Thursday, June 8, 2017

Class Resentment and the Center-Left, or the Politics of "We Are the 80%"

I’ve just read the suitably downbeat piece by Thomas Edsall about the travails of the Democratic Party in today’s New York Times.  Edsall, citing a recent symposium of political strategists in The American Prospect and a report by Priorities USA, a DP polling outfit, describes the widespread abandonment of both the center and the left by a wide swath of the American working class.  As he says, it’s not just that working class (non-college) Trump voters have opted for “populism”; their political disposition radically excludes activist government programs, multiculturalism, and other principles that no one on the left could reasonably run against.

Evidence from public opinion polls depends on the questions pollsters take to the people.  Questions are framed in particular ways to test the suppositions in the pollsters’ minds, which means it’s difficult to find evidence for suppositions they aren’t considering.  That in turn means that those of us with different hypotheses can only speculate, at least until the stories we tell get enough traction that pollsters and focus group organizers decide to test them out.

A further caveat is that the population is extraordinarily diverse, and almost any hypothesis is going to be true for someone.  The question is not who is “right”, but how influential particular political trends are among various portions of the electorate, in combination with other trends.

So here is one approach, based on a quote Edsall culled from Nick Gourevitch, a contractor for Priorities USA:
So it may be that within economically distressed communities, the individuals who found Trump appealing (or who left Obama for Trump) were the ones where the cultural and racial piece was a strong part of the reason why they went in that direction. So I guess my take is that it’s probably not economics alone that did it. Nor is it racism/cultural alienation alone that did it. It’s probably that mixture.
How to think about this interaction?

When the left thinks about inequality and the legitimate grievances of the working class, its target is generally “Wall Street” or the “billionaire class”.  The pitchforks should be waved at the one percent of the one percent, the tycoons who wield inordinate influence over government and get policies that enhance their wealth and power at the expense of the rest of us.  But the “populist” vote in 2016 went for a billionaire (or someone who claims to be while hiding his tax records).  What gives?

I suspect most people upset with inequality tend to blame the class directly above them, the one they interact with most.  If so, consider a rough four-class model of the US.  On the bottom are the poor and the precariate, desperate to make ends meet month to month or even day to day.  Relatively few of them vote, and when they do they tend to go for Democrats because they know how much they depend on social programs.  They are driven less by ideological fervor than flat out necessity.  Above them is the main portion of the working class.  They are vulnerable to shocks like severe accidents or illnesses or regional economic downturns, but for the most part they don’t feel they have to vote for reasons of personal protection or benefit; they have the luxury of ideological voting.  They’ve gotten shafted for generations.  Going up the ladder, the next group we find is the upper-middle class, roughly the upper 20%.  They’ve had some periodic stress, but overall they’ve made out rather well.  Nearly all the economic growth we’ve experienced in this century has gone to them.  They tend to have economic views in line with their station and otherwise adopt a relatively cosmopolitan perspective, itself a reflection of their roles in the “new economy”.  And at the top is the capitalist class, those who own or control the bulk of society’s wealth.  While no cutoff is perfect in identifying them, they represent approximate the upper .01% of the income distribution.  They play the largest role in funding and positioning the two major political parties.

Now here’s the thing: what happens if classes blame the one above?  If you’re in the upper-middle class and you’re angry about how unequal this society has become, your target is the ultra-rich.  There’s no one else to blame unless you want to denounce yourself and your friends.  Hence “we are the 99%”.  But if you’re in the main portion of the working class, and you feel the country has become fundamentally unfair, you’re likely to take it out on the upper-middles.  These are your direct bosses, people in government offices that give you a hard time, teachers who send notes home with your kids, and media people who tell you how backward and misguided you are.  Those are the “liberals”, the ones who think more education and a cushier job gives them the right to ignore you.  Whenever the problems of lousy jobs or no jobs comes up, their one solution is to tell you to go back to school, get better grades this time, and be like them.  Resentment is not hard to come by.

My experience in the classroom is that few students from working class backgrounds even know there is a capitalist class or that it has influence.  They see the country being run by folks like me, and politics comes down to whether you think that’s good or bad.

So what about racism and nativism?  The dynamics are complicated, but I suspect an aggravating factor, and one that brings economics and bigotry together, is that the push for multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism is seen as coming from the upper middle class.  From a purely logical or empirical point of view, there’s not much basis for the notion that working class hardship is the result of affirmative action, immigration or even specific trade deals (with the possible exception of the accession of China to the WTO).  Most of it is about the evolution of capitalism, which has resulted from a range of political decisions and non-decisions under the guiding influence of the capitalists themselves.  But if economic protest takes the form of resenting the class one rung above, the fact that the upper middle class is strongly identified with liberal values and programs is how economics and culture come together for a large number of workers.*

Incidentally, the campaign of Hilary Clinton was disastrous from this perspective precisely because it combined an aggressive advocacy of cultural liberalism with an economic outlook oblivious to the problems faced by the majority of the population.  It was practically an advertisement for right wing populism.

Again, all of this is speculative.  I have no evidence to back up any of this, other than personal observation, and that may be wrong too—I might be misinterpreting what I hear.  But it would be interesting to do some opinion research to find out if there’s an element of truth.

*Note that I use the term “working class” and not “white working class”.  The Democrats have suffered an erosion of support across the working class, and it would be a mistake to assume that workers of color automatically favor government programs to aid people of color worse of than them or more liberal immigration policies—or at least that their advocacy is strong enough to convince them to cast a vote.

19 comments:

Bruce Wilder said...

". . . the upper .01% of the income distribution. They play the largest role in funding and positioning the two major political parties."
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I highlight the above key to your analysis, because while class is a necessary and maybe for the purposes of your analysis, an invariant aspect of the political structure of a hierarchical political economy, the financing and operation of political parties is not.
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The neoliberal turn in politics eventually put both major American political parties into the hands of a few billionaires and giant corporations and, arguably, both Party establishments found themselves alienated from their electoral bases in the most recent election cycle.
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It is theoretically conceivable that some of the 20% should work for membership or cooperative organizations rather than billionaires and giant corporate enterprises seeking to manipulate and feed on the working and previously merely middle class. Compared to the first half of the 20th century when upper class Progressives were leading populist farmers and unionizing industrial workers in reform and the erection of institutions of countervailing power, our present political arrangements can make little use of social and political organization below. American society bowls alone and the apparatus of mobilization is largely an apparatus of media manipulation from the top-down. Moreover, while there was great geographical dispersion and diversity in the first half of the 20th century, the present American class and economic hierarchy is remarkably concentrated and homogeneous. A few financial and media behemoths dominate and complex systems of networked control consolidate their domination, and the staff attendant to this system forms a remarkably homogeneous group concentrated in a few geographic centers.

Bruce Wilder said...

I would think it rather obvious that people resent down as well as up.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I have no data on this, Peter, but this is an insightful post that I think has a lot of truth in it.

Anonymous said...

@Bruce Wilder -- I think it might be more accurate to say that people resent one class up, and fear one class down.

Anonymous said...

There is some research relevant to Peter's hypothesis. Start with a very interesting study related in The New Minority by Prof Justin Gest at George Mason. His data focused on working-class attitudes toward minorities, but it is not inconsistent with Peter's hypothesis about blame and resentment. A comfortably-retired senior officer and later senior bureaucrat at DOT, and HHS, I thought there was stinging truth reflected in this post.

Assuming Peter is dead on, how can things be turned around and the "working class" feel respected? Surely bailing out Wall Street but not Main Street was an epic blunder. However, that toothpaste is out of the tube, and the DNC still seems oblivious of that problem.

While kind-hearted people ruminate about Trumpism, they continue to act against the interests of the working class and have succeeded in hamstringing the Federal Government by failing to appoint leaders, gutting budgets, and pissing off almost every US ally in the entire world.

Alas, we seem to be fiddling while Rome burns, and we should hear a refrain from the lower 80%: "If you're so smart, why could you let this happen?" The sad fact is that the .01% control us too, and we are living in the REAL House of Cards.

Mark Gisleson said...

This is consistent with resentment of teachers' salaries in many depressed rural areas. In fact, having grown up in such an area, I find this 'resentment' theory quite compelling. The rich love to accuse the Left of resentment, then foment that same impulse as leverage against teachers and govt, workers.

lph said...

"precariat" ???

who is your audience? clerly not the 80% you are writing about.

lph said...

clearly

Peter Dorman said...

Dear Iph: my intended audience is you.

John k said...

Really don't agree regarding trade, including guest workers, illegals, trade deals, h1b, etc, plus moving factories to Mexico, etc.
All a successful policy to push down wages and push up profits.
Bernie's success brought in many in the bottom half, certainly they responded to his anti billionaire attacks, no doubt also to higher wages and uni health care.
Higher wages helps workers only if protected from foreign competition, hamburger flippers will lose higher wage jobs if illegals not stopped, just as higher paid factory workers would need tariffs.
No support from bottom half for continuation of past 30 years policies.
Course dems and reps will continue taking money to continue as long as possible.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter, I've read a very similar perspective from my favorite (now retired) blogger JM Greer:

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2016/01/donald-trump-and-politics-of-resentment.html

Relevant:

...you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

... There’s a vast amount that could be said about the four major classes just outlined, but I want to focus on the political dimension, because that’s where they take on overwhelming relevance as the 2016 presidential campaign lurches on its way. Just as the four classes can be identified by way of a very simple question, the political dynamite that’s driving the blowback mentioned earlier can be seen by way of another simple question: over the last half century or so, how have the four classes fared?

The answer, of course, is that three of the four have remained roughly where they were. The investment class has actually had a bit of a rough time, as many of the investment vehicles that used to provide it with stable incomes—certificates of deposit, government bonds, and so on—have seen interest rates drop through the floor. Still, alternative investments and frantic government manipulations of stock market prices have allowed most people in the investment class to keep up their accustomed lifestyles.

The salary class, similarly, has maintained its familiar privileges and perks through a half century of convulsive change. Outside of a few coastal urban areas currently in the grip of speculative bubbles, people whose income comes mostly from salaries can generally afford to own their homes, buy new cars every few years, leave town for annual vacations, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, the welfare class has continued to scrape by pretty much as before, dealing with the same bleak realities of grinding poverty, intrusive government bureacracy, and a galaxy of direct and indirect barriers to full participation in the national life, as their equivalents did back in 1966.

And the wage class? Over the last half century, the wage class has been destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful analysis. It's hardly an accident most in America are only aware of the class just above them. Class is a taboo subject in America and is never taught to school children. The incredible class privilege and inherited wealth of American historical figures is never discussed. Figures as disparate as George Washington and Helen Keller are presented to school children as self-made figures who succeed merely by grit and willpower when really it was money and class advantage that made their successes and life stories possible. The same is true today of our contemporary success stories. Read any fawning NYT profile of a young successful power-broker like Jared Kushner or Gavin Newsome. They always sound super-human and so impressive. Making millions of dollars and conquering the world in their thirties. But if you dig in and read a little bit into their backgrounds their secrets are revealed. Kushner's father was an ethically challenged real estate tycoon that spent millions buying his young mediocre son's way into Harvard. Newsome's father was a well-connected Federal judge and the personal money manager for the Getty fortune who helped his son score big with a few sweetheart deals he would have otherwise never been privilege to. These things simply are not publicized as doing so would embarrass powerful people and destroy the Horatio Alger myth of American meritocracy that is needed to keep bottom 80% of Americans invested in the current system.

I agree with your observations except for one point: "From a purely logical or empirical point of view, there’s not much basis for the notion that working class hardship is the result of affirmative action, immigration or even specific trade deals (with the possible exception of the accession of China to the WTO)

If you are a native-born, working-class (low skill), citizen and you happen to live in an area that has seen a massive influx of foreign born labor (not everyone does) it stands to reason by the simple laws of supply and demand you have seen your employment opportunities and your wage bargaining power vastly diminished. It doesn't require any stretch of the imagination or racism to reach this conclusion. If the industry that you formerly found gainful employment in has experienced a influx of illegal labor then the negative effects of mass immigration will be multiplied as illegal laborers work off the books for cash and are more easily exploited. Their employment is a total end-run around state protections designed to protect workers from unscrupulous employers. Their availability drags down the wages of everyone attempting to earn a living in their vocation. I live in Los Angeles and you will hardly ever hear a word of english being spoken on a construction site. Do you think the native born construction workers who pay taxes, comply with regulations and have higher costs don't understand why they are consistently underbid for jobs?

Yes, nativist sentiment abounds among low-education voters, but its not always unfounded. Low education means low skill and low credentials. These are the people who are forced to compete for the low skills jobs most often taken by new immigrants. People don't swim the Rio Grande then walk into a job at Goldman Sachs or as a surgeon, but they sure do make cheap gardeners and nannies for the people that do. Illegal immigration like every other economic policy in America clearly benefits one class of person while disadvantaging another. What is taught on campus at Stanford in Econ 101 and what happens in reality are frequently very different and racism has very little to do with it.

Anonymous said...

@Anon
JMG is not retired, he is starting a new blog at http://www.ecosophia.net/

Kris said...

"There’s no one else to blame unless you want to denounce yourself and your friends."

I completely disagree with the assumption here that no one would do this. In fact, I think a lot of people are perfectly aware that, unless they are on the bottom, they and their friends and peers are part of a system that is the problem, and that the country would be a better place even for them if things were distributed more fairly.

Senator-Elect said...

I would throw managerialism into this (although you briefly mention bosses as being in the 20%). Financialization and neoliberalism have pushed all organizations to install professional managers everywhere (lots of MBAs and accountants). These managers are cost cutters and make the dumb decisions that working people love to tell each other about, all while making six figures. This creates the cynicism that is a big part of populism. And I would argue that this cynicism has been warranted lately and that left-wing populism is the answer. The 20% have clearly failed in important ways. Again, however, it is the ideology of financial capitalism and neoliberalism that has driven this failure.

Jon Cloke said...

You seem to be under the impression that a) pollsters are neutral and objective analysts of important social trends, and b) that the role of the MSM in whatever trends there are is again neutral and analytical, rather than being the deliberate creator of such trends, which they most assuredly are.

Is it really to be assumed, for instance, that Frank Luntz is only interested in teasing out the delicate nuances of changes in US citizen thought to explain them to the public? Or is he in reality working out what worries and frightens people in the US so that he can sell a scheme to his right-wing employers to take advantage of those fears? I'll give you a clue; the answer's number 2.

Next, the US MSM since the collapse of the Socialist Bloc in 1990-91 has increasingly sold itself to its' advertisers rather than the people who buy copies. this inevitably leads to an increasingly right-wing perspective, and when more and more of this garbage, based on the premise that fear and outrage = bums on seats, overwhelms the populace with sensory overload, the MSM and specialist right-wing media paramilitaries like Fox, turn round triumphantly and say "See! We're just reporting what the people believe..!"

So, two sides of the same coin; pollsters and MSM feed off each other in an unpleasant symbiotic relationship where each side feeds off the rage-fuelled, psychotic imaginings of the other. And Rupert Murdoch and Sinclair get fat off the profits...

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Anonymous said...

dictionary.com says "Did you mean procreate?"