Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2005  



Do Workers Understand Their Class Interests?


by Louis Proyect





(Swans - October 24, 2005)   In the aftermath of George W. Bush's 2004 electoral victory, Thomas Frank became the pundit of the moment. In a New York Times article dated only 3 days after the election, Frank put forward the notion that blue-collar voters chose Bush over Kerry because culture (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) trumped economic issues:

The first thing Democrats must try to grasp as they cast their eyes over the smoking ruins of the election is the continuing power of the culture wars. Thirty-six years ago, President Richard Nixon championed a noble "silent majority" while his vice president, Spiro Agnew, accused liberals of twisting the news. In nearly every election since, liberalism has been vilified as a flag-burning, treason-coddling, upper-class affectation. This year voters claimed to rank "values" as a more important issue than the economy and even the war in Iraq...

Like many such movements, this long-running conservative revolt is rife with contradictions. It is an uprising of the common people whose long-term economic effect has been to shower riches upon the already wealthy and degrade the lives of the very people who are rising up. It is a reaction against mass culture that refuses to call into question the basic institutions of corporate America that make mass culture what it is. It is a revolution that plans to overthrow the aristocrats by cutting their taxes.

In some ways, Frank's analysis simply builds upon observations first made around the phenomenon of "Reagan Democrats." Supposedly the Gipper's macho style endeared him to lower income voters who traditionally voted Democrat. Despite their ostensibly pro-working-class economic policies, the Democrats lost because they were "wimpy." In Reagan's time, the emphasis was on appearing more "muscular" vis-a-vis the Soviets, while today it is on "family values" and "the war on terror," but in either case liberal pundits felt that workers were suckered into voting against their own class interests. Of course, as Frank points out, it doesn't help when Democrats -- especially after the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council -- appear more like Republicans on questions such as NAFTA, etc.

At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association on September 1-4 this year, Princeton professor Larry M. Bartels presented a paper titled "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas."
(See http://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/kansas.pdf).

As the title implies, Bartels found Frank's arguments lacking. Drawing upon a wealth of empirical data, he sought to support a different view of working-class voting patterns:

• Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle- and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites -- and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era.

• Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The average views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and '80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters -- generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues -- have also remained virtually unchanged.

• Do working class "moral values" trump economics? No. Social issues (including abortion) are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues are, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle- and high-income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low-income whites.

Bartels agrees with Jeffrey Stonecash, who argues in Class and Party in American Politics that "less-affluent whites have not moved away from the Democratic Party and that class divisions have not declined in American politics." Stonecash and Bartels attribute growing Republican dominance in its ability to attract middle- and upper-income voters exclusively. When Bartels finally turns to the empirical data, he is quite convincing.

Through a series of graphs, he demonstrates that the working class -- as he defines it -- retains an allegiance to the Democratic Party:

[F]rom 1976 through 2004 there is a strong and fairly consistent income gradient evident in the presidential voting behavior of white Americans. Averaging over the eight presidential elections of this period, whites in the bottom third of the income distribution cast 51% of their votes for Democrats, as compared with 44% of middle-income whites and 37% of upper-income whites. The gap in Democratic support between upper-income whites and lower-income whites thus increased from 4% in the earlier period to 14% after 1976. The 2004 election was, as it happens, quite consistent with the pattern since 1976: John Kerry received 50% of the two-party vote among whites in the lower third of the income distribution and 39% among those in the upper third of the income distribution -- a difference of 11%.

While it is of course some consolation to discover that workers still retain an element of rationality in their voting decisions, there is really not that much in Bartels's findings to support the notion that the reactionary sea-change in American politics can be reversed through business as usual. To start with, Bartels's definition of class suggests that once a worker achieves a certain income level, we might very well expect them to vote for Bourbons like Reagan or the Bushes as a "rational choice." In keeping with bourgeois social science, Bartels defines class in terms of income. In his eyes, if you are in the lower third of the income scale, you are a worker. This implies that if you are a highly paid auto worker, you might logically be expected to vote Republican. If a Democratic Party politician cannot appeal to a worker's more fundamental class interests in terms of their relationship to the means of production, then of course they will continue to lose support. There was dramatic evidence of this when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, who certainly would not be a part of the working class according to Bartels's definition. When this attack on the labor movement occurred, the Democrats were either in full support of the Hollywood reactionary or offered only token resistance. It was that attack that set the agenda for labor relations for the next 24 years in fact.

The fundamental assumption in Frank's argument (and Bartels's for that matter) is that the Democrats can adopt or re-adopt a progressive economic agenda in the way, for example, that NBC can increase the number of "reality" shows for the Fall season or the New York Yankees can rely on its farm teams for new players rather than the free agent market. In reality the Democrats eschew economic populism because they are a bourgeois party operating under conditions of increasing global competition, not because they are psychologically addicted to losing or some such thing.

The same kind of consensus exists between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues that existed over how to confront the Soviet Union following WWII. With the full recovery of Germany and Japan in the 1960s, the USA was forced to slash away at the welfare state and to attack trade unions. The pace of the Democrats in this head-long march is somewhat slower than that of the Republicans but it is driven by the same imperatives.

As Robert Pollin explained in a Counterpunch article on the weekend of October 18-19, 2003, the goal of the Clinton administration was to increase worker insecurity so as to enforce wage austerity. By making workers accept lower wages and unpaid overtime, American corporations can sell goods at lower prices than their European competitors. This in turn forces the European social democrats to impose the same sort of austerity regime on the trade unions. Key to understanding the bipartisan nature of this assault is the presence of Alan Greenspan, an Ayn Rand acolyte, in the post of Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Pollin writes:

Greenspan openly acknowledged his "traumatized worker" explanation for the dampening of inflationary pressures in his regular semi-annual testimony to Congress in July 1997. Saluting the economy's performance that year as "extraordinary" and "exceptional," he remarked that a major factor contributing to its outstanding achievement was "a heightened sense of job insecurity and, as a consequence, subdued wages."

During her stint as a Federal Reserve Governor, Janet Yellen, co-author of The Fabulous Decade, reached similar conclusions as to the sources of declining inflationary pressures at low unemployment, reporting to Fed's Open Market Committee on September 24, 1996 that "while the labor market is tight, job insecurity also seems alive and well. Real wage aspirations appear modest, and the bargaining power of workers is surprisingly low." As we have seen, these facts of declining bargaining power for workers did not deter Prof. Yellen from nevertheless concluding that the overall economic performance in the 1990s was "fabulous."

With this "hard cop/soft cop" assault on the poor worker, it is no surprise that many of them in effect choose "none of the above" on Election Day.

These are the subjects of Thomas E. Patterson's The Vanishing Voters. In an article on the History News Network, Patterson describes the trend set forth at greater length in his book:

[T]he period from 1960 to 2000 marks the longest ebb in turnout in US history. Turnout was nearly 65 percent of the adult population in the 1960 presidential election and stood at only 51 percent in 2000. In 2002, turnout was 39 percent in the November election and a mere 18 percent in the congressional primaries.

Fewer voters are not the only sign of the public's waning interest in political campaigns. In 1960, 60 percent of the nation's television households had their sets on and tuned to the October presidential debates. In 2000, fewer than 30 percent were tuned in.

Patterson is quite astute at pointing out why Democrats have borne the brunt of voter apathy. By forsaking their New Deal legacy, they provide little motivation for workers to come out on Election Day.

The voting rate among those at the bottom of the income ladder is only half that of those at the top. During the era of the economic issue, working-class Americans were at the center of political debate and party conflict. They now occupy the periphery of a political world in which money and middle-class concerns are ascendant. In 2000, low-income respondents were roughly 30 percent more likely than those in the middle- or top-income groups to say the election's outcome would have little or no impact on their lives.

Despite the refusal of the Democratic Party to run candidates who embrace working-class issues, there are still powerful inertial forces on the left that call for backing whoever they nominate in 2008, including the wretched Hillary Clinton. The logic will be the same as it was in 2004. If the Republican candidate is drawn from the same homophobic, labor-hating, and racist pool as voters have become accustomed to, we will find hysterical calls once again to keep the White House off his hands.

This time around, as the left puts forward an alternative to the donkey and the elephant, we should find Bartels's findings useful. Despite his obvious predilection for the Democratic Party, his research points in a more radical direction. Despite all the claims about workers not understanding their class interests, there are still signs that they favor candidates who have traditionally been associated with the welfare state, trade unions, racial justice, etc. Our job is to point out that their votes are being wasted and to create a new party that views such matters as more than election campaign rhetoric. With continuing attacks on Social Security, rising energy prices, the growth of religious obscurantism and an intractable war in Iraq, that should be easier than ever.

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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

Theocracy. Hypocrisy. Plutocracy. - Jan Baughman

The Dark Side - Milo Clark

The United Corporate States of America - Raymond Garcia

The American Experiment, Really? - Gilles d'Aymery

To Hell In A Hand Basket - Gerard Donnelly Smith

What Have We Become? Not Better -- Zombie Nation - John Steppling

Soup Of The Evening, Beautiful Soup - Michael Doliner

U.S.: A Psychological Profile - Charles Marowitz

The Best Of Times - Deck Deckert

The Corporate-Owned Ivory Tower: An Omen - Audra Himes

Where Is The Left In The U.S.? - Robert Wrubel

Crisis: Depravity Of The Leaders, Obedience Of The Citizens - Philip Greenspan

The Terms Of My Surrender... - Michael DeLang

Letters to the Editor

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Published October 24, 2005