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Puncturing Myths about the White Working Class

- September 24, 2012

A new survey and report from the Public Religion and Research Institute — entitled “Beyond God and Guns” — is a valuable corrective to so many stereotypes of the white working class.  Particularly noteworthy in this report are the large and important differences within the white working class — by age, region, gender, and party, to name a few. For example, consider this:

bq. In mid-August, Romney held a commanding 40-point lead over Obama among white working-class voters in the South (62% vs. 22%). However, neither candidate held a statistically significant lead among white working-class voters in the West (46% Romney vs. 41% Obama), Northeast (42% Romney vs. 38% Obama), or the Midwest (36% Romney vs. 44% Obama).

The report amplifies some of the findings I discussed in my “zombie” post — not only how different the white working class is within and outside the South, but how much more social issues affect the political choices of the white college-educated more than the white working class.

Along with Tom Edsall, I provided some comments on the report at a PRRI event last week.  One irony struck me.  In my experience, the white working class gets a ton of attention, especially when elections come around.  It probably gets more attention that it deserves — particularly since its diversity means it’s that hardly a monolithic voting bloc and since there are lots of ways to build a winning electoral coalition in American politics with varying degrees of support from the white working class.

But when we discuss the white working class during elections, another fact rarely raises its head: the enormous inequalities in political voice that arguably marginalize the white working class when it comes to policy-making.  These inequalities are evident in Martin Gilens’ research, as well as the important new book The Unheavenly Chorus, by Kay Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry Brady.  Political participation remains highly stratified by social class and, moreover, only the views of the upper class appear to affect whether policies are enacted in law.

So the problem isn’t that the white working class is trending Republican or that it votes against its economic interests or that it’s being hoodwinked by social issues.  The the problem is that no matter what the white working class thinks, no one is listening.