WWC, the Precariat, and the Suspension of Disbelief

By John Russo

The traditionally-defined white working-class and “downscale” voters described by Stan Greenberg have a well-founded disbelief in the Democratic Party. This disbelief has even expanded to include the black working class, which has benefited little from the first African-American Presidency.

The disbelief is based on a history of betrayals of campaign promises and “Republican-lite” economic and social legislation that have undermined working-class support in both the white and black communities. Democrat reforms in the 1990s, such as the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994), resulted in policies that had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. Particularly in regions like the Rustbelt, white working-class support for Democrats has shifted increasingly to Republicans. Michael Lind puts this in an historical context, suggesting that Democrats are now largely “anti-New Deal.”

So we should not be surprised that Greenberg found that predominantly white working-class and downscale voters have been leaving the Democratic Party. But Greenberg also found that the disenchantment with Democrats has increased within other segments of the Party’s core constituency. People are not necessarily voting Republican. More likely, they are not voting at all. For example, in 2014, Ohio had second smallest voter turnout in recent history, with Republican voters over 50 overrepresented. In Democrat strongholds in Northeast Ohio, the turnout was below 40%, and in working-class Youngstown, only 12,000 people voted.

Low turnout is a problem, but I think the Democratic Party has a much bigger problem than Greenberg and other pollsters suggest: the party is losing the support of millennials, a core constituency that doesn’t fit easily into the standard pollster definition of working class.  Because such definitions emphasize education, they leave out millennials, many of whom belong to the growing precariat. Some have high school degrees, so polls identify them as working class, but many have bachelors’ and advanced degrees, so in polls they count as middle class—even though their earnings and working conditions would put them in the working or poverty class. As more people complete college, while polls continue to identify class by education, it can seem like the working class is shrinking. Some pundits have even argued that Democrats can forget the working class.

In many ways, downscale millennials have a different mistrust problem than do older working-class voters.  Millennials probably don’t have either a clear memory of or a strong sense of resistance to the policy betrayals of the older working class. Rather, they have learned from their own experience, especially in the workplace, that government is likely to be of little help, regardless of the political party.

While Greenberg doesn’t provide a clear definition of what he means by “downscale voters,” a recent National Employment Law Report may offer some insight. Currently, 42% of the American workforce makes less than $15/hour. This includes retail and service workers, as well as those in manufacturing where, for example, 50% of autoworkers now make less than $15/hour. In the future, while more people will have college degrees, only one out of four jobs will require a college degree. Of the remaining 75% of the workforce, most will work in the lower wage and benefit sectors of the economy. Perhaps this is why a recent Gallup poll showed that fewer people see themselves as middle class and a growing number of Americans self identify as working and lower class. Guy Standing has identified these workers as part of the precariat, and his research shows that their numbers are growing.

These downscale precariat millennials may not share all of the working class’s same ideas about work and cultural values, they do share many economic security issues. But they deal with those issues differently. In Youngstown, researchers have found that millennials have internalized their insecurity, and they justify their precarious work situations as offering more freedom. Many willingly cobble together multiple contingent jobs, pursue avocations over vocations, lack confidence in institutions, and view their personal relationships as contingent and episodic, like their work relations. This leaves them without a sense of agency, and that in turn has led to a growing depoliticization and lack of hope. As the playwright David Mamet has suggested, freedom is what you believe in when you believe in nothing else. If they want to motivate millennials to vote, Democrats must provide something to believe in.

No doubt, as the formal economy increasingly looks like the informal economy, the precariat millennial constituency will only grow and become an increasingly important part of the electorate. That will require political pundits to rethink definitions of “working class” and the questions they use in polls to identify working-class voters. If Democrats recognized the precariat millennials as potential voters, they might develop political programs that could better engage them.

Unfortunately, Greenberg’s strategy is too, well, conservative. Rather than advocating for significant reforms, he and other Dems have focused on modest measures, such as incremental changes in the minimum wage and preserving social security and Medicare. While such policies help to address inequality and have some populist appeal, they won’t either make significant change in the economic reality or engage millennial voters. To give the precariat a reason for civic engagement, Democrats must offer a broader economic and social platform. This will require some serious rethinking of policy reform.

Perhaps a good place for Dems to begin is with Standing’s book, The Precariat Charter. He presents an explicit set of ambitious principles that include, among other ideas, redefining work as productive and reproductive activity, regulating flexible labor, decommodifying education, a universal basic wage, and reviving the commons and deliberative democracy. Using these principles, progressive policies could be crafted that better address issues of fairness, justice, changes in work, and the reestablishment of participatory democracy and citizenship that are central to regaining working-class and millennial support now and in the future. Such a program would also be morally, ethically, and politically responsible. It would give disaffected downscale voters something to believe in.

Unfortunately, some Democratic Party leaders would rather stick with a formula that appeals to an eroding and ill-defined middle class while continuing its conservative trajectory. No wonder the New York Times already reports that Republicans have tried to exploit the inconsistencies that are the basis of the disbelief among more liberal Democrats, the working class, and the growing precariat.

John Russo, Visiting Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute, Virginia Tech and former Co-director, Center for Working-Class Studies.