Who Lost the Working Class? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Election-Here's What It Portends

By Levison, Andrew | The Nation, May 14, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Who Lost the Working Class? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Election-Here's What It Portends


Levison, Andrew, The Nation


As the Democrats struggle to define a strategy for dealing with the Bush Administration, an intense debate has emerged between centrists and populists over the reasons for the party's loss of the White House in the 2000 election. At its heart lies the interpretation of the widespread rejection of Al Gore by white working-class voters, a rejection that reached landslide proportions among white working-class men. Despite Gore's assertion of "populist" themes and proposals, more than 60 percent of non-college educated and nonaffluent white men and a majority of similar working-class women gave their votes to George W. Bush. (Although white women workers rendered Bush a slim majority, had male workers voted as did female, Gore would have easily won the election. Attempts to understand the rejection of Gore, therefore, largely focus on the attitudes of white working-class men.) Although the centrists and populists reach substantially different conclusions, they do agree on two central points. First, Gore's positions on the major specific issues in the campaign--healthcare, education, tax policy and others--were substantially more popular with the voters than those of Bush. As Stanley Greenberg, Gore's pollster, noted in an analysis done for the Campaign for America's Future, "If the election were run on message alone, Al Gore would be President with a comfortable majority of the popular vote."

Second, the most important obstacles future progressive candidates will have to overcome relate to the moral and social "values" of American workers and to their distrust of Washington and "big government." While the 2000 election was influenced by other factors, such as the legacy of the Clinton Administration and Gore's performance as a candidate, the values of white workers and their distrust of government appear likely to have the greatest continuing influence on American politics.

What the postelection analyses do not do, however, is address the question of how a progressive candidate can overcome these obstacles. Although a large number of opinion polls and focus groups have examined the public's views on values and their hostility to government in recent years, they cannot effectively explain where individual issues fit within a person's overall worldview or how values and issues combine to influence the choice of a political candidate. There are, however, alternative approaches within the social sciences better suited to answering questions of this kind. In the 1950s and early 1960s, such research examined whether workers were becoming "middle class." When Governor George Wallace gained substantial support among white workers in the 1968 presidential election--and clashes between peace demonstrators and "hard hats" gave rise to a popular image of all workers as deeply reactionary "Archie Bunkers"--research responded by trying to look behind the stereotypes and understand the forces shaping workers' attitudes. Some of these studies, like Joseph Howell's Hard Living on Clay Street and E.E. LeMasters's Blue-Collar Aristocrats, were based on prolonged observation of life in working-class neighborhoods. Others, like Robert Botsch's We Shall Not Overcome: Populism and Southern Blue-Collar Workers, analyzed extended interviews with dozens of subjects.

Yet when working-class voters once again defected to the Republicans in 1980, giving rise to the category "Reagan Democrats," researchers still seemed baffled. There was not even a generally agreed-upon way of thinking about the group. Were they "blue collar," "working class," "middle class" or "middle American"? And what was the link between these labels and their political behavior?

The most coherent and systematic answer to these questions came in 1984, with sociologist David Halle's America's Working Man, a detailed, seven-year study of factory and community life in a large New Jersey chemical plant.

Halle recognized that only by studying the lives of the men he lived and worked with in far greater detail than previous studies had done could the link between the conditions of their daily life and their political views be determined.

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