Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Another superficial take on the "white working class" Republican voters

Joan Williams of Hastings Law School last November made an entry into the currently fashionable anthropological speculations about the mysterious white working class. Which she gives the abbreviation WWC. It's What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class Harvard Business Review 11/10/2016.

Her effort has the same basic problem so much of this type of analysis share, a vague definition of what the working class is:

The terminology here can be confusing. When progressives talk about the working class, typically they mean the poor. But the poor, in the bottom 30% of American families, are very different from Americans who are literally in the middle: the middle 50% of families whose median income was $64,000 in 2008. That is the true “middle class,” and they call themselves either “middle class” or “working class.”

“The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,” a friend just wrote me. A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Neither is minimum wage. WWC men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump promises that. I doubt he’ll deliver, but at least he understands what they need.
The favorite journalistic definition of working class is "people without a four-year college education."

A more meaningful sociological definition would start with something like "people eligible to join a union" and define it more closely from there. That would locate the definition as dealing with people's process in the production process, and not by income level or educational attainment. I would think the big difficulty in establishing such a definition would be on issues like how to treat "indepedent contractors," some of which would count as entrepreneurs or small business people, others as working class.

Williams' approach seems to be more impressionistic. And, by intention or not, her version isn't a lot different than the lazy establishment pundit version, which in turn is largely that preferred by Republicans. I'll skip over her repetition of the usual about Mean Libruls being elitist, etc. This observation is worth a bit more attention:

One little-known element of that ["class culture"] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters ... and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.
This is part of the problem with using a hazy definition of working class. Most kindergarten, elementary and secondary teachers are working class by almost any reasonable definition. And maybe not doctors but a large number of healthcare providers, notably nurses, also are in that position.

There are some big assumptions being made there, and I'm not sure how much polling or sociological data backing them. I don't recall seeing any political polling looking at voting patterns correlating with the particular attitude Williams describes here. The claim, "the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money," strikes me a broad, dubious generalization.

I'm also not so sure about the idea that working class people (at least if the term is reasonably defined) have very little contact with the wealthiest people but more with professionals. It has been a long-standing assumption, which I believe are based on studies over a long period of time, showing that in the case of "keeping up with the Joneses" competitiveness, people tend to compare themselves more with people in similar situations than with people in drastically different income levels. But that is a different thing that what Williams is arguing. Normally people looking to increase their income are obviously likely to look for the next steps on that goal. So a 25-year-old technician at a large corporation may have no aspiration to replace the CEO next year. But that person is likely to be keenly aware of whether they will get an open senior technician position or whether it goes to one of their current technician colleagues.

But that doesn't mean that the technicians are indifferent to what the CEO does or that they are unaware of the disproportionate power and wealth held by CEO's compared to most everyone else. The comment of the "laborer" she quotes saying, "[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding" and clerk who "chimed in" with, "There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” should be seen in that light. Those are the kind of anecdotal comment we often see columnists or commentators using to illustrate a point in a relative small space or a brief period on television. But they don't mean much outside of context. Those two comments are both pretty mundane. And therefore "safe." They are things that you might hear from a free-market libertarian, a flaming socialist and various people in between on the political spectrum.

Jamie Galbraith in Inequality and Instability (2012) has an analysis that is based on real in-depth studies that adds a geographical dimension to this issue of how closely the non-rich observe the rich in the United States. He finds that the increase in national inequality in recent decades has been remarkably geographically concentrated, with a very large part of it identifying with five counties: Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo in California; New York; and King in Washington. All of which benefitted greatly from the technology and financial industries. He writes:

lt is well known that technology firms are not distributed uniformly; they are concentrated in centers such as San Francisco and SanJose, Seattle, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, and Boston. Th.eir :financiers are concentrated in New York County, New York-otherwise known as Manhattan. Income growth in the counties surrounding these areas accounted for the bulk of the inequality increase in the late i990s, and when the information technology bubble burst in 2000, falling relative incomes in these same areas reduced aggregate between-county inequality. In particular, the same four counties that contributed most to the increase in between-county income inequality from 1994 to 2000 contributed most to the inequality decline from 2000 to 2003: New York, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco.
California, New York and Washington are all known as liberal states.

Galbraith devotes a separate chapter to the effects of inequality on voting in the US. His concluding summary:

Our analysis suggests that high inequality levels are weakly associated with a larger Democratic vote and also with diminished turnout. These results are strengthened when fixed effects are introduced; rising inequality correlates to deepening Democratic preference and reduced turnout. When the spatial location of voting groups is considered, our results suggest that it is not so much the raw inequality of incomes that is decisive, but the existence of inequalities across populations that do not confront each other aggressively in daily and political life. [my emphasis]
In other words, Galbraith's in-depth analysis shows that a situation where the wealthiest people and the rest "do not confront each other aggressively in daily and political life" has exactly the opposite effect suggested by Williams.

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