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America's Forgotten Majority

Illustration by Douglas Fraser

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

by Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

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."

Discuss this article in the Election 2000 conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Hidden Side of the Clinton Economy," by John E. Schwarz (October 1998)
The official government measures of unemployment and poverty disguise the fact that millions of Americans can't make a decent living.

"A Cartoon Elite," by Nicholas Lemann (November 1996)
Is there a class of "pampered meritocrats" who run America?

"The Age of Social Transformation," by Peter Drucker (November 1994)
A survey of the epoch that began early in this century, and an analysis of its latest manifestations: an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or raw material or capital, is the key resource; a social order in which inequality based on knowledge is a major challenge; and a polity in which government cannot be looked to for solving social and economic problems.

"Who Speaks for the Middle Class?," by Jack Beatty (May 1994)
Whatever their rhetoric may be, as a practical matter the Democrats think first of the less fortunate, the Republicans of the well-to-do. Meanwhile, the nation-breaking crisis of the middle class continues.

"The Return of Inequality," by Thomas Byrne Edsall (June 1988)
The great bulk of Americans are losing economic and political power, while the affluent are gaining both. This is not a recipe for social comity.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "Joe Sixpack's Revenge," by Christopher Caldwell (May 17, 2000)
The Republicans are the party of the rich and the Democrats of the working class, right? It's time to rethink that assumption.

"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.

From the archives:

"Race," by Thomas Byrne Edsall (May 1991)
When Americans talk about government spending, about welfare, about crime, about unemployment, or about values, they are to some degree also talking about race. Race is the subtext of American politics.

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.

The Democrats came back under Jimmy Carter, of course, but it was a short respite, because by the end of the 1970s white working-class voters had entered an economic world radically different from that of the preceding generation. Slow growth, declining real wages, stagnating living standards, high and variable inflation, and high home-mortgage interest rates were battering them economically. The great postwar escalator to the middle class had basically stopped. And the response of "activist" government was tepid. Or, worse, instead of honoring and encouraging core American values such as equal opportunity for all, fair reward for effort, the centrality of hard work and individual achievement, and social responsibility and order, the Democrats seemed to be focused on liberal social programs to promote the particular interests of gays, women, and minorities. This view was easy to cultivate among white working-class voters in the late 1970s, since many of them believed even prior to those years that the Democrats, owing to their perceived association with extremist elements of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, were out of touch with mainstream values. Thus, even as most white working-class voters were personally moving to adopt much more liberal values with respect to race, gender, and lifestyle, they embraced a pragmatically conservative judgment on government and its priorities.

From the archives:

"The New Shape of American Politics," by William Schneider (January 1987)
An analysis of the forces at work in both parties which have dramatically altered the political landscape over the past twenty years -- how they brought Ronald Reagan to power and how they will influence the race to succeed him in 1988.

In 1980 they found Reagan's anti-tax, small-government message appealing, given that the government seemed to be doing less and less for them (57 percent voted for Reagan, just 34 percent for Carter). This time they even had a name:Reagan Democrats. And those white working-class swing voters stuck with the Republicans through two more presidential elections. The stage was set, in the view of many observers, for an era of uninterrupted Republican domination, based on the consolidation of the Reagan Democrats -- a process that appeared to reach the congressional level with the Republican triumph in the 1994 elections.

But the Democrats have won the past two presidential elections, though the Republicans still control Congress. And all of a sudden, after dominating our politics for sixty years, the white working class is nowhere to be found in most media accounts of current politics. We hear a lot about soccer moms, wired workers, and suburban independents, but virtually nothing about this formerly central group of voters. What happened? Has the world really changed so much in the past decade or two? Could the white working class have been rendered irrelevant by the rise of a new economy?

The Great Divide

IT is certainly true that there have been fundamental shifts in the American economy and work force over the past generation. For example, service-sector employment has continued to grow, to the point where it now accounts for 80 percent of employment. Only about 25 percent of workers are blue-collar (craft workers, operatives, transportation workers, and laborers), while 58 percent are white-collar (managers, professionals, technicians, salespeople, and clerks). More people are working in doctors' offices than in auto plants, more in laundries and dry cleaners than in steel mills. Finally, the use of computers on the job has exploded, involving half the work force in a very short time.

We may indeed have a "new" economy for most participants, and we have the highest rate of labor-force participation in the world. But an old problem has persisted:finding work that adequately supports people and their families. More than workers in any other developed country, workers in America depend on their pay and job benefits. And for many working Americans the new economy has until very recently been more new than good. Much of the reason for this is the rapid increase in inequality in our society.

How widely the benefits of growth and productivity are shared is a basic measure of economic performance in a democracy -- and, further, widely shared benefits help to generate positive feelings about a society and its government. By these standards the U.S. economy performed superbly for the first three decades after World War II. The rising tide of postwar prosperity really did "lift all boats," as President Kennedy used to say. Indeed, as the accompanying chart indicates, boats at the bottom actually rose a little faster than those at the top. But since the early 1970s, and especially in the past two decades, the gap between rich and poor has grown steadily. National income and wealth, of course, have continued to grow, but because of this increasing inequality, only the top 20 percent of families have made significant gains. The bottom 60 percent, as the chart shows, have barely budged, and some here have actually lost income.

During this period of increasing income inequality the value of a four-year college degree has dramatically increased. Those with one have continued to move ahead; those without one have fallen further behind. For example, from 1979 to 1999 the average real hourly wage rose 14 percent for those with college degrees and 19 percent for those with advanced degrees. In contrast, average wages fell by four percent for those with only some college, 10 percent for those with only a high school diploma, and a stunning 24 percent for high school dropouts. Men among the latter three groups did even worse: they were down seven, 15, and 27 percent respectively.

The difference in prospects between those who have college degrees and those who don't is big enough to warrant its own name: the Great Divide. This Great Divide defines the new white working class. On one side of it are the three quarters of white adults who lack college degrees; these people have not fared well over the past twenty-five years. On the other side are the one quarter of white adults who have a four-year degree or even more education than that; over the past twenty-five years these people have fared very well indeed.

Of course, these non-college-educated whites are not the white working class of yesteryear. They are more likely to be doing low-level white-collar and service work than blue-collar work. They are much more likely to work in an office with a computer or at a similar service-sector job than to work in manufacturing. They are also likely to have more education than the old-style working class -- perhaps some college, maybe even a two-year associate's degree. And those in the work force are much more likely to be female. But in economic terms they are not so different from the white working class of previous generations.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)


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 Century Foundation and the author of The Disappearing American Voter (1992). Their article in this issue of The Atlantic will appear, in somewhat different form, in their book, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, to be published by Basic Books this month.

Illustration by Douglas Fraser.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; America's Forgotten Majority - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 66-75.