America's Forgotten Majority

Forget the "soccer mom." The new white working class is the key to twenty-first-century politics, but neither party has found a way to mobilize it effectively

IF one is to believe the bulk of news stories, the typical American voters these days are affluent white mothers ("soccer moms") and fathers, living in the suburbs and probably involved in the information economy ("wired workers"), whose interest in government reflects their relatively privileged position: "No big programs, please, because we don't really need them, but little, cheap ones are okay, provided they target one of our few remaining problems."

• "Soccer moms.... were America's most wanted voters, and their every wish turned up on some politician's list of promises: child tax credits, education tax breaks, scholarships, V-chips, school uniforms, longer childbirth stays, time off for teacher conferences, even a breast cancer web site. Some called it pandering, others family friendliness" (USA Today, November 6, 1996).

• "Wired workers are the wave of the future, political analysts say. Political parties will learn to surf the new demographics, or go under. Wired workers solve problems as part of self-directed teams, and regularly use computers on the job. They tend to be self-reliant, mobile, affluent, pro-free market, socially tolerant and deeply concerned about educating their children and re-educating themselves. And they are multiplying" (Tulsa World, October 28, 1998).

• "Suburbs vary immensely, of course.... But politicians use the term as collective shorthand for key groups of swing voters: married couples with children, the 'soccer moms' who were so sought after in the 1996 election, affluent independent voters and the high-technology employees who work miles from any city" (The New York Times, May 4, 1999).

If all of this is accurate, then perhaps the extraordinarily cautious and modest nature of today's politics is justified. Large social and economic problems cannot be tackled because the most important voters are too far removed from them.

But if it is not accurate, perhaps we are unnecessarily limiting the role of government and selling the future of our country short. This possibility occurred to us as we pored over accounts of elections in the 1990s and became increasingly suspicious that conventional stereotypes of the American voter missed the mark. We knew, for example, that more than three quarters of American adults lack four-year college degrees, that more than seven tenths do not hold professional or managerial jobs, and that the median income of American households is actually quite modest (about $39,000 in 1998). Could American voters in general, and swing voters in particular, really be so different from what these data suggest? Could it really be true that, as one newspaper story had it, "Nixon's Silent Majority and the Reagan Democrats ... are becoming as hard to find ... as parking spots at the local minimall"?

We became particularly intrigued by the assertion -- explicit above, sometimes implicit, but almost always there -- that the white working class had become politically irrelevant. How could this be? The 1980s weren't that long ago. Demographic change is generally gradual, not sudden. The country is still mostly white (almost three quarters of adults, more than four fifths of voters), and most people have, according to the data just cited, jobs, educations, and incomes that can broadly be described as working-class.

Well, what can't be usually isn't. The white working class is alive and well in American politics today. Sure, many of its members prefer the label "middle class," and most don't work in factories or at any other kind of blue-collar job. But their economic position in American society bears little resemblance to that of the suburban college-educated professionals we hear so much about.

We call these white working-class voters the forgotten majority of American politics: "forgotten" because we haven't heard much about them of late and also because they haven't benefited much from policy changes over the past thirty years or so; "majority" because they are just that -- about 55 percent of the voting population.

From FDR to Reagan

THEY weren't always forgotten. Indeed, one important thing to keep in mind is how odd, historically speaking, the current enshrinement of soccer moms and wired workers is. From the New Deal through the 1980s it was widely recognized that white working-class voters were, in one way or another, the key to American politics. The prototypical members of the New Deal coalition, for example, were ethnic white workers -- commonly envisioned as working in unionized factories, but also including those who weren't in unions or who worked in other blue-collar settings (construction, transportation, and so forth). These voters provided the numbers for FDR's four election victories and Harry Truman's narrow victory in 1948, and offered political support for the emerging U.S. welfare state, with its implicit social contract and greatly expanded role for government. In the 1950s the white working class provided the margin of victory for the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in two elections. At the same time, it continued to support the expansion of the welfare state, as a roaring U.S. economy continued to deliver the goods and government continued to pour money into roads, science, schools, and whatever else seemed necessary to build up the country. This era, stretching back to the late 1940s and forward to the mid-1960s, was the era that created the first mass middle class in the world -- a middle class that even factory workers could enter, since they could earn a relatively comfortable living even without high levels of education or professional skills.

Things began to fall apart in the 1960s. Though the white working class backed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the liberalism of their era, the emergence of conflicts around race (initially riots and the rise of militant black nationalism; later affirmative action and busing to achieve racial balance) and the Vietnam War weakened their support. These conflicts led directly to Richard Nixon's triumph in 1968 and a stunningly high vote (14 percent) for the third-party candidate George Wallace, as disaffected white working-class voters deserted the Democratic Party en masse (64 percent voted for Nixon or Wallace). White working-class voters were also widely acknowledged to be behind the huge popular rejection of George McGovern in 1972 -- 70 percent of this group cast their ballots for Nixon.

Presented by

Joel Rogers is a professor of sociology, law, and political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he also directs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His most recent book is America's Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.

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