One of the major narratives about working-class white Americans - white people without college degrees - has been that they vote against their economic interests. They have shifted to the right since the mid-1990s and support policies that may preserve their cultural identity but do little to address their economic downslide. Restricting abortion is a winning issue with them, but not raising the minimum wage. Banning critical race theory is a top priority, but not universal health care.
Consider Barack Obama’s infamous 2008 remarks about Midwestern working-class voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
I imagine that Obama regrets the language used here. But I believe he was essentially correct. Midwestern working-class voters (implied here is that the voters are white) are struggling economically, and instead of pushing their representatives to address those economic concerns, they turn their attention to issues of culture and identity.
In the 2016 election, for example, data suggests that “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.”
In a prior piece of mine, I described the (white) American story. Let me repeat it here:
America is a unique 'city on a hill' founded on Christian faith and Western principles. Husband-led nuclear families, given the freedom to farm and build businesses, spread out across this land and turned it into the greatest nation on earth. There have been some injustices along the way, but Americans have corrected those mistakes. The history of the United States is primarily one of economic, scientific, and moral progress. You succeed based on what you and your family can do. Social support from the government is unnecessary, and 'isms' like racism or sexism are so rare as to be unworthy of mention.
This is what working-class Americans are trying to preserve, trying to remake. And they voted for a president in the last two elections who promised to do just that.
This story does not explicitly mention race. But the brush strokes of Christian faith, western principles, rejection of government assistance for the disadvantaged, and a rejection of racism paint that picture clearly.
Conservative working-class white Americans are voting for their racial identity instead of class identity. These are the “wages of whiteness,” described by sociologist WEB Du Bois.
Du Bois was a Black sociologist working in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a co-founder of the NAACP. He put forth an explanation as to how wealthy whites in the south convinced poor southern whites to vote against their economic interests. Du Bois argued that whiteness was a form of compensation – a benefit of being a member of the dominant racial group. Poor white people voted for the identity of being white, and the status and privileges that go along with it.
And so, as Joshua Zeitz wrote in his excellent piece:
In most Southern states, poor whites and wealthy whites forged a coalition that overthrew biracial Reconstruction governments and passed a raft of laws that greatly benefited plantation and emerging industrial elites at the expense of small landowners, tenant farmers and factory workers.
Zeitz goes on to argue that Trump voters in 2016 were voting for their racial identity. As Thomas Frank opined in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he chronicled the rightward shift of the white working class in the state in which he grew up.
But there is some evidence now that the white working class is willing to trade in “some” of those whiteness wages for actual economic ones.
Trading in the wages of whiteness
In a recent episode of the PBS show Firing Line, host Margaret Hoover interviewed Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The interview was about Continetti’s recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.
In the interview, Continetti mentioned some facts I was aware of, but never considered seriously. He points out that white college degree holders have fled the Republican Party. The trend that Continetti points out, this “diploma divide,” has been ongoing since at least the 2000 presidential election and has been discussed in many outlets.
But Continetti draws a reasonable conclusion that less educated - and presumably less economically well-off - voters in the Republican Party will be less concerned with the traditional Republican issues of limiting government and entitlement reform. Instead, he says, they will want those entitlements. They are going to want their Medicare and social security. And some polls suggest that they are beginning to want universal health care, with disapproval among Republicans as a whole declining.
This dynamic will play out most among older voters.
Economic necessity will compel this group to include in their “City on a Hill” appearances from Uncle Sam. If Continetti is right, then the well-worn strategy by GOP leaders of tying entitlements to people of color, and instead urging their poorer constituents to vote for tax cuts that favor “job creators” (read: the wealthy) may fall flat.
This would be a remarkable change, as so much of whiteness has been connected to rejecting government assistance, even as that assistance can save lives. The paradigmatic work on this phenomenon is Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.
Moreover, white working-class millennials are more secular and liberal than their older counterparts. They are also less likely to identify as conservative, even as they vote Republican. This looks like the makings of a different cohort of white working-class voters, with profound consequences in the future.
Some have made the argument that these changes among younger white working-class voters will lead to them abandoning the GOP and embracing progressive causes.
I am not ready to go that far. But at least this group, being more secular and liberal, is rejecting the white Christian nationalist focus currently dominating the party. This rejection may occur even as they continue to embrace fiscal conservatism. In other words, this is a pro-business and pro-small government voter who is not as eager to organize their politics so tightly around whiteness and the platforming of white Christian heterosexual norms.
They won’t be freaked out about the growing presence of queer persons in society. They won’t have an irrational stance towards immigration where they imagine a viable wall can be built stretching across our southern border, keeping out a brown horde they imagined. They won’t be so keen on passing draconian abortion laws. If another Black person is again elected president, it won’t suggest to them that they are losing “their” country.
Trends suggest that younger white working-class Americans, as well as their older counterparts, are willing to trade in some of their wages of whiteness for real economic benefits.
This has the potential to improve the economic fortunes of all Americans.
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