Analysts have been debating the politics of America’s white working-class for years with little net increase in knowledge.
The whole discussion assumes a fact not fully in evidence — that membership in the “white working-class” is a politically relevant identity; that it is causally related to voting behavior. Maybe, but far from clearly proven.
Indeed, most discussions of the topic abjure, or at least ignore, causal analysis in favor of description.
Description of course requires definition and defining membership in the working-class remains a subject on which there’s little consensus.
Political analysts regularly employ at least five different definitions of working-class:
- Educational — Here working-class is defined as those without a college degree. Never mind that this rendering assigns such non-college graduates as Bill Gates, Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFacebook touts benefits of personalized ads in new campaign Mellman: White working-class politics Hillicon Valley: Companies urge action at SolarWinds hearing | Facebook lifts Australian news ban | Biden to take action against Russia in ‘weeks’ MORE, (the late) Sheldon Adelson and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to the “working-class,” while excluding nearly 1 in 10 auto mechanics and production workers in manufacturing.
- Occupational — By this definition, manual laborers, factory workers, retail, foods service and care workers, usually paid an hourly wage, constitute the working class, irrespective of educational degree.
- Income — This reckoning qualifies lower income people, often the lower third of the income distribution, as “working people.”
- Hybrids — While researchers employ a variety of combinations, a common approach classifies those who do not hold a college degree and are also below the median income as working people (thereby eliminating the Gates’ and Zuckerbergs).
- Subjective identification — Respondents are simply asked with which class they identify. Anyone selecting working-class is included under that rubric.
Despite this definitional muddle, reflecting the conceptual elasticity of “working-class,” the conclusion is consistent: by most definitions, Democrats are not the preferred party of white working-class voters.
However, the story one tells about the trajectory of this phenomenon, and in particular Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen’s dropped charges ‘liberal privilege’ Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump’s shadow McConnell says he’d back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE’s role, do differ by definition.
The reality behind the white diploma divide is complex. From 1948 to 1976, non-college whites’ votes for president fluctuated wildly, though they gave at least pluralities to Republicans except in the 1964 Johnson landslide and in Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Trumpists’ assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats Mellman: White working-class politics MORE’s two successful campaigns.
Starting in 2000, when George Bush received just over 50 percent among non-college whites, there has been continual movement toward Republicans culminating in Donald Trump’s 66 percent in 2016 and 67 percent in 2020.
Using education as a surrogate for class, suggests Donald Trump deepened a long-term trend toward increased support for GOP presidential candidates among non-college whites.
Defining the white working-class as those without a college degree who also have incomes below the median, mutes Trump’s role.
These working people gave just 5 percent more to Trump than they had to Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGrassley to vote against Tanden nomination The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by The AIDS Institute – Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Haley isolated after Trump fallout MORE.
Self-identified working-class voters gave Trump exactly the same 57 percent they gave Romney, also suggesting little or no, Trump specific effect.
Where does this leave us?
First, with uncertainty about what even constitutes the white working-class. Different definitions produce somewhat different stories.
Second, with a clear sense that while educational attainment may be a characteristic with important, if certainly not dispositive, political impact, class itself, however one defines it, may not be a central political demographic.
In one of my first columns here, 15 years ago, I argued, “We are moving from an alignment based more on class to one based importantly on culture.” In my view that conclusion has only been bolstered in the years since.
Third, while Trump accentuated trends among voters we label white working-class, he was not the initial mover, nor likely even the prime cause of their current politics.
Finally, we should question the way Democrats have approached these voters. Democrats will continue fighting for the working-class, irrespective of how its members vote, because that’s a core expression of our DNA.
But we assume that because we call them “working-class,” economics must be the way to their hearts, or at least their votes. That may be. But just ascribing an economic centered identity to them does not necessarily make it so. Especially when that identify does not seem to carry the same meaning to analysts as it does those we label.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.