U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill’s exit interviews are heavy on advice and conclusions, many of them dead wrong.
The Missouri Democrat who lost her Senate seat to a pro-Trump religious right-winger, Republican Josh Hawley, told CNN in a lengthy interview that Democrats need to pay more attention to the white working class, that ideas like tuition-free college alienate white working class voters, and that Democratic U.S. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is merely the latest “bright shiny object” distracting America from tackling our real problems.
This is gibberish disguised as seasoned wisdom.
Take Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist who now represents New York’s 14th Congressional District. That district, covering parts of both the Bronx and Queens in New York City, is solidly working class. Ocasio-Cortez is 29, worked as a waitress and bartender before being elected, and has said she needed to float loans to take care of her bills before she starts drawing her congressional salary. She’s working class. The problem seems to be that neither she nor the district she represents are white working class.
Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians make up 42 percent of what we define as “working class” in America. But when politicos like McCaskill or Trump yak about “the working class,” they’re only talking about the 58 percent that happens to be white.
Take McCaskill’s quote from an interview this week with the New York Times. McCaskill told the Time’s Daily podcast about an encounter with a “good ‘ol boy” after the 2016 election who claimed to be an ex-Democrat who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton. According to McCaskill, the man said “I knew she (Clinton) cared about women, Mexicans, and homosexuals. But I sure knew she didn’t give a s**t about me.”
The quote oozes self-pity, but it fits perfectly with what separate studies from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, Princeton, the University of California, the University of Washington, and at least a half-dozen others have concluded: Trump’s support was driven by whites, especially the white working class, and their fear of losing status in an America steadily becoming more diverse in almost every way. Call it racial anxiety, social resentment, or just plain racism, it gave rise to the narrative of “forgotten” chunks of white America rising up and saying, “Screw it, let’s vote for the sociopathic bigot.”
When we talk about the almost constant whining that emerges from the hundreds of articles, TV stories, and scholarly monographs about the white working class, we first need to separate the “white” from “working class.” What is “the working class,” anyway? Oddly enough, being working class is no longer defined by income, since $30,000 a year means you might be able to squeak by in St. Louis, but you would be dirt-poor in New York City.
State University of New York economist Michael Zweig, author of “The Working Class Majority,” has defined the working class by eliminating income. The first metric Zweig uses is education. A member of the working class never graduated from college. But if Zweig used only education as a definition, it would mean everyone from music mogul Russell Simmons (net worth $340 million) to the founder of Oracle software Larry Ellison (net worth $60 billion) would be working class, since neither has a college degree.
Zweig’s second definition for “working class” is someone who has no autonomy and almost no decision-making ability at work. That covers everyone from the shrinking pool of manufacturing hourly employees and agricultural workers to the expanding numbers of retail, food service, healthcare, and other service employees who now make up three-quarters of what we define as America’s working class.
Some parts of the working class are close to totally non-white, from nursing home health care aides (almost exclusively black women) to agricultural laborers (almost exclusively Hispanic). Around 46 percent of the working class is female, according to statistics from the Center for American Progress. But angry white males get most of the attention from political analysts, even though white men make up less than 32 percent of what we call the working class.
The conservatism of the shrinking white working-class majority stands in stark contrast to the Hispanic and black working-class voters who propelled Ocasio-Cortez to Congress, or who elected criminal justice reformers like St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney-elect Wesley Bell, or who elected 16 black, female judges in Harris County, Texas, which surrounds Houston.
With non-white working-class voters, messages like free college tuition, Medicare for all, and investments in education and infrastructure hit the sweet spot. And it’s not because working-class blacks and Hispanics share the social liberalism of many middle-class voters. Because so many non-whites serve in the military, people of color in the working class share the white working class’s admiration for the military. Because so many working-class Hispanics are staunchly Catholic, and working-class blacks tend to attend socially conservative churches, many share the white working class’s aversion to abortion and gay rights.
Both the white and non-white working classes put up with the daily indignities that American 21st century capitalism heaps on working people. The difference is the white working class is reactionary, both in the political and social sense. They are conservative politically because they are reacting to social changes all around them. A black president gut-punched them. Non-white faces appear on their TV and movie screens as stars. Their kids and grandkids listen to music that is definitely not white. They may have read the statistics from the Census Bureau that show white Americans will become a minority by the 2050 census.
Being reactionary to social and political forces denies the future. The white working class seems to want all of the advantages a global 21st century tech economy has created while living in 1955. They’re for Trump’s America First because, to them, America is white people.
Instead of asking Democrats to pander to the white working class, maybe we should ask the white working class to join the rest of America.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.