After the 2016 election results we are struggling to understand what hit us. One common view is that Democrats have become tone deaf to the working class, advancing policies that cater to other key constituencies of the party but failing to do much about bettering the economic lives of those in the middle and lower middle. Why, we ask, did Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania forsake Hillary Clinton in favor of a bombastic outsider who made huge promises, but apparently hasn’t a clue how to govern to deliver on them?
Several thoughtful books can help us find the answer. The best of these is Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t, a sociological study written by Jennifer Sherman in 2009. Sherman sought out a small town in rural America where industry and jobs had been decimated and widespread poverty made the normal social pecking order collapse. This should sound familiar in West Virginia. She wanted to learn what factors provided status and capital in a community where economic distinctions were no longer possible. What she learned is an eye-opener.
Sherman’s town is located in the rural Northern California forest area. She gave it the fictitious name Golden Valley. Golden Valley’s economy was wrecked by the environmental decision to protect the spotted owl at the expense of local industry. All logging activity and most sawmilling in the area ceased and many layoffs occurred. Golden Valley residents viewed this economic devastation as the handiwork of bi-coastal liberals who cared nothing about working class people. But they also recognized that Rebublicans cater to big corporate interests and were not concerned about their plight either.
In Golden Valley nearly everyone was poor. In the absence of economic wealth and distinctions, moral capital was the source of self-esteem and community standing. Those who had moral capital were often able to exchange it for economic capital in the form of job opportunities and assistance from other community members in time of need.
There were two main sources of moral capital. The first was connection to work. Work ethics were highly valued. Those who had a steady full time job were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by those with part time jobs, those on unemployment compensation, and those with a work-related disability. Receiving state or federal benefits because of unemployment or disability was not a negative because these benefits had a connection to past work. Even those who worked to support their families by hunting, cutting wood for fuel or gardening had moral capital from these activities.
Those who did not work, but instead received government welfare assistance, had negative moral capital and lost standing in the community. This effect was felt powerfully by those in that category. Many drove forty miles to the nearest town to use food stamps for fear that they would be recognized by their neighbors. At the bottom were those who were addicted to drugs or abused alcohol, and those who survived through illegal activity. These people were shunned as having no work ethic and were effectively shut out of job opportunities.
The second source of moral capital was “family values.” A person high on the family values scale was usually in a stable marriage, and was a parent or foster parent. But as in most poor communities the traditional family didn’t exist. Children were often raised by grandparents, distant relatives or complete strangers. An individual or couple could gain moral capital if they provided a safe home for any child in the community who needed one. Parents in Golden Valley did not behave as middle class parents frequently do by planning for and becoming involved in the child’s future. Instead parents gained self-esteem and community standing merely by sheltering children in an environment free from abuse that allowed them to develop in their own manner and direction.
What can those interested in regaining the votes of working class people learn from all this?
- Working class people value hard work, so policies that are designed to provide jobs will be supported by working class voters;
- working class people are not lazy, do not want public assistance, and will mostly avoid using even well-intentioned benefits that do not somehow recognize recipients as having been connected to the working economy;
- working class people believe that their moral values of hard work and family are the true American values. Republican rhetoric about morality and values resonates with them;
- guns, particularly those associated with hunting and providing food, are a strong tradition in rural America and are sometimes essential for family survival; and
- working class people will reward politicians and political parties that speak to them in a sympathetic, understanding manner and couple this with policies that attempt to deal with the hardships in their lives.
Working class people do not vote against their “interests” when they vote for the Republican agenda, even if that agenda worsens their economic plight. In fact, it is condescending to suggest this. Instead they vote in line with their values. It’s just that Republicans have been more successful addressing those values. But there is nothing inevitable about working class support for the Republican agenda. A progressive agenda that seeks to level the economic playing field through tax reform and job creation can reverse this trend.