Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

I was looking back at data related to the past presidential election. The demographic of Trump voters is multifaceted. First, I’d point out the demographics of Republicans in general, specifically as compared to Democrats. In recent history, Republicans have done best with the middle class. They get disproportionate votes from those with average income, average education, average IQ, etc. It’s Democrats that typically draw more from the extremes and less from the middle, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure how much this dynamic changed this election. There were some typical Democratic voters who switched parties to vote for Trump. And some other voting patterns shifted at the edges. But I don’t get the sense that any of this was a major issue, at least in determining the election results. The deciding factor in the swing states often had more to do with who didn’t vote than who did. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump lost fewer votes compared to past Republican candidates than Clinton lost compared to past Democratic candidates. So, Trump won by losing less. But it was different in another key state, Florida, where Trump won strong support among certain minority groups that helped push him over the edge; specifically, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans. So, there were many complications. But it’s not clear to me that this election demographically veered that far away from a typical election for Republicans.

Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).

Also, keep in mind that Trump did surprisingly well among minorities, considering the rhetoric of his campaign: 29% of Asians voted for him, 29% of Hispanics, and 8% of blacks. Those aren’t small numbers, enough to have helped him win… or if you prefer, enough to cause Clinton to lose, as the percentages might have to do more with the decreased voting rate this election among particular minority populations. Trump did better among older minorities and rural minorities, at least that was true with Hispanics as I recall, which seems to indicate a similar economic pattern of those who are feeling less hopeful about the future, although I’d point out that most of Trump voters were urban and suburban. Trump specifically beat Clinton in the suburbs and also got more than a third of the votes in cities. But because of how our system is designed votes in low population rural states are worth more than votes in high population urban/suburban states, the reason Wisconsin turned out to be so important.

I would make some additional points. Poor people in general, white and non-white, vote at lower rates. The poorest are rarely ever a deciding factor in any national election. As for the working class more broadly, Trump had some of his strongest support from places like the Rust Belt in the urban Midwest, although it is fair to point out that Clinton lost some progressive strongholds in what once was the New Deal territory of the Upper South that had been loyal Democrats for a long time (in one county in Kentucky, having been won by Trump, the majority voted for a Republican for the first time since the Civil War). Even in the Rust Belt, it wasn’t that Trump gained white working class votes but that Clinton lost them. There was simply fewer people voting in places like that, preferring to vote for neither candidate, some combination of not voting at all and voting third party.

All in all, it’s hard to tell what the demographics indicate, as there is so much left out of the data such as there being more to economic class than mere household income. For example, income inequality isn’t the same as wealth inequality, as the latter has to do with savings and inheritance, most wealth in the US being inherited and not earned. The lower middle class has lower rates of savings and inherited wealth. As for the changes from past elections, it probably has more to do with the drop in the number of voters in key places, but that surely is caused by more than just economics and related factors. Anyway, I’d argue that it really was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning. That is my sense, but I could be wrong. I’m hoping that a detailed book-length analysis of demographics comes out in terms of recent politics and the population in general.

This was my rethinking over what happened. I’ve already written about this many other times, but I thought it might be useful to emphasize the role of the middle class in this election. It’s interesting that the middle class has received a lot less attention this past year, even though for a couple decades the middle class had become an obsession of media and politicians. I’ve often thought that much of what gets called the middle class is actually working class, something pointed out by Joe Bageant. One could make that argument for the lower middle class, in particular. In the past, middle class was more of a social attitude based on economic aspiration, during a time when upward mobility was common and the middle class growing.

My grandfather who was a factory worker probably never identified as middle class, but along with my grandmother working as a secretary they had a fairly high household income which allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle in many ways: owning a house, buying new cars, regular vacations, saving for retirement, sending his children to college, etc. Downward mobility, along with worsening mortality rates for whites, has changed demographic and voting patterns, along with how people identify themselves and how they are perceived by others. The upwardly mobile working class a half century ago was more hopeful and progressive than the present downwardly mobile lower middle class. I might add that my grandfather voted Democrat his whole life, but if he were around today he almost certainly would have voted for Trump and it wouldn’t have been for economic reasons — more that Trump is perceived as a straight talker and that he uses old school progressive rhetoric. His children, my mother and uncles, are all over the place in terms of life experience, economic class, social and political ideology, and voting tendencies.

Demographics shift greatly from one generation to the next, often even within families. That is magnified by the larger shifts in entire populations, as the politics of individuals is strongly shaped by what is going on in the world immediately around them. And obviously more is changing in the world than is remaining the same. The United States is a far different place than it was when my grandparents were born a hundred years ago.

By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.

Don’t blame the poor for everything, whether poor minorities or poor whites. In a country like the United States, the lower classes have very little political power, economic influence, and activist engagement.

* * *

Here is some of what I was looking at while writing this post. The following presents various data, analyses, and conclusions.

Election 2016: Exit Polls
Produced by Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, & K.K. Rebecca Lai
The New York Times

The myth of Donald Trump’s upper-class support
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Week

Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory
by Jeremy Slevin
TalkPoverty.org

The Myth of the Trump Supporter: They Are Not Predominantly White Working Class but Rather Anxiety-Ridden Middle Class
by Theo Anderson
Alternet

Trump and the Revolt of the White Middle Class
by Stephen Rose
Washington Monthly

Angry White, Rich, Educated Men? Trump Voters Are Smarter And Richer Than The Average American
by Tyler Durden
ZeroHedge

Trump supporters are not who the media told you they were
by Ben Cohen
American Thinker

High Homeownership Counties Were Twice as Likely to Vote for Trump
by Derek Miller
SmartAsset

Financial Insecurity and the Election of Donald Trump
by Diana Elliott & Emma Kalish
Urban Institute

The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt
by Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr
Slate

Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?
by Myriam Renaud
The University of Chicago

About the Stereotype Busting High Median Incomes of Trump Voters
by Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

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9 thoughts on “Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

  1. I’m concerned you may be using the term “liberal class” a bit too expansively. When Chris Hedges uses the idea, he names traditionally liberal institutions like media, academia, churches, unions, and the Democratic Party. Other writers suggest partially related concepts, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “professional-managerial class” or James Burnham’s “new class”. I tend to think of academia, media, entertainment, civil service and the helping professions with other sectors like IT and law on the blurrier edges. I believe this is who people mean when they talk about “liberal elites” or “coastal elites”.

    This group is a very real socioeconomic phenomenon and a very important one but it’s not equivalent to the set of middle class people. Most middle class people (however we want to define them) aren’t liberal class and don’t particularly share its ideology of technocratic humanism. And not all liberal class people are really in the middle class economically either especially these days.

    • I’m not using it all that broadly. And I only mentioned it briefly, without clarification. I thought it was self-evident, though.

      It’s the class of people who are some combination of being more liberal on certain issues, identifying as liberal, or being perceived as liberal, but to be honest their liberalism is often overstated. Many in the liberal class are more supportive of talk than action, whereas the political record of the Democratic Party is center-right in many ways, such as to the right on economic issues compared to the party in the past and to the right of equivalent parties in Western social democracies.

      I spoke of it in terms of the middle class, but the liberal class also includes the upper classes. So, I was actually using it more narrowly than it commonly is defined. I normally would imply more than only the middle class. It’s just the middle class is the heart of the liberal class and I was making a point about it.

      The liberal class is used in various ways, by more people than Chris Hedges, but even he uses it more widely than some would prefer. As you point out, Hedges specifically points to the examples of the Democratic Party, churches, unions, and academia, although he also includes media. The activists and leadership in these organizations tend to be middle-to-upper class. Many think of churches as attracting the lower classes, but the data shows that it’s actually the upper classes that attend church more often.

      You apparently have your own preferred definition. That is fine. You state that most middle class aren’t the liberal class. That would be true of the lower middle class and less true of the upper middle class. I would argue that, in general, the broad middle class and especially the upper middle class is more open to technocratic humanism than the lower classes… or so it seems to be the case in the United States.

      My upper middle class conservative parents are surprisingly liberal, as they’ve spent much of their lives in liberal class communities, such as college towns. My mom is the kind of conservative who, in the past, probably would have been a New Deal Democrat, as was her father. She spent her career as a public school teacher and strongly defends public education.

      There is a very large blurry edge to the liberal class. Where one precisely defines the boundary is rather subjective. That is particularly clear with your last point, something I’ve often brought up. The very concept of class has been unclear in US society, at least this past century. My grandfather was working class aspiring to be middle class, in his lifestyle, and his high-paying factory job allowed him to live middle class. Like many at the time, he was upwardly mobile which led to two of his children to enter the middle class, one of them being a standard liberal Democrat by today’s standards.

      Class has always been as much about aspiration as about reality. I grew up middle class and, even after years of working class jobs, I still had a middle class sensibility in many ways. Then again, I was always class confused. As a middle class kid, my mom raised me with working class values. I suspect there are many class confused people.

      I know of many college graduates with working class jobs. And there are many middle class people without college degrees. Liberal class is more of an identity than specifically a singular class, but it is an identity that longs for what the middle class used to be when it was more widely available to more people. I’ve noted that more people identify as middle class than probably are middle class. And an increasing number of people are falling out of the liberal class or failing in their seeking to gain entry into the middle class, which doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the aspiration toward and identification with the middle class.

      To add to the confusion, hard times have turned many in the liberal class toward reactionary politics. The entire Democratic Party has become dominated by reactionary politics. Genuine old school progressives are hard to find in the Democratic leadership. There is an odd relationship of reactionaries to liberals, as the two easily borrow from one another. Corey Robin has discussed this about reactionaries and I’d extend the argument the other way around. Bannon and Trump have been masterminds in using New Deal progressive rhetoric.

      There is much confusion. And this is maybe what makes it dangerous, when even liberals have lost the essence of what it means to be liberal. The liberal class has become a vague entity, a boat at sea without a rudder. It would be easy for almost anyone to commandeer that boat.

      • “Then again, I was always class confused. As a middle class kid, my mom raised me with working class values”

        What are “working class values”? I don’t understand what you mean.

        • That made me smile. That furthers my point about class confusion. It’s hard to even know what class means, as it is highly subjective and context-dependent. The working class values I was raised with are specifically Midwestern, where my parents grew up and where I spent much of my early life, but I’m not sure it’s all that different in other regions.

          To my mind, working class values basically means doing one’s own work, both out of necessity and pride: yard work, house maintenance, car repairs, gardening, etc. My working class grandfather built his own house, even though he had no experience and so had to learn. He was from Indiana, but my working class friend in South Carolina was similar. My friend, if he needed something, he would simply build it himself with what was available.

          In South Carolina in particular, middle-to-upper class people rarely did their own work because manual labor was cheap. That was what made my family stand out. We lived in a nice neighborhood, but did most of our own work. I mowed the lawn, raked leaves, did chores in the house, painted the walls outside and the old metal lawn furniture, etc. Our family was upper middle class, but I was given little in the way of material goods other than the basics. If I wanted something, I had to work for it. I’ve had a job since I was in elementary school, my first job being a paper route that I did at 5 AM before school. In South Carolina, I worked at McDonald’s, a job typically only done by the working class.

          That was how my parents raised me, especially my mother. She always bought us clothing that was cheap and practical, not popular brands. My brother was scarred for life when we lived in a wealthy suburb of Chicago because he was old enough at the time to be made fun of for wearing clothes that were working class. Yet it took me until I was adult to fully appreciate all of this as being the values of the working class communities my parents grew up in. I never thought of myself as working class growing up, because I wasn’t working class, even though I realized that there was something different about the values I had compared to some other middle class people.

          In South Carolina, one of our neighbors was from old wealth. She was a Southern Belle who had married down, but she still had money and she had a personal servant who did everything for her. Another neighbor family was aspiring to upper middle class and they sent their kids to private schools. None of these people necessarily had more money than my parents, but it was how they chose to use their money in the lifestyle they wished to maintain. It was a difference of values, even as technically we were all of the same class.

    • I am glad you commented. It forced me to think about what I mean when I use certain words.

      A main problem is that class is a social construct. Our class categories would be meaningless to people in very different kinds of societies, such as many hunter-gatherers (e.g., Piraha). So, class means whatever we define it to mean, but as a social construct that process of definition is social and built on a historical legacy of ideas and conditions.

      Yet the world is constantly changing. That is more true now than ever. Maybe that is why there is such class confusion. Within a few generations, a massive part of the population went from the rural poor to the urban middle class. The majority of blacks were still rural until the 1970s, which is significant as class has become identified specifically with an emphasis on urban life. My mother’s family sought upward mobility by moving to the industrial cities of the North, as did so many others.

      All of this change is still happening and even speeding up. Our old class identities are splintering. What does it mean when so many who might otherwise identify as liberal class find themselves with working class jobs? It used to be guaranteed that if you got a college education you’d do well in life, almost certainly become middle class and stay there. Class identity is increasingly out of sync with class reality.

      As for technocratic humanism, most Americans support it, not just the liberal class. Most Americans want a strong social safety net, including left-wing healthcare reform. Most Americans want big biz to be better regulated, want taxes to be progressive, and want climate change problems be dealt with. The American public is far more liberal than they are given credit for.

      So, what is the defining feature of the liberal class, when so many Americans have become liberal and so many college graduates are working low level jobs?

    • I was thinking more about this, as I often do. After a while, I start wondering what any of us mean when we use specific terms, especially in relation to social constructs. They have such meaning to us, but it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

      Your bringing up technocratic humanism, in particular, caught my attention. That is quite significant. Yet I don’t know that it defines the liberal class, as a distinct category separate from the rest of the population. Technocratic humanism has been growing in popularity for centuries now, which includes the entire history of the United States. There were various strains of this that I don’t necessarily feel like disentangling.

      I will point out this. Technocratic humanism is very much at the heart of what can turn the liberal class toward dark paths. It was technocratic humanism that inspired early progressivism in its faltering steps and missteps. An example of this is eugenics, which was strongly supported by many liberals and progressives in the early 20th century. It’s easy to forget how progressive even the fascists sounded at the time and how easily the German liberal class bought into the rhetoric of someone like Hitler, and indeed Hitler did initially grow the economy and rebuild infrastructure making life better for so many Germans. Even many Jews talked about hearing Hitler speak and being inspired.

      It was the notion of a new scientific-minded professional form of government that was being envisioned not only by fascists but also by communists and, in the US, New Deal progressives. Technocratic humanism went hand in hand with liberal proceduralism, combining into new forms of technocratic bureaucracy and technocratic corporatism. Even the police were being professionalized, having the effect of militarizing them in the process, along with promoting the carceral state where issues of crime and punishment became legalistic, based on the liberal ideal of fair treatment. This also related to Prohibition, war on drugs, etc.

      There were more benign aspects of technocratic humanism, such as the support of universal education mandated and regulated by government, along with support of child labor laws, all of which was supported by progressive groups like the KKK and Mormons. By the way, it has been noted by some academic works that Klan membership primarily consisted of the “professional-managerial class”, from government officials to community leaders. They weren’t evil men. Most Klansmen never were involved in lynchings. The Second Klan was centered in the North, specifically in communities where there were few or no minorities. They acted as a typical civic organization, raising money and volunteering for various good causes: supporting veterans, Christmas gifts for orphans, etc.

      I’m sure many in my family from generations past were in the Klan. My Democratic grandfather was a racist, although he softened with age. As far as that goes, FDR was a racist as well and the New Deal institutionalized racism. There has always been a racist edge to liberalism and progressivism, continuing into the Clinton New Democrats. The Clintons are infamous for their use of racist dog whistle politics and their support of racialized tough-on-crime policies.

      Technocratic humanism is built on a managerial model of social control that inherited the legacies of the established racial order. This goes back to the progressive vision of classical liberalism and Whig history, mired in a vision of Manifest Destiny and racial supremacy, imperialism and colonialism, but always justified with a condescending paternalism of moral righteousness and maybe some noblesse oblige thrown in for good measure. This isn’t so far distant from the presentday technocratic paternalism of the liberal class with it’s nice-sounding rhetoric, and yet always ready to advance the cause of the technocratic police state and technocratic geopolitical management, even supporting wars of aggression that kill millions of innocents. Many in the liberal class have strongly supported the War on Terror, as they earlier strongly supported the Cold War. The liberal class has historically been more friendly to the right-wing than to the left-wing.

      As is obvious from this cursory view, technocratic humanism has a dark history that is inseparable from its achievements.

      I wanted to return to another point. None of this is to just blame liberals, in a simple sense. This is because there is no such thing as a liberal demographic, in a simple sense. I’ve written many pieces about ideological confusion, including among liberals:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/liberalism-label-vs-reality-analysis-of-data/

      My parents are conservative Republicans. My mother is more of an old school conservative while my father tends toward neoliberalism with a veneer of libertarianism. Yet both have been a part of the “professional-managerial class”. My mother spent her career as a speech pathologist in public schools and she has always strongly defended public education, a point my parents disagree upon. My father, after having been a factory manager, became a professor at a state university.

      My dad’s later career as a professor was entirely spent in South Carolina and, interestingly, some of his friends saw him as being more liberal. It is true my parents are fairly liberal in their attitude about life, relatively speaking. They raised my brothers and I in many liberal communities and liberal churches, very much in a liberal class environment. Unsurprisingly, all three of their sons grew up to be strongly liberal. Even so, all three of their sons dropped out of college and had working class jobs for years. My oldest brother didn’t go back to college until his 30s and my second oldest brother waited until his 40s, but now like me both work for the government — the former as a county naturalist and the latter doing some naturalist work for the city parks department.

      My brothers have technically joined the liberal class, as my parents did, by becoming part of the “professional-managerial class”. But it’s not as if my brothers politics changed from the time they spent in the working class. Both of my brothers, as with many in the liberal class, are often condescending to poor whites and most especially to poor rural whites. This was true even when they were working class and worked alongside these poor whites. Liberal class is very much an attitude. Like me, my brothers had been raised middle class and so in many ways maintained a middle class worldview, even when it wasn’t supported by their economic and educational position in the world.

      I don’t share my brothers class condescension, but I do share much of their politics and I’m easily swayed by the vision of technocratic humanism, especially as portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yet that doesn’t stop me from being realistic and critical about the history of the liberal class.

      So, what exactly defines the liberal class and determines one’s membership in it? And if technocratic humanism is the defining feature, what kind of technocratic humanism is it and what does it include and imply, represent and obscure? Where did this liberal class come from and where is it going? Can it be remade into something new, leaving behind what it was built upon?

    • Here is another angle. Technocratic humanism is a tough nut to crack. What is it? I was thinking of FDR’s New Deal. It had many good aspects, but it had many not so good aspects.

      It was a soft corporatist response to the hardcore corporatism of European fascists. But in doing so it created the foundation for our present problematic corporatist system. This is what allowed Trump, as a businessman savior, to use FDR-style progressive rhetoric to win the election.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/fascism-corporatism-and-big-ag/
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/southern-californian-birth-of-salvific-corporatism/
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/old-school-progressivism/

      Old School progressivism was very much built on technocratic humanism. But it also had dark elements of patriotic nationalism, xenophobic isolationism, racism, eugenics, etc. It was FDR who put into internment camps not just Japanese-Americans but also other undesirable ethnic minorities, specifically Italian-Americans and German-Americans. As for the New Deal, it was designed to exclude large numbers of minorities from receiving benefits.

      It’s not just an issue of technocratic humanism. We have to ask who is promoting it and whose interests are being served. We see that problem even now with how disconnected the liberal class is from the rest of the population. Their vision of technocratic humanism won’t help most Americans, at least in terms of the policies they prioritize and how they shape them.

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