Dilemma of playing to the ‘working class’

Republican President-elect Trump and Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant don’t have much in common. But the billionaire and the professional activist both claim to be fighting for the working class.

It’s become widely accepted that Trump won the election (although not the popular vote) by besting Hillary Clinton in some critical states of the industrial Midwest, specifically those with a disaffected white working class

All the factors that swayed this election — including anti-establishment sentiment, the “third-term curse,” low Democratic turnout, WikiLeaks, Russian intelligence and the media’s obsession with Clinton’s email server — may not be fully assessed for months or even years. But the working class narrative undoubtedly carries weight.

Sawant has made helping the working class the centerpiece of her time on the City Council, including pushing the $15 minimum wage, rent control and numerous other progressive policies. She also called for demonstrations large enough to shut down Trump’s inauguration..

So here’s the dilemma: What is the working class, and who speaks for it? And of course, we should be cautious about whisking all individuals into oversimplified baskets.

One of America’s most cherished myths is that we’re a classless society. Historically, this was true for most white people, compared to the stratified societies of Europe or Latin America.

But economic interests have always divided Americans. This proved a critical element in detonating the Civil War. In the Great Depression, as President Franklin Roosevelt experimented to help suffering average Americans, his fellow toffs considered him “a traitor to his class.”

The United States did create the largest middle class in history. This is a bragging right so treasured that even many wealthy people consider themselves middle class. And with this went economic mobility and a modicum of equality.

But according to a Gallup survey last year, 51 percent of respondents said they were middle or upper-middle class, down from an average of more than 60 percent in polls from 2000 to 2008.

On the other hand, 48 percent said they were “working or lower class,” compared with 33 percent in 2000.

The Pew Research Center confirms that the middle class (meaning households earning from two-thirds to twice the median household income) has lost ground across the country, including in metro Seattle.

Many blue-collar workers proudly consider themselves middle class, not necessarily “working class.” I knew and spoke with many of them when I was working for newspapers in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. The same is no doubt true of Boeing’s well-paid machinists and other workers in the Puget Sound region.

And many such voters went for Trump, and not just in the Midwest. One is Cynthia Cole of Bellevue, who was featured in a Times postelection roundup. She’s retired from Boeing and the former head of its engineering union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

“He really hit a lot of people who thought the government was not listening to their needs,” she said. “The people who are Trump supporters got tired of being told they were stupid and they’re racist or bigoted if they were supporting Trump.”

If we take such voters at their word, Trump’s promise to keep and return good manufacturing jobs and sharply limit immigration helped seal the deal.

In a perceptive article in the Harvard Business Review, Joan Williams noted that the white working class doesn’t dislike the rich, but does hold antipathy toward professionals. And why not? Their interactions (often distasteful) are usually with managers, not millionaires.

Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, comes from a blue-collar background. To her, Trump tapped into a blue-collar appreciation of “straight talk” (no matter the facts) and white-male resentment of lost status, especially being the primary breadwinners.

She also cautions that writing off white working-class resentment “as nothing more than racism is intellectual comfort food, and it is dangerous.” Most provocatively, she argues that this working class doesn’t see its interests aligned with the bottom 30 percent of families.

Yet this lowest third is a working class, too, and the one most represented by Sawant and often championed by Democrats.

Williams writes, “ ‘The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,’ a friend just wrote me.

“A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family,” she continues. “Neither is minimum wage. (White working class) men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life …”

She doubts that Trump will deliver, but credits him with understanding what these voters desire.

One problem is that many of those good jobs were done in by the greed and financial machinations that the president-elect and his party embody. Many of those jobs moved out of the Midwest to the South, not always to Mexico. And how many were killed by the white working class’s love affair with Wal-Mart, whose business model set a template for lowering wages, union busting and importing products?

Another problem is we can’t really escape from the racial divide. A good number of Trump supporters believe brown people are getting things they don’t deserve. This anger is heightened when the economic pie is growing so slowly that life seems like a zero-sum game.

Now the new team has its chance. But the working class, whoever they are, should remember that the Southern gentry kept poor whites and blacks down for a century by playing them off against each other.

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