Yet upon reviewing evidence in a new book by Andrew Levison, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think, and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support, Olsen concludes that “conservatives, not progressives, are the ones in need of an electoral strategy to capture this key segment of the electorate.”*
Olsen proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of what the GOP thinks working-class whites want to hear, focusing on three key messages that fall short. Reihan Salam does us a nice service by briefly summarizing these points, pairing each with its uncomfortable counterpoint:
- While white working class voters aren’t pro-government, they are anxious about their deteriorating labor market position, and so they’re not necessarily inclined to celebrate entrepreneurship and the free market.
- These voters are skeptical about the virtues of large companies and Wall Street, a fact that the Tea Party movement often emphasizes. [But!] They are also hostile to free trade and the prospect of increased immigration. Olsen suggests that Republicans can’t capitalize on their skepticism about immigration “because their free trade views convince working class whites that conservatives are not on their side.”
- Half of working class whites, including a large share of evangelicals, believe both that “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough and that government should go deeper into debt to help needy Americans.” These views are less in tune with the Tea Party consensus.
As Olsen goes on to note, for whatever overlap may exist between the GOP messaging machine and the working class, the “moral consensus” that underlies such sentiments is often in direct resistance to the Right’s popular narrative of economic growth and opportunity:
Today’s conservative movement increasingly emphasizes “getting ahead,” “owning your own business,” and economic dynamism as essential to the American dream. That’s what “you built that” was all about. For whites without any college education, however, these are largely alien concepts…
…Levison draws on ethnographic studies to show that for the typical white working class person, family and stability are more important than career and upward mobility. They saw their middle-class bosses as people who “worried all the time,” were “cold and snobbish,” and as “arrogant, very arrogant people.” They saw their work as “just a job,” not a rewarding activity of itself. As befits people who work in teams and do heavy labor, they saw collegiality and practical knowledge to be of greater worth than individual striving and theoretical knowledge. Levison describes this combination as a “distinct combination of viewing work, family, friends, and good character as central values in life while according a much lower value to wealth, achievement, and ambition…”
…[This] moral view places emphasis on hard work and effort and gives respect to those who perform it, regardless of how much money is directly earned. It is one that emphasizes that life is about much more than making money or getting ahead: it’s about family, friends, and experiencing the time we have on Earth. Such views cannot be derided as “whiling away the time”; they are central to the working class world and must be respected.
Olsen’s primary aim is to address these realities through a shift in both messaging and policy, and though I have some distinct disagreements with his concluding prescriptions, it’s all quite compelling.
But aside from the political gamery and strategery of it all, I find the deeper philosophical realities a bit more intriguing. How do differing groups view work, vocation, and the Good Life in modern-day America? How do “we,” whoever we may be, fall prey to our own tunnel vision and glaze over distinct personalities, perspectives, dispositions, and vocations as it pertains to this? Though Levison and Olsen seek to wield these distinctions for political advantage — and politics does offer a nice application space for drawing things out — the data provided may assist the rest of us in reexamining how we approach what DeKoster describes as the “mosaic of culture.”
Both of these perspectives, as best as we can neatly categorize them, have their own unique strengths and challenges. While the risk-taking and pioneering entrepreneur may drive fresh economic growth and create new opportunities for all, this requires high ambition and a strong disposition toward risk and achievement — one that can easily lend to misaligned priorities and values in a way that not taking increased ownership more easily avoids. To whom much is given, much will be required and all of that.
Likewise, being more stability-prone (or less about “individual striving,” as Olsen puts it) — whether for reasons of family, personality, skill-level, vocation, or otherwise — might make it easier for us to spend time with family and community, framing this and that accordingly. But it also introduces the temptation of yielding to a misaligned comfortability and insulationism, one that devalues work as a cursed necessity while opposing new opportunities for others (e.g. free trade), all for the sake of personal security and wellbeing. Risk and sacrifice are embedded in the Gospel, and are demanded from each of us in varying ways.
This can all play out in plenty of colorful, mysterious, and unexpected flourishes, of course. Indeed, most of us likely fall somewhere in between these neat-and-tidy lines. Each unique person brings his own unique contributions to the economic and social order, which is all the more reason to frame our discussions and discipling around the challenges and benefits that each trajectory may introduce.
In other words, the task of acknowledging and addressing the diversity of humanity’s basic concerns, fears, dreams, and obligations need not be resigned to opportunistic politicians. Whether in our policy-making or theology-building, the calls of the entrepreneur, the working class laborer, and those who strive before or beyond such categories need to be approached carefully and esteemed accordingly.
“Let’s not make the mistake, if ever we are tempted, of estimating the importance of our work, or of any kind of work, by the public esteem it enjoys,” DeKoster explains. “Up-front types make news, but only workers create civilized life. The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.”
*Having not read Levison’s book, I’m uncertain as to why he focuses specifically on the white working class, but I assume it offers a similar demographic simplicity as that provided to Charles Murray in Coming Apart. Murray’s focus on whites demonstrated that certain forms of inequality persist beyond racial divides, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Levison’s data indicate something similar: that differences about work, opportunity, economic mobility, and vocation cross the more traditional divides. Of course, it also bears emphasizing the obvious reality that the categories at present focus (entrepreneurs and the working class) are not the only ones.