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The Search for Class Politics

Sunday, October 1, 2000

Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers. 
America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters.     Basic Books/A New Republic Book. 215 pages. $27.00

There is a hint of unintended callousness in the title of Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers’s new book, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. Members of this group, it may be suggested, do not need to be persuaded that they matter. Still, one can see what Teixeira and Rogers are aiming at, with the media’s eyes glued to the breathtaking rise, and recent wobbles, of dot-com millionaires and other high flyers of the so-called information economy. Readers of the New York Times have grown accustomed to stories on the dueling perquisites offered by rival technology firms, classes taken by wealthy parents on how to avoid spoiling their children, and other "peculiar challenges of wealth." These articles rarely offer more than a nod to the fact that not all Americans are fully reaping the benefit of the boom. The question of how those other Americans have experienced the information economy, both in their working and personal lives, has been largely neglected.

So there is an important book to be written about the changing class spectrum of American society, and about the grievances and political attitudes of the lower end of that spectrum. But though writers and academics on the left have rushed to celebrate this book — William Greider of The Nation has praised the authors’ "deep political analysis," Michael Kazin declared the book "brilliant" and Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect "exceptionally important" — America’s Forgotten Majority is not that work. By choosing to write their book as a kind of campaign blueprint for Democrats, Teixeira and Rogers have severely limited its value as a piece of analysis and scholarship. This deficiency is compounded by a methodology that approaches such problematic cultural quantities as the "values" and "ideology" of "the working class," as well as the nature of "class" itself, almost entirely through surveys and polling data of the kind that serve as the bread and butter of political campaigns.

Teixeira and Rogers’s argument is as follows: In recent elections, campaign managers and the media have focused on the affluent suburban voter: "soccer moms," "wired workers," the globe-trotting managers of the "new economy." These voters tend to favor fiscal discipline, the incorporation of market incentives into government, and the promotion of free trade. The desire to appeal to these voters is responsible for the Democrats’ dramatic shift to the political center and pro-market policies over the past decade. What Democrats have overlooked, the authors argue, is that the majority of the electorate — and the most politically volatile voters — continue to be the white working class, whom they christen the "forgotten majority." In the 1980s, members of this group were recognized as the key swing voters — the Reagan Democrats — who brought the Republicans into power. In the 1990s, Teixeira and Rogers argue, the white working classes have maintained their decisive role. It was this group that turned away from President George Bush in 1992 and which was responsible for the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 as well as the subsequent rejection of that revolution.

Teixeira and Rogers offer a theory to explain this erratic voting record. They attribute the dissatisfaction of their subjects to "a disjunction between economic experience and values," these values being primarily work-related concepts like equal opportunity, reward for hard work, and responsibility. This idea of a disjunction, one of the more abstract deployed in the book, does not adequately convey the authors’ point. What Teixeira and Rogers seem to be arguing is that many Americans perceive injustice in their economic lives and believe that the government, far from remedying this injustice, has aggravated it. Wages have stagnated, and the skills required for success have shifted rapidly to favor Americans with higher education levels. Globalization has brought new instabilities as corporations combine, recombine, and transfer their operations around the planet. Washington, the authors argue, is perceived to be ignoring these problems while it lavishes attention and financial largess on racial minorities, welfare recipients, and other preferred groups.

Hence, the forgotten majority’s embrace of the Republican Party in 1994 was based not on an "ideological conservatism," which, as Teixeira and Rogers use the phrase, seems to mean a rejection of large and active government as such and in principle, but on a "pragmatic conservatism." The difference was demonstrated, they argue, when the white working class dumped congressional Republicans as soon as they were thought to be taking aim at fundamental aspects of the social safety net. Teixeira and Rogers claim that this "pragmatic conservatism" could be transformed into a pragmatic liberalism, were Washington to adopt policies which directly addressed the anxieties of the working class. Clinton’s centrist, market liberalism has failed to captivate the forgotten majority; now, the authors advocate, the Democrats must abandon the "New Austerity" and spend the surplus on programs that concern the working class — universal health care, expanded lower education, more loans for higher education, greater savings for retirement, and job training. The echoes of the Teixeira and Rogers analysis in Al Gore’s acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination were impossible to miss: Gore promised "working families" he would "stand up" to the "powerful forces and powerful interests [that] stand in your way."

The conservative responses to the Teixeira-Rogers policy proposals, which are only sketchily outlined in America’s Forgotten Majority, will be familiar to readers. But the greatest problem with the book, and one that has not received attention, lies with the accuracy and depth of the authors’ portrait of this forgotten majority.

The passion for polls and surveys that afflicts America’s politicians appears to have infected Teixeira and Rogers as well. For how do they go about identifying the "core values" of their forgotten majority? By surveys which have shown "that the American public consistently and overwhelmingly endorses the following values: freedom, equality before the law, equality of opportunity, fairness," etc. This is an expansive set of values, to which few Americans would be likely to object, including the very rich and the very poor. These sentiments are hardly confined to the group Teixeira and Rogers are writing about.

The authors further claim that, having been consistently endorsed over the past 45 years, these values have not substantially changed. Teixeira and Rogers do not acknowledge what even laymen now recognize as a common problem — that opinions expressed self-consciously in response to a poll may not really correspond to personal priorities. Nor do the authors contemplate that words like "freedom" and "equality" contain a variety of meanings, and that their dominant interpretations have changed substantially over the years.

Their treatment of "working class ideology," a term they never define, is similarly superficial. Among the evidence they marshal to discuss ideology is the fact that the number of people who describe themselves as "conservative" has risen "from about 37 percent in 1972 to 44 percent in 1996." More helpfully, they provide surveys which recorded people’s expectations from the national government on a variety of issues. It turns out that large percentages of the public seem to expect the government to be doing something about health care, poverty, and the preservation of natural resources. The authors then use this data as the basis for the opposition they set up between pragmatic and ideological conservatism.

The recurring problem is that these were broad surveys directed at the entire American public, not just the "forgotten majority" that the authors wish to isolate. Another is that "ideological conservatism," as Teixeira and Rogers present it, is something of a straw man. People do not form a political ideology, or even political conclusions, through an abstract and deductive process, but through an accumulation of pragmatic judgments made in response to specific situations. In this case, it may be suggested that Americans’ experience with government inefficiency and bureaucratic expansionism will not be so easily forgotten as the authors hope. The surveys they cite reveal little about what kind of government involvement the public imagines. An analysis of newspapers and radio shows, even interviews with actual members of the "forgotten majority," would have made possible a much fuller picture than Teixeira and Rogers provide. As it stands, their working class men (and women) are bloodless sets of vague preferences.

Teixeira and Rogers call their "forgotten majority" a "class," but what makes this different from a group selected at random from the phone book? Class is a term that carries a certain theoretical weight. A social class is conventionally understood to comprise people with certain shared experiences, values, and understandings of the world. They should have a sense of being part of a class, and of their class as having distinctive interests. A strong case can be made that America’s working class once fit that mold, if less so than in Europe. But does it today?

Teixeira and Rogers acknowledge that the economic structure of the United States has fundamentally changed over the past 30 years. "Service sector employment has continued to grow — to the point where it now accounts for 80 percent of employment in contrast to goods production in areas such as manufacturing, mining, construction, and agriculture," they write. "Blue collar work has continued to decline. . . . At this point, blue-collar workers (laborers as well as craft, operative and transportation workers) make up only about 25 percent of the workforce, compared to 58 percent who are white-collar (managers, professionals, technicians, sales and clerical workers)." They understand that older definitions of "working class" will no longer suffice, and, to their credit, they do not attempt to substitute an arbitrary income line as a replacement. Instead, they suggest a new "Great Divide," between those who have four-year college degrees and those who do not. "On the one side of the Great Divide, lacking a four year college degree, are the vast majority — three quarters — of white adults who have not fared well over the last quarter-century. On the other side are the quarter of white adults who have a four year degree or more and for whom the last twenty-four years have been a time of substantial progress." The authors provide income figures to support this statement: "between 1979 and 1997, the average real hourly wage for those with a college degree went up 6 percent; and for those with a high school degree, 13 percent. In contrast, the average wage for those with only some college fell 9 percent; for those with a high school diploma, 12 percent; and for high school dropouts a stunning 26 percent."

This information is important and suggestive, but is insufficient for defining a social class. Teixeira and Rogers provide no evidence that education level is perceived by working people to be as significant as it looks on paper, or that four years as opposed to two years of college is as powerful a psychological divisor as, for example, the line between office and manufacturing work. In fact, they downplay the significance of the transformation of employment: "instead of manufacturing, the new white working class is much more likely to be working in an office with a computer or at a similar service-sector job . . . But in economic terms they are not so different from the working class of old." Throughout, they underestimate how profoundly class identity is related to the nature of the work itself, the physical arrangements of workers, and the spaces in which work is carried out.

For a long time, the cleavage between manual and nonmanual work drove deep down the center of American social structure. In the eighteenth century, prejudice against manual work did exist among the upper classes, but it was tempered by the Enlightenment exaltation of utility and skill, as well as an idealization by political republicans of the yeoman farmer and independent craftsman. But the advance of industrialization in the nineteenth century degraded the work involved in the manufacture of commodities like furniture, metalwork, and clothing, first by breaking the work down into simpler components to be performed quickly and repetitively, and then further by mechanization. Fewer journeyman artisans went on to own independent shops, more performed outwork for merchants or labored in sweatshops. It is not surprising that the manual worker lost stature (though political tributes to his worthiness persisted).

It was in this period, historian Stuart Blumin has argued, that the manual/ nonmanual division became the crucial class signifier. The split which widened between the master and his manual laborers in the workshop was reproduced throughout society. Proprietors removed their domestic lives first out of the shop, and then into homogenous suburban environments. Their homes were increasingly governed by feminine ideals of comfort and refinement. Importantly, lower status nonmanual workers — salesmen in retail stores, clerks in the backs of law and accounting houses — felt an affinity with their bosses rather than with similarly ill-paid manual workers, considering themselves to be "businessmen in training." Furthermore, Blumin suggests, their superiors felt the same way, permitting the clerks and salesmen to board in their homes and join their clubs and churches, which were either not open or not attractive to manual workers.

Karl Marx, a contemporary observer of these processes and the patriarch of the concept of class, drew his boundaries along more essentialist lines. Wrong about almost everything else, he correctly emphasized the importance of the factory in the development of a working class consciousness. Historian Lizabeth Cohen, for one, in her thorough study of Chicago workers in the first half of the twentieth century, has shown how shared experience on the shop floor provided the basis for the formation of class ties. Increased mechanization "narrowed the gap between skilled and unskilled and linked workers in a more integrated production process." Meanwhile, management efforts to diffuse intra-ethnic solidarity by mixing together Polish, Irish, and Hispanic workers had the unintended consequence of building bridges across ethnic and racial lines. Cohen further demonstrates how these ties were capitalized on by union representatives from the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations and by political organizers promoting the New Deal and the Democratic Party.

A consideration of this history might have led Teixeira and Rogers to be less cavalier in their treatment of class and the changing nature of work. A large percentage of their "forgotten majority" no longer performs manual labor. They are no longer concentrated in the unique physical environment of the factory. Instead, they are located in offices in close proximity to their professional managers or in similar white collar environments. They work in front of computers and telephones at tasks which do not demand as much education, mental acuity, creativity or initiative as those of their superiors, but to an inexpert observer may not look so different.

What has bringing American workers into the white-collar world done to their understanding of themselves, their class identity and affinities? How have these changes affected their political preferences? If this group does share a set of political beliefs, does it hold them strongly, and feel a sense of shared power, enough to compel them into organized political action? Can the "working class" any longer be considered a political unit? Perhaps it is unfair to demand a book so different from the one these authors have conceived. But notwithstanding the salience of their views in Democratic presidential politics in 2000, their subject requires a deeper, more sociological approach than they are willing or able to undertake.