Decoding the White Working Class

By Mike Koetting March 29, 2022

Ever since get Trump got elected, I’ve been trying to put together a coherent story of what the heck is going on with Whites without college education (WwC). Over my recent vacation, inspired by a Washington Post article about J.D.Vance, I gave the project another go and at least it became clear to me why this was so hard:

  • Economic explanations, my usual go-to explanation, contribute, but run out of explanatory power.
  • I was twisting myself into knots to avoid the most obvious explanation, in part because it is so discouraging.

Economic Arguments Lead in the Other Direction

In the old days–say the time before I started high school–it was possible to have a two-party system that made rough sense. It’s not that everyone had the same set of values. But when it came to politics, it could pretty well be arrayed on two dimensions—did you want more government support for the average person or less? And, even on that dimension, great changes weren’t required; modest tinkering around the edges was all that was needed. Issues such as the status of women, sexual orientation, and the hegemony of Christian culture (on a good day, Judeo-Christian culture) simply weren’t salient. Questions about the place of non-Whites were beginning to percolate, but they were still short of choate. Environmental issues weren’t on anyone’s radar.

It’s not that people were unaware that this Panglossian version of events was fiction. Everyone knew corporations were rapacious, there were homosexuals and abortions, and hypocrisy around family life was common. It was becoming harder to ignore the problems of Black people. But, still, no one had to admit these things. There was simply a shared, and well re-enforced, agreement to ignore those facts. It was the price of cultural consistency.

But once each of these possible dimensions became subject to discussion, the combinations could no longer be sorted along a two-dimensional axis. Every voting pattern was subject to a wide range of differing, and perhaps conflicting, possibilities.

We see this clearly in the situation of WwC. There can be no objective argument about the fact that their relative social position has deteriorated. The America of the last fifty years has hollowed out the middle class. The great machinery of the country that created a robust middle class has rusted to a standstill. It’s been replaced with a society that well rewards those who fit into its new economy. The largest number of winners are in the upper middle class–primarily college educated folks who have jobs with sufficient salaries, vacations, pensions and healthcare. The more attention grabbing winners are the 1 percent, the elite whose life styles dazzle and whose incomes soar into the stratosphere. Those without college educations, on the other hand, have taken a real beating.

Parallel, the economics of the last fifty years have brutalized the non-urban area. Virtually all economic growth has been in the cities. Nine out of every ten new jobs are created in just 11% of the counties. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans are 22 percent more likely to experience poverty, food insecurity (by a 19 percent margin), and to lack health insurance (by 15 percent), contributing to higher rates of depression, addiction, suicide, and other “deaths of despair.” Little surprise rural areas are bitter. They blame the solidly Blue cities. (And the favor is returned: urban dwellers typically blame rural ignorance for their problems.)

It is not unreasonable to look for explanations of WwC anger in these factors. In that context, “liberal on economics and conservative on culture” might make sense. But this is stymied by the two-party problem. There is no party of economically liberal and culturally conservative, so forced to choose, people forego the “economically liberal” part to vote for conservative culture. Compromises are necessary.

But that’s not consistent with the way the WwC portray their situation. They explain their votes as push back against the Democratic elite for having created these circumstances.

Say what?

Sure, certain Democrats and certain policies supported by Democrats have contributed to the widening gaps in our society. And the role of the professional class and big money in the Democratic party does bear continuing scrutiny. To be a successful party, Democrats must think more carefully about the full range of economic implications of their policies and do a better job of addressing these issues.

But to blame the drift in the economic structure on the Democrats is beyond ridiculous. Take NAFTA, the poster-child for supposedly anti-working class policies. A majority of Democrats in both the House voted against NAFTA and the bill was supported by more than 75% of Republicans in both the House and Senate. And while Clinton did sign the bill, it was actually proposed and negotiated by George Bush. The converse is also true. Virtually any issue that delivers direct benefits to the working class has been supported by Democrats and strenuously opposed by Republicans.

What explains this logical disconnect? I believe it is because “the elite” argument is mostly a smokescreen for the second problem in understanding the WwC position, the one I didn’t want to acknowledge in its full virulence.


While it is clear there are a variety of factors alienating the WwC–stagnant blue collar wages, urban versus rural discord, lack of opportunity, restricted mobility routes—despite being relevant, they don’t really explain what’s going on. if these were indeed driving the anger, why would someone vote for Republicans, who since Ronald Reagan have been systematically dismantling the things that actually made America great?

Then, another part of my vacation reading kicked in, The Shattering, Kevin Boyle’s superlative account of how America became unglued in the Sixties. It’s not that I didn’t know the facts, but seeing them again through the lens of the last five years, the answer seemed inescapable. WwC support for the Democratic Party fell off a cliff with the passage of various Civil Rights measures.

Rereading the stories of these events, I was again shocked at the viciousness of response to the Civil Rights movement. It was categorically worse in the South, but it happened in the North as well. In 1968, Wallace won 12% of the vote in Ohio, 10% in Michigan and 8% in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He actually won the Michigan Democratic primary in 1972

Overall, WwC support for Democrats dropped by 20 points during the Sixties, down to 35% and has remained stuck there since. Democrats lost the WwC when they integrated schools and began affirmative action. Other explanations may lead to fuller understanding, but the major loss in support was before any of those issues materialized.

Why Was I Puzzled?

Why did I have a hard time seeing something that, in retrospect, is so clear? Well, for one, there are other relevant facts. The situation of the WwC is unfair and it is product of deliberate policies that could have been decided differently, as they have in virtually all other advanced democracies. The WwC has a right to be pissed. America has a very incomplete understanding of achieving the common good.

It is also true that race is a particularly difficult issue to ameliorate, so finding an easier answer would be good. And there is a degree of guilt as I have been largely insulated from the adverse consequences of the changes in our society There is some uncomfortable truth to George Wallace’s quip that school busing wasn’t an issue to a kid being driven to a private school.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that this runs against my fundamental concept of human beings. I really believe all people are created equal and that in a country founded on that principle, almost everyone should as well because this a self-evident truth. I recognize that concepts of equality change with time and that each revision raises new problems. Still, I want to believe that there is underneath a broadly accepted truth, and as we settle on a new consensus, people will accept it. I also want to believe that at core, people are fundamentally rational and they will act in ways that align with their expressed interests. Cynics aside, most people actually conform to my hopes. But, alas, not everyone. And when groups are involved, things can go really haywire.

I don’t exactly understand the factors that lead to racism. Lots of explanations have been offered. And I realize that there are even legitimate differences on what constitutes racism, let alone how we move forward. But having recognized the centrality of this problem to our society—which is driving a meaningful sector of the population to act irrationally—all our lives will be diminished if we don’t find an antidote.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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