By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Readers, I apologize for the clickbait headline, because the ludicrous claim that the Republicans are the party of the working class is so easily disposed of. Where is Republican support for unions? Where is Republican support for a $25 minimum wage? Where is a Republican program for the precariat, especailly gig workers? What about occupational health and safety, especially respirator and ventilation requirements for health care workers, and all others who must “meet the public”? How about a single payer health care system, so healthcare coverage is portable across employers? And on and on and on (of course, Democrats aren’t doing much here either, beyond making performative gestures of support to the cowed union leadership in election years, but that’s off point for this post.
So that wraps it up, right? Not exactly. First, the idea that the Republicans can become, or are becoming, or have already become the “party of the working class” has generated an enormous literature since Trump’s victory in 2016, if “literature” is the word I want, which I would at least like the gesture vaguely at. It’s also clear working class voters were abandoned (or, indeed, repelled) by Democrats, and that many gravitates to the Republicans. However, it turns out that there is very little serious thinking being done — at least within the national political class — about what “working class,” and class generally, might mean (the clarification of which is, in fact, my hidden agenda for writing this post). Finally, if we grant that Trump has brought about, or taken advantage of, a shift to the Republicans, can we offer a useful speculative account for this behavior by voters?
Here is my vague gesture toward the literature; I don’t think you, dear reader, being a Naked Capitalism reader, need to dig into them, because you most likely already know what they will say. But here are some headlines, organized by year:
The White Working Class and the 2016 Election (abstract only) Perspectives on Politics
Head of the Class The New Yorker
The unhappiness of the US working class Brookings Institution
The Day the White Working Class Turned Republican New York Times
Republicans Unveil Policies to Match ‘Working-Class Party’ Claim Wall Street Journal
Can the GOP Become the Party of the Working Class? The Free Press. The deck: “Marco Rubio is betting on it.”
How GOP Is Becoming the Party of the Working Class RealClearPolitics
Latino Voters, Once Solidly Democratic, Split Along Economic Lines Wall Street Journal
How Republicans will keep working-class voters Washington Examiner
What Does The Working Class Really Want? The Atlantic
Can the GOP Become a Real Working-Class Party? Wall Street Journal
We now turn to the transition by some “working class” voters from the Democrat Party to the Republican Party. It’s clear from the above reading list that by “The Party of The Working Class” is meant “The Party of The Working Class Voters,” which has the pleasant effect of relieving the Republican Party of delivering any universal concrete material benefits to them, or granting them any agency. This being an oligarchy where the ruling class rules through a governing class (“the investment theory of party competition“) of elected, appointed, and otherwise affiliated officials (“our democracy”) one would expect no less.
It’s clear enough that Democrats abandoned the working class base founded on the success of the New Deal, and transitioned to a narrower base in the Professional Managerial Class (PMC, which we will see The Bearded One having trouble with below). Thomas Frank’s hilarious and coruscating Listen, Liberal is, of course, the canonical text on the one-hopes-final degradation of this process under the Clintons, but Frank was instantly banished from polite society after publishing it, so I’ll have to go with Frank’s mini-me, Ruy Teixiera (he of “coalition of the ascendant” fame, but “Honey, I’ve changed!”). From Ruy Teixeira in 2024, “How the Democrats Lost the Working Class” (transcript):
But Democrats historically had this anchor to working class voters, they were sort of the tribune of these voters, . And that really gets lost in the late 20th century, with the way that industrialization was affecting different areas of the country, you had the Democrats’ embrace of NAFTA, then China’s accession to the WTO, and the big China shock in the early 2000s—these are things that voters reacted very negatively to; that Democrats weren’t on their side and basically didn’t care about them. That didn’t mean that they therefore understood what the Republicans’ economic policies were, and all this stuff, but they definitely felt the Democrats were no longer their party. So this is what happens when a party becomes identified with policies and outcomes that are different from what the voters who historically supported them expected. And they sort of move in the direction of the Republicans.
And Teixiera in 2022, “Democrats’ Long Goodbye to the Working Class“:
America’s historical party of the working class keeps losing working-class support. And not just among white voters. Not only has the emerging Democratic majority I once predicted failed to materialize, but many of the nonwhite voters who were supposed to deliver it are instead voting for Republicans….
From 2012 to 2020, the Democrats not only saw their support among —crater, they also saw their advantage among nonwhite working-class voters fall by 18 points. And between 2016 and 2020 alone, the Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters declined by 16 points, overwhelmingly driven by the defection of working-class voters. In contrast, Democrats’ advantage among white college-educated voters improved by 16 points from 2012 to 2020, an edge that delivered Joe Biden the White House
Just as a pre-emptive strike:
A rigorous accounting of vote shifts toward Trump, however, shows that they were concentrated among white voters—particularly those without college degrees—with moderate views on race and immigration, and not among white voters with high levels of racial resentment. The political scientists Justin Grimmer and William Marble concluded that racial resentment simply could not explain the shifts that occurred in the 2016 election. In fact, Trump netted fewer votes from white voters with high levels of racial resentment than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
(Teixiera wrote in 2022, a midterms year when the Supreme Court — not looking quite so closely at the electoral calendar as a branch of the Republican Party might have been expected to do — overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing Democrats to exceed expectations. However, the overall trend away from Democrats by working class voters is clear. It is true that Democrats are making the usual performative gestures on abortion in 2024, but I think it’s pardonable to classify 2022 as a “dead cat bounce.” What, after all, have Democrats actually done? Let’s wait and see!)
And from the Desert News, “Perspective: When did the Democratic Party become the party of the upper class?”:
[A] new poll conducted by HarrisX for Deseret News shows exactly how much the Democratic Party has changed: Once proudly the representative of , Democrats are now, by a notable margin, the party of choice of the upper class.
In the poll, respondents were asked to identify as one of seven categories: . A majority (39%) made their choice based on income rather than their job (10%) or education (7%), categories which are commonly used by researchers when defining the working class.
(One bucket for the “working class,” and three separate buckets for “the middle class,” which, by exclusion, must be the PMC. Wowsers.) And:
Some findings that stand out:
Many in the upper class seem tone-deaf about how the rest of the country is faring. Large majorities of the middle class and below, for example, say that the working class is being left behind when it comes to economic development, while 80% of the upper class say that everyone is benefiting equally. That finding, in particular, screams “elite.” Similarly, 62% of the upper class thinks the working class “is in a good position.” Only 30% of the working class agree.
And as for Biden:
Perhaps most significantly, 74% of upper class respondents want Biden to run again, in stark contrast to large shares of the middle class and lower who don’t want to see Biden run. Sixty-seven percent of the working class and 68% of the lower class don’t want Biden to be their president again. That is significant, and as the Democratic establishment prepares to again present Joe Biden as the solution to America’s problems, it does so at considerable risk.
If Democrats leave power lying in the street, Republicans will pick it up, however clumsily. Teixeira once more, “The GOP’s working-class tilt is causing havoc in its ranks“:
However, blaming the GOP’s bad situation on Trump overlooks the ways in which he is not just a cause but a symptom of the party’s fundamental problem: its tilt toward the working class.
Since the breakup of the Democrats’ New Deal coalition about half a century ago, the GOP has become steadily more working class and therefore more dependent on appealing to that base. Initially Republicans were able to take advantage of the breakup of postwar Democratic voting blocs by promulgating an anti-welfare, anti-tax agenda that, along with an aggressive cultural conservatism, appealed to many working-class voters.
But this was not a sustainable strategy. Working-class voters, as many of their communities continued to deteriorate, lost faith that lower taxes and less government were really the solution to their problems — however much those principles might appeal to business supporters of the GOP. It was Trump’s genius to break with orthodox Republican economics, particularly on trade, entitlements, deficits and corporate priorities. In other words, he leaned into the working-class tilt of the GOP instead of simply exploiting it when it overlapped with standard GOP priorities.
As a result, Trump has deepened Republicans’ working-class base, first by bringing in even more voters, particularly in the Midwest, and then by adding voters, especially Hispanics. But that deeper working-class base presents challenges that the GOP appears ill-prepared to handle.
But what is this “working class” of which you speak? (Obviously, Teixeira’s formulation of “the party of the common man and woman” is vacuous and completely unusable. I’ve helpfully underlined the usages, most of them sloppy and vague. You can be sure that none of the articles that use the phrase “working class” actually define it, although the HarrisX poll makes an effort.)
What would a definition of class look like? As I wrote in 2017:
When I think of the concept class, I think of a set, and a set membership function to determine who or what is a member of that set.
(This idea is reinforced in this discussion of Griffin, where the issue is how to “ascertain” that a given individual is a member of the set of “insurrectionists.”) Here is the conventional approach, from Demos: “Understanding the Working Class.” In fact, there are three potentional set membership functions:
Social scientists use 3 common methods to define class—by occupation, income, or education—and .
Oh. One would think that developing a clear definition of “working class” would be top-of-mind for a putatively left-wing think tank, but perhaps that’s just me. More:
Michael Zweig, a leading scholar in working-class studies, defines the working class as “people who, when they go to work or when they act as citizens, have little power or authority. They are the people who do their jobs under close supervision, who have little control over the pace or the content of their work, who aren’t the boss of anyone.”
Using occupational data as the defining criteria, Zweig estimated that the working class makes up just over 60 percent of the labor force. The second way of defining class is by income, which has the benefit of being available in both political and economic data sets. Yet defining the working class by income raises complications because of the wide variation in the cost of living in the United States. An annual income of $45,000 results in a very different standard of living in New York City than it does in Omaha, Nebraska. Incomes are also volatile, subject to changes in employment status or the number of hours worked in the household, making it easy for the same household to move in and out of in any given year.
The third way to define class is by educational attainment, which is the definition used in this paper. Education level has the benefit of being consistently collected in both economic and political data sets, but, more importantly, education level is strongly associated with . The reality is that the economic outcomes of individuals who hold bachelor’s degrees and those who don’t have diverged considerably since the late 1970s.
I have helpfully underlined the various weasel words (“more or less”), weird methodological assumptions (“standard income bands”) and vague terms (“job quality”). As Nate Silver remarks:
[T]he definition of “working class” and similar terms is fuzzy
So, I think it’s fair to say that all the “literature” I collected above can be tossed out, since there’s no “consensus” on the “common methods to define class” in social science, and the conventional wisdom is “fuzzy.” Could there be an alternative? One that is rooted in actually existing and ascertainable power relations, instead of being fitted to “data sets”? I think there is.
Enter the Old Mole in the cellerage, the Bearded One. Capital, Volume III, p. 652 (PDF):
The first question to be answered is this: What constitutes a class? – and the reply to this follows naturally from the reply to another question, namely: What makes wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords constitute the three great social classes?
At first glance – the identity of revenues and sources of revenue. There are three great social groups whose members, the individuals forming them, live on wages, profit and ground-rent respectively, on the realisation of their labour-power, their capital, and their landed property.
However, from this standpoint, physicians and officials, e.g., would also constitute two classes, for they belong to two distinct social groups, the members of each of these groups receiving their revenue from one and the same source. The same would also be true of the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords — the latter, e.g., into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mineowners and owners of fisheries.[Here the manuscript breaks off.]
(“Here the manuscript breaks off” [pounds head on desk]). This holds up pretty well, IMNSHO. We have the set membership function (“the identity of revenues and sources of revenue,” or, in the vulgate, “follow the money”). The Bearded One would be the first to admit that his schema, developed in the UK in the 19th Century, might be usefully modified for the 21st. For example, we might distinguish between international, national, and regional (“local gentry”) subclasses of capitalists (“globalism”). We might also conceptualize the owners of intellectual property (Silicon Valley) as akin to landlords. And interestingly, Marx, hitherto so crisp, goes a bit mushy when he merely alludes to “physicians and officials,” what today we would call the PMC, without attempting to analyze this class? subclass? any further. Finally, the “infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers” might usefully be seen as foreshadowing the identity politics of today. We might also wish to think about new forms of wage labor derived from the “sharing economy.” Still, all in all, not too shabby for 1894! In all cases, the same set membership function would apply. So Marx is quite the analyst, and I’m going to put the above quote under a notional magnet on my notional refrigerator.
Now let’s do a little speculation. Suppose we agree with what seems to be so: That the Republicans are picking up working class votes across the board (“working class” as defined by Marx, not by “social scientists”, feh; not Hispanic voters who happen to be working class, but working class voters who happen to be Hispanic, and so on for the litany of the usual identities). Is there a common factor that unites them, besides their class membership? I think there is.
When I think about the state of the Union, I think about the systems I might need to enter to live (that is, to reproduce my labor power): The health care system, the financial system, the law enforcement system, the judicial system, the educational system, the welfare system, and so on. There is not one of these systems that I would enter without fear or anxiety, or that I would entrust family or friends to. They are one and all infested by administrative caltrops and rental extraction, such that the delivery of actual service to a citizen is the result of luck, as much as anything. They ruin the quality of life and, for that matter, death. And, as I point out here, these are, one and all, institutions controlled and managed by the Professional and Managerial Class. So one might urge that a major factor in Trump’s success is that for the first time, working class voters can give a “gigantic upraised middle finger” to the officious betrayer sitting on the other side of the desk, to their class enemies in the PMC. Trump, in his person, incarnates this gesture, verbally, through his behavior, through the enemies he has made, and in every way. Do note, however, that there is no policy aspect to “giving the bird.” That is, I think, too much to ask. So in that sense, and that sense only, the Republicans are the party of (and not by, or for) the working class.
NOTES I am laying it on a bit thick, here. There are exceptional, as well as hegemonic, PMC. Nurses who treat their patients humanely, for example, being exceptional. But the tendency of all these systems is hegemonic, and they are as productive of fear and loathing as I have described.  But if that’s what you want from the first Trump administration, it’s there: (1) Trumped nuked a second NAFTA, the TPP, on his first day in office; (2) the CARES Act actually reduced poverty (and Biden promptly took it away); and (3) Trump didn’t start any land wars, and so there were no casualities in the rural and heartland districts that disproportionately fill the ranks of the military. And even though the capitalists got a big tax cut, (4) Trump did away with the Obama mandate penalty, saving me, by a happy coincidence, $600 in taxes.
I looked at “Republicans” and “working class” in Google Trends:
I guess the moral is that the discussion embodied in this post takes place in a very small segment of the population!