Liberals--meet the working class!
American Prospect Online - Just What Is the Working Class?
[F]ully 29 percent of voters have some college education but no degree, slightly outnumbering those with a bachelor’s degree or more. The “some college” group was, according to 2004 exit polls, the educational cohort in which Bush achieved his best performance. Thus, the conservative inclinations of the educationally defined working class are largely attributable to the sentiments of its best-educated members...In whatever sense working-class conservatism is real, it is a phenomenon of middle-income -- or slightly richer -- whites, with attendant consequences for political strategy. People in this range don’t benefit from Republican economic policies oriented toward tax cuts for the very rich, but neither have they felt the sting of Republican budget cuts that have been targeted at the truly poor. Consequently, winning their votes will probably require something beyond crass appeals to alleged economic self-interest, whether or not these are coupled with moves to the right on other issues.
Vance Packard got it right about class in The Status Seekers. I read the book about 30 years ago but it left a lasting impression because it was one of those books you read when you are very young which, in a striking way, explains life and leaves you with a permanent template for fitting in all future experiences.
According to Packard's taxonomy there were 5 classes in American society. At the top a small ultra-rich, ultra-elite; at the bottom a small underclass consisting of people who were in one way or another dysfunctional and either living on the street or close to it. In the middle, the interesting part, there were: the lower class (working poor), the lower middle class (working class) and the upper middle class.
The great divide was between the Upper and Lower Middle Class which, Packard compared to the bright line between officers and enlisted personnel. The lower classes could aspire to the lower middle class but only an exceptional few could make it across the line. The divide wasn't one of income either because, on Packard's classification lots of Lower Middle Class people were earning lots more than lots of Upper Middle Class people--these were the days when unionized blue collar jobs were plentiful and paid well. But everyone knew where the line was--it was the line that's now marked by the divide between college graduation and some-college-no-degree.
Packard's characterization of the Lower Middle Class, it's folkways and distinctive virtues was dead on. The characteristic virtue of the class system's "noncoms" as he called them, was discipline: following and enforcing the rules, keeping their noses clean and maintaining order. That was how they rose through the ranks to get where they were. They were the steady workers, the churchgoers, the sober, self-disciplined family men who didn't blow their paychecks on drink, gambling or cheap women and the housewives who diligently saved money, supervised their children and ran orderly households.
Discipline, order, cleanliness, obedience, thrift, hard work and diligence were their success strategy. And they were wedded to these virtues because they were painfully aware of what was for them the alternative: poverty, debt, squalor, insecurity--the vices and miseries of the social layer immediately beneath them who played Gin Alley to their Beer Street. They believed in self-reliance and desert because by their own efforts, they had achieved all the success for which they could hope. Their great fear was disorder because they were painfully aware that their position was both privileged and precarious: slacking off, letting go, taking to drink or disobeying the rules would get them busted to private.
These social noncoms, understandably, hated us, life's junior officers. They had worked their way up through the ranks by hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice; we, in virtue of inherited wealth and privilege, got in a notch above them. We had everything they had and more without working or sacrificing for it. We could get away with virtually anything. We didn't follow the rules but weren't punished. We didn't work. We went to fancy colleges, used drugs, dreamed, played at revolution, broke the rules, screwed up in every way that would land them in the gutter but were bailed out at every turn. Even worse, we made no secret of despising their most fundamental values--self-discipline, obedience and order--and were intent on undermining the social practices that kept chaos at bay. Worse still, we admired the layers below them, the trailer trash and slum-dwellers, and pushed for policies to benefit the undeserving poor at their expense.
Now Matthew Yglesias notes, correctly, that these are the people liberals need to win over--not the true working poor who are more solidly democratic than ever. But I cannot imagine how. Even if conservative policies that benefit the ultra-rich don't help them, the classic liberal-socialist economic agenda geared to promoting the interests of the underclass and working poor will not help them either. Contrary to the Thomas Frank thesis they are not voting against their economic interests and they are not rabid Fundamentalists intent on establishing a theocracy. They want Beer Street--a clean, disciplined, orderly, safe world where hard work and good behavior pay off. Who doesn't?
Reflecting, I ask myself why I don't--or at least why I don't go with their program. And my answer--which would never fly politically in the US--is that by knocking a little wealth off the top we can make everyone upper middle class.
I suppose what drives me morally isn't either compassion or guilt but outrage at arbitrariness, inefficiency and waste. It was a arbitrary that I got pulled out of the office where I worked after high school and sent to college where I could take classes that interested me, argue about politics and philosophy in the coffee shop, lie on the grass writing papers and doing logic problems and ride my bike while the other girls in that office were trapped there all day doing repetitious, mind-killing drudge work. It was inefficient and wasteful that their lives were so crumby when creaming a little off of the top, where it would hardly be missed, could make their lives so much better. They weren't the underclass or the truly poor: they were the respectable lower middle class--girls only a year or two older than me but married, working to help save for down payments on houses before they could quit to have babies, older ladies who'd gone back to work to help put their kids through college. I listened to their conversation and got a sense of how perfectly awful their lives were--how constrained and dull, without aspirations, without any possibility of real achievement, without even any serious interests--just working hard, saving money and following the rules.
It isn't lives of the truly poor that make this whole system offensive. They can do better and someone should probably give them a kick in the pants. What makes it offensive is that, realistically, if you are not born into the officer class and are not spectacularly smart--much smarter than I am--the best you can do is the life these lower middle class women lived.