TH E BI G I D EA
There Is a Major Rift Dividing the White Working Class — And Democrats Are Clueless
There’s an important social and economic divide that drives working-class whites that progressive elites mostly miss — to their political peril.
J.D. Vance greets supporters during a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Lisa R. Pruitt is Martin Luther King Jr. professor of law at the University of California, Davis. She is writing a book about what the experience of migrating from the working class to the
chattering class can teach us about contemporary political divisions.
Ever since J.D. Vance became the Republican Senate nominee in Ohio,
journalists and pundits have been preoccupied with how Vance’s politics have shifted since the 2016 publication of his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The book brought Vance fame and a platform that he used, among other things, to criticize Donald Trump. Since then, Vance’s positions on polarizing issues like immigration
have lurched to the right and he sought — and won — Trump’s endorsement. Vance now also dabbles in conspiracy theories and has taken on a belligerent, Trump-like tone.
What the pundit class isn’t talking about, however, is an important consistency between 2016 author Vance and 2022 politician Vance. In his memoir, Vance pitted two groups of low-status whites against each other—those who work versus those who don’t. In academic circles, these two groups are sometimes labeled the “settled” working class versus the “hard living.” A broad and fuzzy line divides these two groups, but generally speaking, settled folks work consistently while the hard living do not. The latter are thus more likely to fall into destructive habits like substance abuse that lead to further destabilization and, importantly, to reliance on government benefits.
Vance has not renounced that divisive message. He no doubt hopes to garner the support of the slightly more upmarket of the two factions—which, probably not coincidentally, is also the group more likely to go to the polls. While elite progressives tend to see the white working class as monolithic, Vance’s competitiveness in the Ohio Senate race can be explained in no small part by his ability to politically exploit this cleavage.
As a scholar studying working-class and rural whites, I have written about this subtle but consequential divide. I have also lived it. I grew up working-class white, and I watched my truck driver father and teacher’s aide mother struggle mightily to stay on the “settled” side of the ledger. They worked to pay the bills, yes, but also because work set them apart from those in their community who were willing to accept public benefits. Work represented the moral high ground. Work was their religion.
We lived in an all-white corner of the Arkansas Ozarks, so my parents weren’t fretting about the Black folks Ronald Reagan would later denigrate with the “welfare queen” stereotype. They were talking about their lazy neighbors. They called these folks “white trash,” the worst slur they knew.
Though Vance described this divide in Hillbilly Elegy, readers unfamiliar with the white working class may not have picked up on it. Vance’s beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, represented hard work. Papaw had a steady job at the Armco steel mill—one good enough to draw him and hundreds like him out of the Appalachian Kentucky hills to Middletown, Ohio. Indeed, it was such a good job that Mamaw could
stay home and take care of the kids. Though they were crass and unconventional by polite, mainstream standards, Papaw and Mamaw’s work ethic positioned them in the settled working class.
From that perch, Vance’s grandparents harshly judged neighbors who didn’t work. They even judged their daughter, Vance’s mother, Bev. Though she’d trained for a good job, as a nurse, Bev’s drug use and frequent churn of male partners led to the instability associated with the “hard living.” Indeed, at one point Vance uses that very
term to refer to his mother: “Mom’s behavior grew increasingly erratic,” Vance writes. “She was more roommate than parent, and of the three of us — Mom, [my sister], and me — Mom was the roommate most prone to hard living” as she partied and stayed out ‘til the wee hours of the morning.
Given the childhood trauma associated with his mother’s behavior, it’s perhaps not surprising that Vance came to emulate his grandparents’ judgmental stance toward the hard living. This is illustrated by his condemnation of shirking co-workers at a warehouse job and those who used food stamps (SNAP) to pay for the groceries he bagged as a teenager. (It seems that Vance also inherited his family’s pugilistic tendencies, which have come in handy with his conversion to Trumpism; words like “scumbag” and “idiot,” which readers of Hillbilly Elegy can easily imagine coming out of Mamaw’s mouth, have become staples of Vance’s campaign vocabulary).
Ultimately, of course, Vance traveled far from his modest roots to graduate from Yale Law School and become a venture capitalist. For this success, he credited the hard work and boot-strapping mentality he learned from his grandparents. What Vance didn’t credit — not explicitly, anyway — were the structural forces that benefitted him and his grandparents. For Vance, these included an undergraduate degree from an excellent public university (Ohio State) and opportunities in the military. For his grandparents, these included that good union job at Armco Steel—even as Papaw complained about the union. (A significant faction of workers believe that hard working people like themselves don’t need unions, that unions simply protect slackers from hard work. My own father’s pet peeve was unionized loading dock employees whose generous breaks delayed getting his truck loaded or unloaded and thus back on the road earning money. The naming of “right-to-work” laws plays to this mindset.)
Like Vance, settled white workers tend to see themselves living a version of the American dream grounded primarily — if not entirely — in their own agency. They believe they can survive, even thrive, if they just work hard enough. And some of them are doing just that. Because they lean into the grit of the individual, they tend to
downplay structural obstacles to their quest to make a living, e.g., poor schools and even crummy job markets, just as they downplay structural benefits. They also discount “white privilege” because giving skin color credit for what they have achieved devalues the significance of their work. This mindset is also the reason that when Obama said in 2012, “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” the remark landed so badly among the settled working class. They’re not accustomed to sharing credit for what they have — perhaps especially when they don’t have much.
Vance and my parents are mere anecdotes, yes, but scholars have documented the phenomenon they represent. Kathryn Edin of Princeton University, Jennifer Sherman of Washington State University and Monica Prasad of Northwestern University have studied folks like them in both urban and rural locales. What “settled” and “hard living” express as cultural phenomena, Edin and colleagues express quantitatively as the second-lowest income quintile dissociating from the bottom quintile — the very place from whence many had climbed. Edin described that disassociation as a “virulent social distancing” — “suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person.”
Journalists have also brought us illustrations of the settled working class. Alec MacGillis did so in a 2015 New York Times essay, introducing us to Pamela Dougherty of Marshalltown, Iowa, a staunch opponent of safety net programs. As a teenaged mother who divorced young, Pamela’s own journey had been rocky, and she had benefitted from taxpayer-funded tuition breaks at community college to become a nurse. But at the dialysis center where Pamela worked and where Medicare covered everyone’s treatment regardless of age, she noticed that very few patients had regular jobs. Pamela resented this. She thought the patients should have “hoops to jump through” to get the treatment, just as she’d had to keep up her grades when she was getting assistance with college. She thought they should have some skin in the game.
Atul Gawande brought us a similar tale in a 2017 New Yorker article about whether health care should be a right. He introduced us to Monna, a librarian earning $16.50 an hour in Athens, Ohio. After taxes and health insurance premiums were deducted, Monna was taking home less than $1,000 a month, and her health insurance annual deductible was a whopping $3,000. It was her retired husband’s pension, military benefits, and Medicare — all benefits considered earned, not handouts — that kept them afloat. In spite of this struggle, Monna didn’t support health care as a right because it was “another way of undermining responsibility.” Noting that she could quit
her job and get Medicaid for free like some of her neighbors were doing, Monna explained that she was “old school” and “not really good at accepting anything I don’t work for.”
Exit polls from 2016 also reflect this division, with the lowest-income voters supporting Clinton—and therefore safety-net programs associated with Democrats— by the greatest margin, 53 percent to 41 percent over Trump. It was folks earning $50,000 to $99,000, those who depending on region and family size might be considered settled working class, who preferred Trump by the greatest margin of all income brackets — 50 percent to 46 percent.
This dynamic shifted a bit by 2020, when exit polls showed Trump garnering the greatest level of support from those earning between $100,000 and $199,000. This may suggest an improvement in the circumstances of the settled working class, or that the lack of empathy for those who don’t work is creeping up the income ladder. By 2020, those in the $50,000 to $99,000 bracket may also have begun feeling the vulnerability associated with those a rung beneath them, particularly during the pandemic, causing them to lean Democratic. Meanwhile, folks in the higher income group may have become increasingly judgmental — and more beholden to Trump as they saw their 401K accounts gain value during his administration.
As important as this divide is to understanding working-class whites — and in spite of national publicity by big-name scholars and journalists — coastal and urban progressives often seem oblivious to it. This may be because few have any meaningful interaction with either faction of the white working class. Outsiders struggle to grasp the significance of this class war that rages within our nation’s broader class war.
But this war within a war animates a lot of voters. It also drives a lot of policy decisions, including work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP) imposed by red state governors and legislatures, just as the Clinton administration did for welfare (TANF) a quarter century ago.
Whenever I talk about this settled working class mindset to folks in my coastal progressive world, I get two responses. The first is an assumption that these folks are simply racists whose sole motivation is to deny benefits to people of color. The second response is that they are irrational, even delusional, not to see that they are
vulnerable — that they might someday need public benefits, too, given the way precarity has not only crept up the socioeconomic ladder, but also outward and into a growing number of communities left behind by the knowledge economy.
Indeed, it’s true that many in the settled working class would benefit from big structural government interventions like single-payer health care, universal pre-K and other childcare supports, greater investments in education and broadband. They would also benefit if higher taxes on the wealthy paid for these interventions. That many white workers don’t see it this way leads to the oft-heard assertion that working-class whites vote against their own interests.
But both of these progressive responses further alienate folks with strong identities as workers, those hanging on to a version of the American dream that places the individual squarely in the driver’s seat.
First, going straight to allegations of racism is incendiary and infuriating to the folks being labeled “racist.” They tend to define that term narrowly, referring to people who say the n-word or explicitly endorse white nationalism. (Academics label this cohort “old-fashioned racists” to differentiate from the many broader definitions that now dominate public discourse.) Many of these folks know they don’t use overtly racist terms or believe in white supremacy. But just as those oriented to work tend to discount the significance of beneficial structures in their own lives, they also tend to discount the force of structural racism in others’ lives.
Plus, an assumption that these white workers are thinking only in terms of the “welfare queen” stereotype fails to consider that most of the non-workers who people like Pamela and Monna know are almost certainly white folks. After all, they live in Marshalltown, Iowa and Athens, Ohio — virtually all-white burgs. Ditto my folks in the Arkansas Ozarks.
I’m not saying that no one in the settled working class has racist impulses; some do. I am pointing out their tendency to harbor class-based animus toward anyone who doesn’t work, regardless of skin color. Bias based on race and bias based on class are not mutually exclusive, and it can be easier to assume that racial animus is at work when in fact, it’s classist or cultural animus directed at those on a lower economic or social rung. As the late cultural critic Joe Bageant expressed it, “what middle America loathes … are poor and poorish people, especially the kind who look and sound like they just might live in a house trailer.”
Depending on your politics, this is not a flattering image of the settled working class. But it is the reality political candidates are facing when they seek their votes—and J.D. Vance knows that. So does his Democratic opponent Tim Ryan, also a product of white working-class Ohio.
In July 2016, Senator Chuck Schumer suggested Democrats could ignore this constituency. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” he said, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Schumer’s strategy proved a notorious disaster for Democrats, and it’s not a gamble the party can afford to repeat in 2022 or 2024. If anything, white workers look more critical than ever to a winning Democratic coalition, as more Latinos drift into the Republican column.
It thus behooves Ryan and other Democrats to consider carefully how to communicate with a voting bloc they once took for granted.
President Biden talks more about jobs and the working class than President Obama did, but generic job talk may no longer be getting through to workers given the shifting image (and reality) of Democrats as the party of elites and intellectuals. The sad truth is that coastal progressive condescension toward workers has become second nature to many Democrats, so much so that they don’t realize they’re doing it.
Take the issue of higher education. Wider, more affordable access to college is absolutely critical to our country’s future, and I’m a grateful poster child for how it can propel working-class kids up the socioeconomic class ladder. But elite preoccupation with higher education (never mind elitism within that sector) sends a signal that getting a college degree is the only way people succeed and make contributions to our nation. By implication, everyone else is a loser. What the credentialed class often conveys— whether or not they intend to—is that if workers were smart and ambitious enough, they’d have degrees and careers like ours. But many in the settled working class never aspired to go to college. They nevertheless look to their work as a source of dignity, identity, and pride.
Ryan, Vance’s Democratic opponent, gets this. He recently tweeted “Say it with me: you shouldn’t need a college degree to get a good job and live a good life.”
When Trump said he “love[d] the poorly educated,” the credentialed class cringed. They assumed no one would want to be labeled as such and, indeed, that no one would want to be poorly educated (read to mean having little formal education). But folks without college degrees — even folks without high school diplomas — heard Trump’s comment as affirmation. He was happy to be associated with them, and Trump’s warm embrace was a salve on a deep, festering wound. Trump’s comment was also a rare one that did double duty in speaking to both settled and hard-living factions of the white working class.
But Trump also found a way to speak specifically to the settled working class, those with strong identities as workers. The “again” part of “Make America Great Again” brings to mind a time when their jobs provided greater economic security—as Papaw Vance’s steel mill job had—and also a time when blue-collar workers felt broadly respected. For workers displaced or fearing displacement, Trump named various external culprits (aka structural challenges)—unfair foreign imports, immigrants, regulation. He also offered solutions, e.g., tariffs, a border wall, less red tape, though he didn’t deliver on all of his promises. Trump didn’t save coal jobs, but the American steel industry did benefit from his tariffs.
Democratic solutions to worker travails will mostly differ from those proposed by Republicans, of course, but Democrats can fruitfully borrow a page from how Trump communicated with workers. First and foremost, tell workers that they and their labor are seen and appreciated. A key theme of 2016 election coverage was that many working-class white and rural voters felt overlooked. Tracie St. Martin, a union member and heavy construction worker who supported Trump, summed up the disgruntlement, “I wanted people like me to be cared about. People don’t realize there’s nothing without a blue-collar worker.” (St. Martin, of Miamisburg, Ohio, was quoted in a ProPublica story reported by MacGillis aptly titled “Revenge of the Forgotten Class.”)
The more specific Democrats’ affirming messages, the better. Democrats should go beyond broad “jobs” platitudes and say workers’ names—that is, the names of their vocations: steelworkers, yes, but also stylists, caregivers, police officers, machinists, and food service workers.
Our nation got better at seeing workers—especially certain categories of workers—in the early days of the pandemic. As we collectively waxed poetic about shelf-stockers and truck drivers, I recalled the pride my whole family felt in the mid-1970s when the trucker song “Convoy” topped both pop and country charts and the movie “Smokey
and the Bandit” glamorized the work that truckers do. Of course, that was long before we started thinking in terms of two Americas, one blue, the other red, before we started putting down one group to build up the other. To many of us—white folks anyway— America felt more like a commonwealth back then.
Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that it’s within the Democratic Party’s power to deliver another 1970s-style love fest for truckers or any other blue-collar constituency. But the broad, mainstream dignity associated with workers in that earlier era is something for Democrats to aspire to in their messaging.
The ongoing labor shortage is all the more reason Democrats should keep telling blue collar workers of all races that they are valued—and all the more reason to mean it. Our nation badly needs carpenters, electricians, plumbers and the full array of blue collar workers who are going to help us overcome our national housing shortage and actually reconstruct our infrastructure. Politicians like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) speak more often than most about job training for workers like these, as with her Skills Investment and Skills Renewal Acts (co-sponsored by Ben Sasse); others should follow her lead.
There’s other low-hanging fruit. When Democrats talk about investments in childcare, they should talk about it as not only good for the children, but good for the parents—a way to keep them in the workforce and off public benefits.
Finally, Democrats need to channel the can-do spirit of workers themselves and lead with solutions. When politicians belabor the structural challenges to which solutions are supposed to respond, some in the white working class hear government making excuses. When work is your religion, too much emphasis on what’s keeping you from making a living sounds like apostasy.
For them, the most important thing is simply to get to work. A close second is living in a country that values their work—along with a paycheck that reflects both that value and their dignity as workers.
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