Class Reproduction in America Revisited

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Class Reproduction in America Revisited
Nov 11 2019

It’s hard to be original. Turns out, your analyst’s result on the overdose gradienthad more or less already been published by health researchers in 2017. Instead of looking only at deaths due to overdose, their predictor was the common component of seven public health indicators. Like me, they found a very strong relationship between poor health indicators and the swing to Trump in the cross-section of US counties.

Donald Trump won the white working class, defined as non-Hispanic whites without a college degree, by 39 percentage points. It was the largest margin since 1980. But it did not come out of the blue. Starting in the 1990s, the white working class has increasingly abandoned the Democratic Party. Even in 2008, when Obama won with a historic majority, the GOP won the white working class vote by 20 percentage points.

This is an astonishing state of affairs. The GOP is widely regarded as the party of the business elite, and its policy platform is known to be greatly harmful to working class interests. On the other hand, Democrats think of themselves as custodians of the working class interest. But the gap that has opened up is now so vast that we must, if we do not want to delude ourselves, think of the Democratic Party as the party of the elite, and Donald Trump’s GOP as the party of the masses.

There is a story that Democrats tell themselves about how this peculiar alignment came about. We are told, again and again, that Johnson killed the New Deal coalition when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. This story is a myth. It is often conflated with the loss of the South to the Democrats. That’s also a myth. In general, there is no evidence that the White working class turned away from the Democrats before the 1990s. So it cannot be the Civil Rights Act. But why is this myth, one so easily debunked, exercise the hold that it does on the liberal imagination? As we shall see, trying to answer this question will lead us to the real source of the present impasse of elite-mass relations in the United States.

The Civil Rights Act Story is a thinly disguised way of saying that the Dems lost the white working class because the white working class is racist. This is a longstanding perception that is reproduced over and over again; most recently, to understand the catastrophe of 2016. Hundreds of researchers have claimed to show that, to take a recent study at random, “racial prejudice, anti-immigrant sentiment, concerns about economic security, and frustration with government responsiveness may have led many white, working-class voters to support an outsider candidate who campaigned on these themes.”

This is a recycling of the same myth of working class racism. Even if it were the case that working class whites are more racist than middle class whites, although there are good reasons to doubt the claim, it would still not explain 2016. For constants cannot explain variables. And there is simply no evidence of any increase in racial resentment or anti-immigrant sentiment in working class communities in the lead up to 2016.

On the other hand, the evidence is unambiguous that the white working class has been screwed over since the 1990s. As late as 1998, the white working class’s share of family income was equal to that of the white middle class. By now, its share has dropped to around half that of the white middle class. Similarly, wealth shares of the two classes were equal in 1989. The white working class share of net worth has fallen to a third of the white middle class.

Note that the white working class is twice as large as the white middle class. Actually, that’s not quite true. We must be careful not to simplify US class structure too much. The college/no-college binary is misleading because the white working class defines itself in opposition not only to the middle class but also to what Charles Murray called the permanent underclass. I tried all sorts of fancy tricks to sort households by socioeconomic status, educational attainment, occupations, income and wealth. None of that fancy slicing and dicing adds any value to the basic decomposition we obtain from educational attainment alone.

Basically, the sorts of white people who go to college are quite different from the sorts of people who never finish high school, and both differ in moral code, aspirations, aesthetic taste, child rearing philosophy, and risk appetite from the middling bulk of the population that can be identified as the white working class. In affluent middle class families, everyone has to attend college — preferably at a prestige school. In the working class, hardly anyone ever finishes college. Certainly, some do. Just as the income of some households with no college degrees is not so modest. But on the whole, American white working class has modest means. Moreover, this is reflected in its moral economy. The white underclass, the class with truly modest means, is hedonistic and lacking in morals in the eyes of the working class. On the other hand, in the eyes of the middle class, the truly poor are in the greatest need of state help. The underclass, too, inhabits a different cultural universe. The class itself is a frontier zone; a shatter-belt of misfits of all sorts; a land of trailer parks, shady neighborhoods, red light districts, and needles. Entangled with law enforcement, this class comes into its own in prisons, where its culture coexists with the culture of its black counterpart — a fascinating story that we leave for later work. The code here is the opposite of the white working class: anything goes.

It is not a coincidence that educational attainment has the strongest class signal: in a society with an elite sorted on school prestige like the present day United States, the two diplomas provide the structural parameters of class society. We should think of the tripartite class structure as a representation of this ordering principle of American class society.


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