Class Resentment and American Politics

Last week, House Republicans passed a version of the tax “reform” bill so quickly, you might have missed it if you blinked.  There’s really no argument about this tax bill being an absolute disaster for the country.  I know this probably sounds like hyperbole, but just stop for a minute and consider that we’ve reached the point where the Republican Party has lost Forbes Magazine:

If it’s enacted, the GOP tax cut now working its way through Congress will be the start of a decades-long economic policy disaster unlike any other that has occurred in American history.

… the GOP tax bill may be enacted without anyone who votes for it having any understanding of the damage it could do to the economy. They have wishes, hopes and prayers but in reality nothing beyond the economic equivalent of pagan superstition.

Without getting too deep into what the GOP’s tax proposals do, the House plan will massively slash taxes for the wealthy and for corporations—and since corporations aren’t really short of cash, much of the benefit from the latter would ultimately accrue to the wealthy.  Further benefiting rich people, the House plan phases out the estate tax.  Meanwhile, apart from a boost to the child tax credit, the middle class gets almost nothing.

The Senate’s plan has some differences, but it isn’t any better.  Examining analysis from the Tax Policy Center, Kevin Drum calls the Senate plan “batshit crazy” and finds that it manages to actually increase taxes for a massive number of households over the next decade.

Among middle-class families, 50-70 percent will see a tax increase by 2027. Among the rich, that number is only 15-30 percent. And among the super-duper rich, almost no one sees a tax increase.

I think it’s safe to say nobody is surprised that elected Republicans are pushing such a tax bill.  It’s pretty much their forte, after all.  Instead, I want to talk about why it is so much of the electorate is, if not enthusiastic about cutting taxes for rich people, at least fine with it.

All too often, these discussions move into “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” territory.  The perennial question, “Why are conservatives, especially working class conservatives, voting against their economic interests?” inevitably gets raised.  Now, I don’t find this question particularly helpful.  People vote for policies that won’t benefit them all the time.  Still, the issue it raises—why are so many people fine with casting votes to benefit the wealthy—calls for some kind of explanation.

The answer, I suspect, lies in class resentment.

Explaining last year’s election has been something of a hobby for a lot of people, and more causes have been offered up than I can count.  But I think one cause that doesn’t get discussed as much as it deserves to is the resentment Trump supporters feel towards the groups that comprise the liberal coalition.  Much of this takes the form of bigotry against nonwhites, which is itself often disguised as resentment towards poor people.  But there’s undoubtedly a fair bit of resentment against college-educated professionals, students, and urbanites.

The best explanation I’ve seen of this dynamic was a piece in the Harvard Business Review by Joan Williams that was published shortly after the 2016 election.

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money.

And what is it that defines members of the upper-middle-class?  It’s not really income, although that plays some part.  It’s lifestyle, education, and outlook.  They work white collar jobs.  They went to college, and have a college-educated mindset.  They live in cities.  They’re the type of people who are concerned about their kids’ education enough to have their kids do things like read books in the home.  They’re politically engaged, culturally liberal, environmentally conscious, and not church-obsessed.  When Trump supporters gripe about “the liberals,” these are the people they have in mind.

Obviously, these are to some degree stereotypes.  Not every white collar worker is liberal, nor is every blue collar worker conservative.  If you break things down by income, you’ll find it wasn’t a major predictor of how people voted last election.  Plenty of high-earning professionals voted Republican, and Hillary Clinton carried the working class (just not the white working class).

But as I mentioned above, this isn’t really about income.  And although these might be stereotypes, they’re stereotypes that act as class markers, distinguishing one class from another.  A useful, if somewhat oversimplified, way to think about class in the United States is as four strata:

  1. The uber-wealthy
  2. The upper-middle-class (professionals)
  3. The lower-middle-class (working class)
  4. The poor

Each class is most concerned with the strata immediately above and/or below it.  This concern normally takes the form of resentment or contempt, but it also manifests itself in a concern about a class’s relative standing to its neighbors.

You can see this clearly in the lower-middle-class hatred for (as they describe it) those snobby, elitist members of the upper-middle-class as well as the undeserving, lazy poor.  And seen through the lens of comparative status, the lower-middle-class’s support for conservative economic policy begins to make much more sense.  Booting poor people off the dole?  That will stick it to those moochers.  Giving the super-rich a bunch of tax breaks?  That leaves those college-educated liberals in the dust.  What better way to poke them in the eye?  The appeal of such politics has nothing to do with their own lot being improved, but rather, in lowering the standing of the two neighboring groups relative to their own.  Helping the super-rich get even richer may not improve their absolute standing.  But it lessens the gap between the lower middle class and the people immediately below the super-rich, and that’s good enough.

If this theory of class conflict doesn’t sound plausible to you, think about it this way.  It’s just classic resentment towards your boss, something any worker, regardless of occupation, can relate to.  Who tends to be the bosses of the working class?  As Williams notes, odds are their bosses aren’t uber-wealthy CEO types, but middle management white collar professionals.  And who are the bosses for the white collar professionals?  Assuming it’s not some other white collar professional, odds are it’s an uber-wealthy CEO type.

And that’s why the question “Why do they vote against their own economic interests?” ultimately doesn’t matter.  Yes, in absolute terms, they’d probably be better off under liberal economic policies.  But many people do not judge how they’re doing by absolute standing.  They judge how they’re doing by their standing relative to other people.  And the easiest way to improve your own relative standing is to diminish the relative standing of others.  In the case of the lower-middle-class, this means knocking the upper-middle-class and the poor down a few pegs.  From their point of view, the uber-wealthy are too far removed to worry about.  But bringing down the standing of the upper-middle-class?  That really does make them look comparatively better.  In relative terms, anything that widens the gap between the super-rich and the white-collar professionals, like the Republican tax plan, will accomplish just that.

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