The Rise and Fall of the White Working Class

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tags: election 2016, Trump

Stephen W. Campbell is a lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and earned his doctorate in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

It’s an election year and if the past is prologue, cable news outlets will devote significant attention to the Democratic Party’s struggles with white, working-class voters, despite the party’s success with other demographic groups. As each year goes by, white, working-class voters make up a shrinking percentage of the electorate, but because so many of them live in the politically important “battleground” states, their decisions could decide the make-up of the US Senate and oval office. Media coverage of this topic could benefit greatly from historical insight on the complex and interlocking roles of race, class, anti-intellectualism, and government policy.

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In colonial Virginia in 1676, an interracial populist revolt led by Nathaniel Bacon shook the colony’s planter elite to its core. To placate the rebels’ demands, Virginia’s political leaders eliminated property requirements for voting and began to more aggressively encroach on Indian lands so that poor farmers would have more economic opportunity. White Virginians also started importing larger numbers of African slaves around this time and for historian Edmund Morgan, this was no coincidence. The threat of poor whites serving alongside blacks was wholly unacceptable to Virginia’s master class. By 1705, they had enacted a series of restrictive slave codes that denied blacks the traditional rights of Englishmen, including freedom of assembly, expression, mobility, the right to bear arms, and protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The codes also imposed fines for interracial marriage and formalized the practice of linking a person’s legal status with the mother. This meant that if a master raped his female slave and the slave became pregnant, the master might one day profit, shockingly, from his violent act.

About seventy years later, white Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, Morgan argued, had the luxury of thinking idealistically about self-government precisely because they had enshrined a permanent underclass of laborers to support their material needs. Slavery had effectively removed the class tensions wrought by Bacon’s Rebellion. For non-slaveholding whites in the South, no matter how bad it ever got, they always had someone below them. Freedom for some depended on the enslavement of others.

Racial resentment is by no means a requirement for belief in limited government, but it is striking nonetheless that so often in American history the two have been intertwined. Jefferson, known famously for defending individual liberties against governmental tyranny, outlined some of the earliest iterations of modern scientific racism in his Notes on the State of Virginia. During the early republic, many of Jefferson’s fellow southerners voiced constitutional objections to federal funding for internal improvements as a proxy for their racial fears. If a powerful federal government could finance transportation projects, then in the hands of a northern abolitionist president, it could also wipe out slavery. There were certainly times when white southerners abandoned their penchant for limited government as the Louisiana Purchase and various fugitive slave acts demonstrated, but this ideological deviation almost always protected slavery.

Such was the case during the Indian Removal controversy under Andrew Jackson’s presidency. White Georgia farmers had been illegally overrunning Cherokee lands, which contained a valuable commodity, gold, and some of the world’s best soil for growing cotton. When Congress narrowly passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, voting bifurcated along sectional lines. The Constitution’s three-fifths clause, which inflated southerners’ political power in the House of Representatives, likely proved decisive in enabling passage. A bit later in the antebellum period, southern intellectuals developed an apologia of the South’s “peculiar institution” on the grounds that they needed slaves to provide the free time necessary for participation in republican institutions. In the words of James Henry Hammond, George McDuffie, and Alexander Stephens, slavery was the “corner-stone” upon which a free society depended.

When Stephens and other planters launched a war of secession in 1860 to protect the approximately $3 billion worth of wealth based on human property, poor, non-slaveholding whites rallied to their defense, serving in large numbers for the Confederate armies. To understand why, we must realize that they not only benefited economically from slavery in multiple ways, but felt a common racial identity with planters; an identity that had been forged in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion. Surviving Confederate soldiers suffered the humiliation of defeat, but in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, they helped to form one of the United States’s longest-standing domestic terrorist organizations, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). And in the brief window before ratification of Reconstruction-era amendments to the Constitution, southern states passed a series of Black Codes that demonstrated whites’ vengeful determination to re-impose slavery under another name. Much like the Virginia Slave Codes of 160 years earlier, the Black Codes forbid interracial marriage, outlawed gun ownership, and severely restricted African Americans’ mobility, right to assemble, freedom of speech, and employment prospects. If little had changed in the 160-year interval between the slave codes and black codes, one wonders how much racial progress we have made in the 150 years that have transpired since Reconstruction.

Perhaps no other example demonstrates the egregious, nefarious empowerment of whites at the expense of non-whites than the infamous grandfather clause of the Jim Crow era. While watching the Republican Party make gains in the North and West, segregationist Democrats—who are much closer ideologically speaking to Republicans today—resolved to lock up what would later be called “the solid South.” To do this, they had to make voting extremely difficult for African Americans, who voted overwhelmingly Republican. Among the sundry voting gimmicks implemented by southern Democrats were poll taxes, literacy tests, and laws that disfranchised voters with a criminal record; laws that overwhelmingly targeted African Americans and are still on the books in places like Kentucky and Florida, which would undoubtedly cease to be a closely contested state today were these laws confined to the dustbin of history. The trouble was that the Jim Crow era literacy test was also disfranchising poor, illiterate whites in the South, and since Democrats needed these voters to win elections, they designed an escape hatch: the grandfather clause. Voters whose grandfathers had voted before the Civil War could bypass the literacy test. It would be difficult to design a more obvious, racially-targeted voter scheme. The ancestors of almost all African Americans were slaves and therefore could not vote. They still had to take the arbitrarily enforced, convoluted, and unreasonably defined literacy tests, and unsurprisingly, African American voter participation fell off a cliff.

The totality of these examples point to a recurring, racially-based “divide and conquer” strategy. It was not confined to the South and was not limited to black-white relations. Students of labor history know how corporate bosses in the late-nineteenth century undermined labor activism by inflaming ethnic tensions. The owners of capital succeeded marvelously in getting industrial workers to be angry at each other rather than at the “robber barons.” This concept is central to helping us answer the age-old conundrum of why the United States has never contained a majoritarian socialist tradition along the same lines as those contained in other western, industrialized democracies. While there may be elements of truth in traditional explanations—widespread access to land (for whites); religious devotion; individualism; the Cold War; the Supreme Court’s use of judicial review to strike down pro-worker legislation—the ability of the nation’s plutocrats to successfully use race, identity, and psychology to prevent the formation of inter-class coalitions stands as persuasive as ever.

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Historians are trained to detect broad patterns of continuity and change over space and time. In the 1960s, African American civil rights activists marched for the actualization of rights that they had technically achieved, at least on paper, nearly one hundred years earlier, including voting rights and an end to discrimination in public facilities. They won some notable successes under President Lyndon Johnson, but Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, appealed to the racial resentments of white, working-class voters, who objected vehemently to using taxpayer dollars to help non-white peoples. The now-infamous “Southern Strategy” helped Republicans win the White House for twenty out of the next twenty-four years by siphoning Democratic votes away from the collapsing New Deal coalition. It is in this context that Ronald Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair speech of 1980 must be understood. Delivering his speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the location where three prominent civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964, Reagan asserted his belief in “states’ rights.” The predominantly white crowd cheered but African Americans knew at the time what Reagan meant. This was coded, “dog-whistle” politics, and a watered-down version of what segregationists had recently advocated.

The white, working-class may have voted for Reagan in large numbers, but it was during his presidency, and even prior to it, that the 300-year relationship between poor and wealthier whites began to unravel. Wages stagnated and the middle-class lost ground. It was not just that Reagan fired air traffic controllers. Automation, outsourcing, deindustrialization, free trade deals, austerity, de-unionization, deregulation, and other tenets of neoliberalism took root in the 1970s and 80s and stayed there, even under Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This left many non-college-educated whites with legitimate grievances. Rising health care and tuition squeezed hard-working families. CEOs lined their pockets with stock buybacks while raiding workers’ pensions. The United States reached levels of income inequality not seen since the 1920s.

Because these were—and are—complex, structural forces operating on a global scale, it can be difficult to see them at work, particularly if one believes that success or failure in life depends on individual choice alone. Sociologist Victor Tan Chen observes that those without a college degree are likely to see success as a result of individual effort. This mentality can lead to self-destructive habits when things do not work out. It should be no surprise that opioid consumption, alcoholism, and suicide have reached alarming levels among the white, working-class today. Hyper-individualism may also lead some to blame the wrong people for their problems. Those who are frustrated about the elusive nature of the “American Dream” might direct their ire toward those “illegals” crossing the border. Missing, unfortunately, is the more compelling narrative that the “American Dream” itself is flawed, materialistic, and contradictory; or that the Lloyd Blankfeins, Jamie Dimons, and Martin Shkrelis of the world, much more than immigrants, are the source of one’s woes.

Some commentators of late have faulted Democrats, because of their elitist mentality and prioritization of neoliberal policies, for losing the working-class vote. In his most recent book , Listen Liberal, Thomas Frank argues that Clinton-style Democrats have abandoned their historical ties to the common people in favor of suburban professionals. Frank’s points are valid. By signing NAFTA, a punitive crime bill, welfare reform, and financial deregulation (one cause of the Great Recession), Bill Clinton brought irreparable harm to millions of ordinary Americans. The most recent economic downturn was also a missed opportunity for progressives to implement a large-scale public works program. Our roads, bridges, water, and sewage systems are in dire need of update and repair. Interest rates were recently at an all-time low, which would have been ideal for investment in infrastructure. A twenty-first century New Deal—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or “stimulus,” was too paltry to address the severity of the crisis—might have alleviated at least some of the suffering that plagues today’s working-class. It might have reminded millions of Americans, in spite of incessant right-wing and libertarian attacks on “government spending,” that there is a long, robust, and successful history of governments shaping and regulating markets with praiseworthy results.

A more questionable assessment of Democratic Party woes comes from Emmett Rensin, who identifies liberals’ “smug” attitude as a major source of their failure to attract white, working-class voters. Wittingly or not, Rensin invokes the rhetoric of Newt Gingrich, whom historian Heather Cox Richardson views as a key figure in ushering in a more divisive era of hyper-partisanship. Calling Democrats “elites” who want to take away other peoples’ freedom was a major part of Gingrich’s playbook and so it is with Rensin. Educated, liberal professionals for Rensin inhabit only a narrow patch of land along the country’s two coasts and are “beating full retreat to the colleges and the cities.” They condescendingly disparage what Sarah Palin would call the “real Americans.” How a professor, living on food stamps, struggling to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of student loans, and working on a temporary basis without health care (as so many professors do nowadays), could be considered “elite” is beyond comprehension.

But let’s give Rensin and Frank the benefit of the doubt in that what they really mean is that liberals’ cultural elitism is turning off voters. Even here there is little for which to apologize. If we substitute the word “knowledgeable” for the word “elite,” it is hard to see how this could be a liability. Knowledge, research, and education, under this thinking, are not keys to a fulfilling life, tools to eradicate ignorance, or avenues for an expansive, multi-faceted way of looking at the world, but qualities to hide for fear of offending others’ insecurities. The rejoinder of the “snobbish” liberal is a canard. It is as predictable as it is empty. Like the myth of the “liberal media,” it is a convenient conversation-stopper and shallow cop-out that inhibits any deep engagement with ideas and evidence.

There are other issues with Rensin’s work. He disapprovingly cites academic studies here and here, but does not take the time to address these articles’ presumed flaws—methodological, interpretative, or otherwise. Furthermore, there is little to no discussion in Rensin’s piece on how the white, working-class has historically enabled wealthier Americans to stay wealthy or how average whites received benefits from the federal government at the expense of non-white peoples. Whether it was participating in the right to vote as part of the world’s first mass political party, the Jacksonian Democrats, or whether it was the administration of the New Deal’s FHA, social security, or GI Bill, which deliberately excluded non-white peoples from taxpayer benefits, even the least fortunate of white men in America could count on some minimal form of economic security in America just by being white. The roughly 300-year period between Bacon’s Rebellion and the ascent of neoliberalism in the 1970s far eclipses the current forty-year slide of the white, working-class. Ignoring the forty-year descent of the white, working-class that has taken place since the rise of neoliberalism would be insensitive, but glossing over the even longer 300-year period between Bacon’s Rebellion and the 1970s misses a fundamental paradigm in American history.

The greatest flaw in the notion that liberal “elites” are to blame for losing the white, working-class is that it seems to excuse the ways in which GOP leaders have appropriated racism and ignorance to win elections. The GOP’s political success in recent years has come to rely more and more on a toxic stew of free market fundamentalism, jingoism, exaggerated racial fears, and devotion to discriminatory religious views. Linking all of these ideologies together is an anti-intellectual stubbornness that is altogether pernicious, insidious, and pervasive. For a dangerously high percentage of Americans, facts that are easily testable and verifiable in an empirical sense have come under undue scrutiny if they conflict with Big Business’s bottom line. Climate denialism is the best example. The digital age has made more quality information available to us within seconds than at any time in our history and yet a truly informed discourse is more elusive than ever. Our politicians use sophomoric language with the most conservative members of Congress, on average, speaking at the lowest grade level equivalent.

This has not been lost on some of the most astute political commentators, who have pinpointed the extreme, rightward trajectory of the Republican Party. In an often-quoted op-ed published in the Washington Post, Norm Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann argued, “The GOP… is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science.” This was spot on. This should have shifted the parameters of acceptable debate, especially because Ornstein, a conservative working at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mann were experienced and highly regarded for their work. Unfortunately, the inside-the-beltway media, which too often prioritizes ratings, advertising, and entertainment over the public sphere, and which always looks to uphold the pretense of “balance” and “objectivity,” ostracized the two. But the fact remains that as a regular order of doing business, the GOP has opted for government shutdowns, filibusters, and unprecedented obstruction, which is eerily similar to the type of foot-dragging on racial progress that took place in the aftermath of Brown v. Board’s mandate of school integration, when conservative white southerners moved at a snail’s pace, often opting to send their children to private, Christian schools or moving to close down public schools altogether. Most speeches from Republican Party leaders are devoid of substance, lacking any specificity, complexity, or nuanced understanding of how the world works. Too many Republicans have a knee-jerk, nihilistic opposition to Obama’s policy proposals, even when these proposals are centrist or conservative. They have lost any sense of proportionality, accepting without batting an eye that the Benghazi “scandal” deserves far more attention than the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There are many factors that have contributed to this sorry state of affairs. Forty years of simplistic, anti-government rhetoric and twenty-five years of hate-filled talk radio have converted an otherwise apathetic public into a large mass of reactionary, gullible, and tribalistic voters who stand ready to wave the American flag in the name of “freedom” and support the invasion of a country that had no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and no prior relationship with al Quaeda. A conservative Supreme Court, first with Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which paved the way for the more disastrous Citizens’ United decision (2010), has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of unlimited campaign spending on the legally dubious grounds that corporate personhood is protected by our constitution. Our members of Congress now spend the majority of their time begging rich people for money rather than legislating for the common good. The huge Republican majority in the House, almost exclusively a result of gerrymandering, currently insulates the average representative from having to appeal to a multi-racial, broader electorate.

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Stepping into this politically tumultuous election year is the bombastic, misogynistic birther, Donald Trump, currently on the cusp of securing the Republican Party nomination, who has so completely shattered the conventional wisdom that pundits are having a hard time adjusting. He is not an orthodox conservative and has not served in politics or the military – normally a prerequisite for any presidential candidate. Some research indicates that because his support crosses ideological, educational, geographical, and religious lines, it is not so much the white, working-class that is fueling Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric, though this is certainly part of it, but an authoritarian mindset. This relates to the conclusion among some political scientists that what best differentiates liberals from conservatives is the brain’s physiological response to negative stimuli. Compared to liberals, conservatives tend to react more intensely to negative stimuli. Translating this into real-world policy preferences, people who more viscerally perceive threats to the status quo—think immigrants for example—will look to a strongman to restore order, obedience, and tradition, even if it requires extreme policies or a major expansion of government resources.

Tons of digital ink will be spilled dissecting the various motivations for Trump voters, but what is painfully clear is the racism, a part of the Republican Party’s political success going back to the 1960s. It is impossible to analyze Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” with any critical lens and not see race as part of the equation. As with the Tea Party mantra “take our country back,” minorities hear these phrases and think, “take me back to a time when I didn’t have rights.” Racially discriminatory voter ID laws, enacted almost exclusively by Republicans, and virtually non-existent before 2006, are signs that Republicans have given up on persuading undecided voters. They’d rather tamper with election laws to suppress turnout among voters they wish did not exist. A provision in a Texas voter ID law that accepts gun permits but not student IDs as a valid form of identification seems deliberately designed to get whites to support tax cuts and deregulation and at the same time impose onerous restrictions on a more ethnically diverse electorate that is unlikely to support these policies. When viewed alongside mass incarceration and the “war on drugs,” voter ID laws lend credence to what author Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow.”

Those determined to ignore the influence of race in American politics should consult the relationship between demography, geography, and voting patterns. Compared to the performances of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, Obama performed better in virtually every region of the country. One exception was Appalachia. This region, populated by fiercely individualistic Scots-Irish and German immigrants since the colonial era, extends from northern Alabama to eastern Kentucky and western Pennsylvania. In another part of the South—one that is culturally, geographically, and economically distinct from Appalachia—Obama has had more success. Antebellum Americans called it the “cotton belt” for obvious reasons. Slaves were often a majority of the population in these counties and many of their descendants—those who did not participate in various “Great Migrations” to escape racism and discrimination—have become Obama voters today, creating a thin crescent of blue in an otherwise solid sea of red. Yet whites here are more likely to oppose affirmative action, harbor racial resentment, and hold negative views of blacks. All of these trends point to the historical legacy of slavery and how racial attitudes get passed down over the generations.

The combination of the nation’s first African American president and the worst recession since the 1930s contributed to an explosion in white nationalist hate groups in recent years. When Obama won reelection in 2012, Klan sympathizers started circulating a petition in thirty states for secession. Stormfront, a white nationalist forum headed by a former Alabama Klansman, embraced the cause. Trump has had trouble distancing himself from David Duke and a KKK leader in Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy, supports the business mogul. During the Reagan years, one could argue that the GOP’s racial appeals were subtle. But with Trump, who has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the US and the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants, the racism is inescapable.

The most obvious characteristic of Trump voters is that they feel angry. Part of this anger stems from economic inequality but a major part, whether they will admit it or not, stems from the fear of rapid demographic change. They feel as if something has been taken from them. They are not totally false. They are losing the privilege that has accumulated and redounded to their advantage over generations and almost no one willingly gives up privilege without a fight. The prototypical Trump voter is the descendant of those who benefited from Bacon’s Rebellion; who profited from the lucrative cotton trade that went hand in hand with the domestic slave trade and Indian Removal; who gained the right to vote in the world’s first mass political party; who, despite their illiteracy, still exercised the franchise when others did not because of the grandfather clause; and who attained middle-class status because New Deal policies pulled them up by the bootstraps of government. It matters not whether today’s Trump supporters draw their biological lineage directly to these historical actors—what matters are the larger trends among voting blocs at a structural level, including the economic interests that certain voting blocs serve by their political behavior. They may be angry today because the last forty years have not gone well for them, but in the longue durée of American history, they have fared quite well. Plenty have had it much worse. The poor, often illiterate and unpropertied white male has exercised an outsized role in American politics, and one that has so often protected the economic interests of the wealthy because of racial animus. They should hardly be blaming “elite” historians for exposing them to this reality.

Trump has staked his electoral fortunes on boosting white turnout in the “Rustbelt” states while trying to make inroads among demographic groups that have become increasingly hostile to the Republican Party. This is risky. Non-whites will make up about 30% of the electorate this November. The number of eligible Hispanic voters will jump to 27.3 million, an increase of about 4 million since 2012. While most Hispanic voters live in places like California, New York, and Texas, which will not be competitive, there are significant Hispanic populations in the “purple” states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia. Because the Republican Party has historic advantages in the House, governorships, and state legislatures across the country, they have little incentive to change their racially-based “divide and conquer” strategy. If Trump is elected, all bets are off. If Clinton is elected, gridlock and dysfunction will most likely continue for the foreseeable future. In either case, the sweeping, structural reforms the country so desperately needs will not take place.