Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

White Working Class, Progressive Fatalism and the Perils of Polling

with 4 comments

In the Democratic Strategist, Andrew Levinson (pdf) tries to bring some reality to discussion of the white working class, which is generally stereotypes as monolithic and regressive. This is more evidence against the idea that ‘American is a conservative nation’ as a catch-all explanation for politics, and the progressive fatalism that view leads to.

The majority of white working class Americans are simply not firm, deeply committed conservatives. Those who express “strong” support for conservative propositions represent slightly less than 40% of the total. The critical swing group within white working class America is composed of the ambivalent or open-minded.

This is an extremely surprising result since virtually all political commentary about the white working class today is based on the assumption that these voters are generally quite deeply conservative and that conservatives very substantially outnumber liberal/progressives in white working class America.

Part of the difficulty is weaknesses in standard ways of polling, which uses conventional framing (i.e. elite framing) to force people into yes / no answers, and then aggregates across relatively gross categories (white, or white working class) and then overemphasizes slightly differences in means across such categories (i.e. 30% versus 25%?).  Different types of questions yield different types of results, yet only some of these get treated as truth.

When questions about moral issues are not framed as abstract statements of approval or disapproval for traditional “morality” in general but rather as questions about the more practical question of whether government should be made responsible for enforcing conservative morality, only 29% of white working class voters turn out to be conservative “true believers” who strongly agree with the idea. In fact, a significantly larger group of 43% strongly disagrees and holds that the government is actually “getting too involved” in the issue.

But even more significant, nearly a quarter of the respondents are somewhat ambivalent or open-minded on this issue. As the chart below makes dramatically clear, they represent the key swing group whose support can convert either side into a majority.

It’s easy to move unproblematically from the results of polls to interpretations about people, but there is always interpretation involved, framing always matters, and there is always simplification. We (social scientists, especially) prefer the idea that if we just choose the right tools than interpretation is unnecessary.  But that’s simply not true.  And if interpretation isn’t done explicitly and carefully, we end up just using our own biases and stereotypes.

The other issues concerns on what terrain you contest.  But of course, sometimes financing campaigns is in tension with appealing to voters.

As can be seen, on the distinct subset of “populist” issues about corporate profits, power and the role of wall street a majority of white American workers—54%—strongly agree with a liberal/progressive view. In contrast, only 20% strongly agree with the conservative, pro-business perspective.

(All this reminds me of the controversy over the role of African-Americans in the approval of Prop 8.  Classism remains a serious problem.)

Of course, getting this wrong stands in the way of changing things. It’s easy to believe that progress is stymied because a large swath of the population is inherently opposed to your goals. It lets you off the hook.  To believe that people can change places a responsibility on activists to reach out, to do the hard work of organizing.

But it’s not true.  The road ahead may be difficult.  But it’s not impossible.


Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm

4 Responses

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  1. As I’ve said in our discussions on Twitter, I find Levison’s results neither surprising nor encouraging. He does show that it is only a minority of the white working class that is consistently conservative in its ideology. Unfortunately, the “moderates” within this group, and even the narrow “liberal/progressive” majority, have more than enough conservative levers to pull, and hot buttons to press, in their total ideological worldviews, to allow them to be manipulated by big money and the mainstream media into voting against fundamental change (or even meaningful short-term reform) when the chips are down. Racial and ethnic bigotry are rampant (note Levison’s results on immigration questions), to say nothing of more fundamentally conservative views like the work ethic and the view of debts as sacred obligations. As the voting results from Wisconsin not so long ago have illustrated, any American voter who is not thoroughly and consistently radical cannot be counted on. And there are still relatively few of those.

    I also take issue with your use of the term “fatalism”. Where fundamental change in worldview is concerned, it is Levison who is fatalistic; he writes off the hard core of conservative white working class voters as for practical purposes unreachable, and appears to assume implicitly that even the progressives and moderates among them are reachable only to the extent that their pre-existing ideology allows. I see the “progressive” Left’s concern with incremental change as itself a mark of fatalism; who would bother if more fundamental change were achievable? But appearances can be deceptive, as the sudden appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement in late 2011 makes clear. I see incremental progressivism as not only fatalistic, but self-defeating: by encouraging people to devote so much effort to work within the system, it implicitly legitimizes the system itself. As difficult as it may be, and as much as it may depend on the stimulus of external events (like economic meltdowns), we must assume that we can change the fundamental ideological orientation of large numbers of people. Working within the system in certain particular ways can play a role, for example in attempting to drum up support for Universal Basic Income (UBI), or the Pirate Party’s crusade against intellectual property (and the closely related issue of universal surveillance). These are what the Marxist André Gorz dubbed “non-reformist reforms”.

    Douglas D. Edwards

    August 28, 2012 at 12:57 am

    • Many thoughts, not entirely organized.

      The problem with talking about whether anything is surprising or encouraging is that it depends on baselines, and I think yours is not typical (which isn’t a judgment on its validity, obviously). Given your interests I thought you might think it was useful, less so the other two.

      It’s likely surprising and encouraging to those that (falsely) believe that the white working class is universally and totally conservative, which to my mind includes a significant amount of the left to mild left. And as I said, I think this leads to a particular type of fatalism—one that says people are against us and won’t change. Levinson challenges both of these, although perhaps not enough. I agree that people can change their views quite radically (although I doubt the mechanism for this is persuasion), but polling isn’t the means for establishing that.

      I don’t see how you either mobilize people (my concern) or persuade them (your concern, unless I’m mistaken) unless you can work the inconsistencies in their views. If they are truly 100% against you (the hard core) how do you even begin?

      The other thing is that the right and the corporate sector are already, to my mind, heavily mobilized, while the left is not. The right’s discourse has been the dominant one for a generation. And yet the group who should (supposedly) be the most susceptible to this messaging is not solidly in their corner. What would happen if subsets of this group were focused on?

      If Americans are less conservative than the policy we get or the discourse that surrounds us, and I’d say both of these points are true, than the problem is less the people and more the institutions. Those institutions can be challenged and the people can be an ally in this, especially in those areas where they are already on board. If I was going to pick one area where I wanted people to be in my corner, a willingness to challenge the power of Wall Street and corporations would be it.

      I think you overestimate the power of big money and media – personal contact is more powerful, in my view. I also don’t interpret Wisconsin as you do either – remember that where voters were given the choice of voting directly on collective bargaining (Ohio) they opposed the corporate agenda. In Wisconsin the Democratic candidate refused to even make that a central issue.

      David Kaib

      August 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm

  2. […] opinions are misunderstood. This is one more example of how inattention to the details produces progressive fatalism and conservative […]

  3. […] enough, both democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability can lead to fatalism. If policy is consistently going against me, I can assume it is because my views are not widely […]

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