Sunday, May 29, 2016

Can we please stop using "working class" as a synonym for "rightwing"?

Whenever I want a bedrock definition for a term or concept, the Encyclopædia Britannica usually comes to mind early. I learned repeatedly in my basic schooling that it's not fair to use an encyclopedia as a source, at least not in school research papers. But Britannica is still an excellent source. It often includes articles by leading authorities. Famous examples include Sigmund Freud's, "Psychoanalysis," Albert Einstein's "Space-time," James Henry Breasted's "Ikhnaton," Glenn Seaborg's "Plutonium," T.E. Lawrence's "Guerilla," Marie Curie and Irène Curie's "Radium," Bertrand Russell's "Relativity, philosophical consequences of," and Orville Wright on his brother Wilbur.

So, wanting to say something about how sloppily the political press uses "working class," I resorted to Britannica's article Social class:

The upper class in modern capitalist societies is often distinguished by the possession of largely inherited wealth. The ownership of large amounts of property and the income derived from it confer many advantages upon the members of the upper class. They are able to develop a distinctive style of life based on extensive cultural pursuits and leisure activities, to exert a considerable influence on economic policy and political decisions, and to procure for their children a superior education and economic opportunities that help to perpetuate family wealth.

Historically, the principal contrast with the upper class in industrial societies was provided by the working class, which traditionally consisted of manual workers in the extractive and manufacturing industries. Given the vast expansion of the service sector in the world’s most advanced economies, it has been necessary to broaden this definition to include in the working class those persons who hold low-paying, low-skilled, nonunionized jobs in such service industries as food service and retail sales. There are considerable differences within the working class, however, and a useful distinction exists between skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers that broadly corresponds with differences in income level. What characterizes the working class as a whole is a lack of property and dependence on wages. Associated with this condition are relatively low living standards, restricted access to higher education, and exclusion, to a large extent, from the spheres of important decision making. Aside from the dramatic rise in living standards that occurred in the decades after World War II, the main factor affecting the working class in the second half of the 20th century was a general shift in the economy from manufacturing to service industries, which reduced the number of manual workers. In the United States and Britain, among other countries, the decline in traditional manufacturing industries left a core of chronically unemployed persons isolated from the economic mainstream in decaying urban areas. This new urban substratum of permanently jobless and underemployed workers has been termed the underclass by some sociologists.

The middle class may be said to include the middle and upper levels of clerical workers, those engaged in technical and professional occupations, supervisors and managers, and such self-employed workers as small-scale shopkeepers, businessmen, and farmers. At the top—wealthy professionals or managers in large corporations—the middle class merges into the upper class, while at the bottom—routine and poorly paid jobs in sales, distribution, and transport—it merges into the working class. [my emphasis]
This view broadly agrees with the approach of classical political economy from Adam Smith to Karl Marx. As James Oakes has written, "Marx was after all, the last of the great classical economists, those who concerned themselves with how wealth was produced and therefore, how labor was organized. We do not think that way anymore, especially not after the revival of market ideology in the 1980s," i.e., the rise to dominance of what is now called neoliberalism. ("The Peculiar Fate of the Bourgeois Critique of Slavery" in Oakes, ed, Slavery and the American South (2003).

While Britannica's definition isn't the be-all and end-all. But it makes the basic distinction that classes are only meaningfully defined in terms of the social and economic system. That's why the popular term "middle class" in the United States, which basically lets 95% of the people plausibly describe themselves as part of the middle class, is so generally useless as a description of any social phenomenon. It shouldn't be too much of an effort to recognize that the the business-owner of a small restaurant chain may actually have a net financial worth less than that of a skilled factory worker who has owned a small house in an major urban area for the last 45 years. But the position of one in the economic order provides a very different viewpoint of the system that that of the other, even if both may agree in favoring some particular set of economic policies. To the restaurant chain owner on the edge of bankruptcy, Donald Trump's idea that American wages are too high may have a more urgent rational appeal than it does to the factory worker with large equity in his house and union-defended pension plan may not see such urgency in adopting such a policy. Which, from the standpoint of the economy as a whole, is deeply irrational, if one believes that the economy should serve the well-being of everyone.

One thing the multiple pathologies of our national press corps are doing is to lazily identify Trump's supporters as the "white working class." Blacks and Latinos are often referred to as ethnic blocs in discussing voting. The fact that a large part of the American working class is black and Latino. The punditocracy thus tends to talk about the white working class as the working class more generally. And they identify this imagined (white) working class as culturally and politically conservative-to-reactionary. Plus, it's a favorite conceit of our Pod Pundits that they speak for this imagined working class. David "Bobo" Brooks periodically indulges this posture. The late Tim Russert made it a part of his thoroughly conventional and Establishment public persona. (See: Michael Carlson, Tim Russert The Guardian 06/15/2008: "Russert, who was born in Buffalo, New York, always defined himself by his working-class Irish roots.")

Molly Ball in The Trumpian Divide The Atlantic Online 05/27/2016 write about a Trump appearance in Anaheim, "the country-club crowd mingled with the Trumpenproletariat."

Even Marcy Wheeler partially falls into this trap in Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, and American Exceptionalism Emptywheel 05/29/2016. She's making an important and interesting point about the white supremacist ideology shared by the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee and Spiro Agnew's onetime speechwriters Pat Buchanan: "Buchanan not only talks about declining economic prospects of white working class men, the relatively improved fortunes of people of color, but especially about the plight of white men losing their myths of superiority, losing the myth that white men made this country and led the world without the often-coerced labor and deaths of lots of brown people."

But it's at best an overstatement to assume that the "declining economic prospects of white working class men" is a particularly distinctive feature of Trump's support. The economic prospects of working class men have declined during the long, bipartisan dominance of neoliberal/Herbert Hoover/Angela Merkel economics that began in the US with St. Reagan's Administration. And Trump certainly does attract a significant number of white working class voters.

But like the Tea Party movement, those attracted to Trump are more affluent voters. Nate Silver wrote earlier this month (The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support Five Thirty Eight 5/03/2016):

It’s been extremely common for news accounts to portray Donald Trump’s candidacy as a “working-class” rebellion against Republican elites. There are elements of truth in this perspective: Republican voters, especially Trump supporters, are unhappy about the direction of the economy. Trump voters have lower incomes than supporters of John Kasich or Marco Rubio. And things have gone so badly for the Republican “establishment” that the party may be facing an existential crisis.

But the definition of “working class” and similar terms is fuzzy, and narratives like these risk obscuring an important and perhaps counterintuitive fact about Trump’s voters: As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

These figures, as I mentioned, are derived from exit polls, which so far have been conducted in 23 primary states.1 The exit polls have asked voters to describe their 2015 family income by using one of five broad categories, ranging from “under $30,000” to “$200,000 or more.” It’s fairly straightforward to interpolate a median income for voters of each candidate from this data; for instance, we can infer that the median Clinton voter in Wisconsin made about $63,000.
As I indicated earlier, a meaningful structural definition of working class doesn't map simplistically onto income or net worth data. But it's a more useful measure than the customary Pod Pundit definition of working class as people without four-year college degrees.

Silver concludes his column:

This is not to say that Trump voters are happy about the condition of the economy. Substantial majorities of Republicans in every state so far have said they’re “very worried” about the condition of the U.S. economy, according to exit polls, and these voters have been more likely to vote for Trump. But that anxiety doesn’t necessarily reflect their personal economic circumstances, which for many Trump voters, at least in a relative sense, are reasonably good.
And I'll close by suggesting that generalizations about Trump's "working class" support should make a careful distinction between white Southern working-class Trump supporters and those not from formerly Confederate states.

It's important in these things to maintain the ability to walk and talk at the same time. Gender is also fundamental in shaping social consciousness. And "whiteness" is a key part of American political and social consciousness. So both function as distinct influences on political decisions, as Adele Stan reminds us in these two American Prospect articles: Will Trump’s ‘Man Card’ Play to Women? and, White Supremacy and Trump's Battle for the 'Soul of America' 05/06/2016, which also emphasizes the Pat Buchanan tradition.

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