Working-Class Politics and the Foremen Problem

In a recent unpublished paper, Larry Bartels (author of Unequal Democracy) and Kathrine Cramer (author of The Politics of Resentment), reported a finding sure to surprise many who have been blaming “the white working class” for the election of Trump: “Contrary to much recent speculation regarding the political impact of long-term income stagnation, we find a strong correlation between upward economic mobility and increasingly conservative economic and political views.” Go figure. The party of greed, glory, and devil-take-the hindmost appeals to those who have moved upward?

Given my own interest in social mobility and working-class politics, I wondered how this finding applied specifically to working-class people. Too often we ignore social trajectory when we talk about class (when we even do talk about class!). It is as if people are fixed in place, like museum pieces, but in reality, people’s positions and situations change over time. They are also influenced by parents and grandparents whose stories and values they embrace or reject as they make their way through life.

How might working-class people’s class identifications and loyalties affect their political choices? We all know that there are workers who identify with the working class, who work in solidarity with their fellow workers, who seek to advance their interests as a class, while others identify with the boss and seek to advance their interests on their own. Traditionally, foremen (and they are more often men than women so I am keeping the archaic nomenclature), who stand in a contradictory location betwixt workers and owners, have embraced bossism, a term I am coining here to mean identification with the boss through the disciplining of other workers. They are like Fer, the sadistic prisoner in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who takes the side of the camp guards and is trying to rise to the position of engineer at the construction site. Or like “Yock,” the evil foreman who Jack Metzgar describes as getting into interminable duels with his father and other workers on the line in Striking Steel. Like prison guards, they work for the master. They are trained in cruelty and rewarded for being hard on everyone else, including those who look like them but especially those who don’t. I am sure there are many good and kind forepersons out there, but most enterprises that run on fear and intimidation need the unkind kind. Anyone knowledgeable in history knows that capitalism thrives when it keeps workers in line.

Is it possible that the candidate who promised tax cuts for the wealthy and strong discipline for the unruly appealed particularly well to foremen and supervisors among the working class? Could workers who vote Republican be, well, tools of the master? And so I turned to the General Social Survey (GSS) to see if there was something going on with this. And I found some interesting patterns.

But first, let’s consider the white working-class’s supposed swerve to the right during the Reagan era. Many did turn away from the Democratic Party in the 1980s, but only to a point. Where most used to vote…

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