Whither the working class?

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Politics is awash with commentary about the working class.

It’s a bit messy, however.

Part of the problem is conceptual. What do we mean by class, working or otherwise? 

Is it an identity that some embrace and others don’t, an identity that can be more or less salient at different times and in different circumstances? Or is it an objective indicator of import regardless of one’s level of class consciousness? 

Definitional problems stem from the conceptual. Are class categories coincident with income? Education? Occupational prestige? Or a combination of these and other indicia? There’s not even agreement on how many classes exist—Karl Marx said two, Max Weber four, Gallup five, some contemporary sociologists seven.  

Most political analysts operationalize “working class” as those voters without a college degree, a definition Marx, perhaps the leading expositor of class theories of politics, would almost certainly find laughable (if Marx ever laughed).

Never mind this definition assigns Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, oil baron Harold Hamm and Hobby Lobby multi-billionaire David Green to the “working class.” 

The problem runs far deeper than a few miscast billionaires.  

Nearly 1 in 7 auto mechanics and 1 in 3 manufacturing workers hold college degrees, excluding them from the working class by this definition.

Moreover, Gallup recently found nearly a quarter of college graduates consider themselves working class, while nearly two-thirds of non-college graduates don’t—befuddling for any analysis of working-class voters based on individuals’ educational attainment, which apparently does not determine class identification. 

There is a deep diploma divide, but, over time, it has mainly been about the movement of college educated voters toward Democrats. 

According to the American National Election Study, the two-party vote among those without college degrees has fluctuated dramatically, from Democratic highs of 70 percent in 1964 and 62 percent in 1996, to lows of 35 percent in 1972 and 42 percent in 1984.

Meanwhile those with a college degree have moved more systematically toward Democrats. In 1960, John F. Kennedy secured just 38 percent of the vote among college graduates. In 2020, Joe Biden captured 65 percent of that segment.

However, given the uncertain relationship between class and education, it’s not at all clear what that has to do with “class,” especially among the “working class.”

Polls ask about class identification far less frequently than education (hence the reliance on the latter in trying to define the former). Gallup though does have a useful, albeit abbreviated, time-series relating self-identified class to partisanship. 

It’s worth noting that these two different definitions yield dramatically different estimates of the size of the working-class. 

Non-college voters comprise about 60 percent percent of the electorate, yet only 31 percent of voters identify themselves as working class, while another 12 percent label themselves “lower class,” in Gallup’s data. 

From 2002 through 2019 Democrats’ advantage in party identification among self-identified working- and lower-class voters (Gallup combines the two) slipped below 10 points only twice. 

In 2022 and 2024 however, the advantage was reversed with Republicans holding 9- and 11-point leads, respectively. 

Middle and upper-middle class voters displayed the opposite trend, moving from being net Republican identifiers to being more Democratic.

In short, despite the definitional diversity, one conclusion seems clear: Democrats are no longer the preferred party of the working class. 

Defining the problem in “class” terms though, can prematurely narrow the search for remedies to economic issues and particularly to working-class economic grievances. 

That may be right. Setting our list of grievances against those of the King of Grievance (Donald Trump), may do best in returning those voters (or some of them, at least) to the Democratic fold. 

But we don’t really know that. 

Long time analyst of working-class politics Ruy Teixeira (who operationalizes class in terms of education) offers a three-part plan for Democrats: 

1. Move to the center on cultural issues 

2. Embrace economic abundance 

3. Embrace patriotism and liberal internationalism.

Or perhaps it is most effective to show working class voters some respect, the way Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) have—Brown by focusing relentlessly on the dignity of work and Shapiro by removing four-year college degree requirements for most state government jobs in Pennsylvania. 

Whatever the right answer, we need to find it and not allow sloppy concepts, inadequate definitions and unproven assumptions to prevent us from dealing with a pressing problem.

Mellman is a pollster and president of The Mellman Group, a political consultancy. He is also president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

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