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Class Conflict

Amid all the talk of race- and gender-identity politics in the Democratic presidential primary, various observers are noting that there’s another, possibly more electorally important, split: class. Working-class whites go for Clinton, the “creative class,” otherwise known as knowledge workers, for Obama. (African Americans of all classes are presumed to support Obama, a fact that probably rankles Charlie Rangel as much as NOW’s assertion that all women should support Clinton rankles me.)

Academic Richard Florida, who named the creative class as a political and economic force six years ago, got pollster John Zogby to get some numbers on this trend, and it turns out that the creative class prefers Obama on every issue by landslide margins. By Florida’s count, the creative class makes up 35 percent of the working population, while the working class has shrunk to 23 percent, but the working class are concentrated in swing states and districts, and they vote, so they are still a political force to be reckoned with.

Florida’s soundbite about what’s driving the split is that “the creative class anticipates the future while the working class is, in many senses, seeking protection from it.” He writes that it will be “hard for Mr. Obama’s rhetoric of hope and change to resonate with those who are falling farther and farther behind economically.” Meanwhile, Clinton’s focus on pragmatic economic populism—protection from economic disaster—is apparently seen as too much of an “us vs. them” mentality for the creative-class types.

It’s fairly sad to me to think that the best progressive ideals—social liberalism, global citizenship, awareness of the true needs of the new economy, commitment to economic security and fairness—should be split between the two Democratic candidates in this way. It seems like a lifeline to a backwards Republican Party that has been, and should continue to be, losing support from all quarters.

Thing is, while it’s easy to spell out the differences in economic prospects, and especially change in economic prospects over the past several decades, that would cause “creative class” and “working class” voters to be looking for different things in a candidate, the fact is, they’re not two separate, unrelated interest groups. They are two interdependent segments of our economy, so having them pitted against each other seems to me to be an unfortunate state of affairs. The creative class may have taken over the driver’s seat of new economy activity from the unionized factory workers, but that doesn’t mean that the working class is irrelevant.

Indeed, as quality of life and quality of urban infrastructure become ever more important factors in attracting, keeping, and generating economic activity, all of the trades, as well as farmers, transit workers, service workers of all types, etc., become increasingly crucial. Manufacturing may have shrunk, but we cannot and will not do without those who work with their hands. In fact, our failing bridges and energy-bleeding homes might suggest that we would do well to have rather more manual labor going on than we do.

It was with all these things in mind that I sat down to read the recently issued Brookings Institution working paper, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.”

I almost couldn’t get past the first few pages though, on account of a nasty little bias in the language. The authors kept explicitly conflating absence of a college education with “low skill.” “A broad definition of the white working class would include all whites with less than a four year college degree—the dividing line between high and medium to low skill,” they write. Later, in discussing whether to use income as the definition of class, they question whether “a decent standard of living” should “disqualify those of modest skill from membership in the working class.”

No wonder members of the working class, like my grandfather, who was a repair tech at IBM for many years, assume academics are looking down on them and react with defensive scorn. It defies reason to call someone who scraped through with a liberal arts bachelor degree, and is doing a succession of office-temp jobs badly, automatically more “skilled” than someone who apprenticed themselves to a master cabinetmaker right out of high school. Nor does it make much sense to call a successful professional or manager more highly skilled than a successful craftsperson or farmer.

Despite this twitch, which contributes to the very divide the piece is exploring, the rest of the Brookings paper is well worth a read. I was especially struck by the plausible argument made toward the end for a platform/rhetorical spin that would appeal to both working and creative (or “mass middle”) classes: Support for economic security measures, but presented as a starting block for opportunity, a base that allows investment in the future (getting new training, for example, or making a promising but risky career change) rather than as only the thing to keep the wolf from the door.

“Populism appeals to the negative, pessimistic side of these voters’ outlook, but it frequently falls short in appealing to the positive, optimistic side,” the authors write. (They note that Republicans do the reverse, appealing to the optimistic, bootstrapping side while ignoring/denying the very real problems facing all but the rich.)

They argue that policies to strengthen things like health care, social security, child care, and funding for college should be presented as measures that could allow a typical “working class family to raise its head from the day-to-day struggle of an insecure world and concentrate on its most heartfelt wish: to achieve the American Dream,” a kind of “aspirational populism” that would also resonate with the future-oriented creative class.

I’d vote for it. Would you?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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