and-file members were probably working-class Jews, who more than anybody, would be susceptible to pro-war sentiment during this period. When the Nazis were murdering Jews throughout Europe, it’s no surprise that American Jews would end up supporting U.S. participation in WWII.

Now that I am retired, I fret less about to which class I belong. My sense of being on the right side of the barricades flows from writing for CounterPunch and enjoying the privilege of writing a review of a book like “The Sinking Middle Class” that everybody on the left should put on their to-read list. It doesn’t come much better-written or intelligent.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.