One cool evening last spring, I finished early on a maintenance job at a university parking ramp in Iowa City, Iowa. I was one of a three-person crew including two other white people, both from deeply poor and working-class backgrounds. Our pay rate was US$11 an hour.
Looking down from the top ramp beneath a clear and starry sky, I decided to kill some time by venturing down one of the elevators I’d just help make spotless and into a neighborhood across a highway from the ramp. It was an old upper-middle class residential area for tenured professors, senior medical researchers, doctors, lawyers, academic administrators and the like.
Crossing into this community, I was struck by its calming and sumptuous greenery. I heard oak and spruce leaves rustling with the gentle May breeze. Behind ancient and giant trees stood attractive two- and three-story homes with nicely manicured lawns. The soothing neighborhood, nicely nestled between the slow-motion four lane Highway 6 to its south and a westward bend of the Iowa River to its north, smacked with accomplishment and success. It was full of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders yard signs.
I doubt there’s a single One Percenter—a member of the nation’s wealthiest one hundredth and financial ruling class—living in this community.
Upon my return, I mentioned this neighborhood to one of my white co-workers, a hard-bitten Donald Trump supporter. He told me he’d taken the same exact walking excursion on a different night. “Man,” he added, “those people have got it made!”
Where my co-workers and many other white U.S. workers come from, people live in run-down mobile homes and small and dilapidated houses. They struggle with joblessness, the disappearance of manufacturing work, usurious interest payments to Payday Loan sharks, and the long-ago collapse of a once thriving family farm economy. They reside in forgotten counties plagued with alcoholism and opiate addiction, educational failure, family breakdown, violence, and shockingly high middle-aged death rates.
They hail from a very different, uglier, and Other America than one inhabited by the people in the neighborhood across the highway from the parking ramp that I walked through last spring.
It’s hard to imagine any competent social observer thinking something as idiotic as the notion that my working-class co-worker and the comfortable folks living in that neighborhood reside in the same social class. Astonishingly enough, however, I have been told more than once by leftists claiming to channel the spirit of Karl Marx that there are just two classes in the United States: the super-rich financial bourgeoisie, which lives off the proceeds of its capital, and everyone else, who work for wages or salaries. “If you work for a living and have a boss,” I am told, “then you are in the working class.” The college dean and the senior university administrators and tenured department chairs are in the same class as the janitors who clean their offices and the food service workers who serve them lunch at the university cafeteria.
The contemporary shorthand for this childish two-class dichotomy is of course “the 1 Percent” vs. “the 99 Percent.” This once useful slogan crudely deletes the massive disparities that exist between the working-class majority of Americans and the nation’s professional and managerial class. In the U.S. as across the world capitalist system, ordinary working people suffer not just from the elite private and profit-seeking capitalist ownership of workplace and society. They also confront the steep oppression inherent in what longtime left economists Robin Hahnel and Mike Albert call the “corporate division of labor”—an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”
The differences between the professional and managerial or “coordinator class” (Hahnel and Albert’s term) and the working class aren’t just about wealth, income and the things that money can buy. They are also about self-assurance, power, freedom, rank, worldliness, education, health, and the joy of living within and beyond the workplace. They reflect vast disparities in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice. Over time, this pecking order hardens “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class—roughly the top fifth of the workforce—“controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the working class) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class,” Albert notes, “looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done. It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and the higher incomes needed to support more expensive tastes.”
As the prolific liberal sociologist and policy researcher Robert Putnam suggests in his latest book, "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis," the differences extend into the intimate life- and opportunity-shaping, and highly class-differentiated experience of childhood. Children of the professional and managerial class have empowering, highly advantaged experiences with family, parenting, school, and community—experiences that are far more geared to future occupational and “earnings” “success” compared to the more commonly debilitating and “failure” poverty-transmitting experiences of working- and lower-class kids.
There are no One Percent oppressors, children, and families in Putnam’s study. The financial ruling class is missing in his book. This is certainly a problem, but the vast class differences Putnam finds and shows between an “upper class” defined just as households with at least one parent who graduated college and households with no such parents are still very stark indeed.
These often unduly neglected sub-One Percent class differences are not without political significance. Take the phenomenon of how millions of working-class U.S. whites are ready to vote for the vicious right-wing nativist and proto-fascist Donald Trump. The phenomenon has been significantly exaggerated by elite Democrats eager to blame the noxious Trump candidacy on the “uneducated whites.” Still there’s no doubt that the nation’s white working class favors the Republican (Trump) over the Democrat (Mrs. Clinton) in the coming presidential election. It’s nothing new. The GOP has been winning the white working-class vote over many quadrennial U.S. elections now.
The standard elite liberal “what’s the matter with Kansas” (WTMWK) explanation for this superficially counter-intuitive fact is that the poor white proles have been bamboozled by clever ruling class Republicans who use racism, sexism, nativism, and related “social issues” like abortion, gun rights, and religion to divert those workers from their supposed natural “pocketbook” interest in electing Democrats. There’s some truth in this venerable liberal Democratic narrative, but it leaves out some very basic factors, including the unpleasant fact that the Democratic “party of labor and the New Deal” is just as completely if not more completely in the pocket of Big Business and High Finance as the Republicans in the neoliberal age. This is especially the case in the current election cycle, wherein Trump’s move towards protectionism and his critique of corporations’ dismantling of U.S. industry has helped push the elite financial and corporate sectors more heavily than usual towards the Democratic Party.
Also unduly deleted in the reigning liberal WTMWK narrative is many white U.S. workers’ frankly rational “pocketbook” interest in restricting immigration. Of course white workers have reason to want to restrict the size of the “reserve army of labor” that employers can wield against the working class in the “homeland.”
In a similar vein, it’s a mistake to think that white workers in, say, West Virginia coal territory or in North Dakota’s oil fields, have no rational pocketbook reasons to feel threatened by Democrats’ claim (more progressive fluff than seriously environmentalist reality) to want to address climate change by cutting back on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Another deleted factor is the longstanding tension that exists between the working class and the professional and managerial class. It is through regular and often aggravating and even humiliating contact with the “coordinator class,” not the mostly invisible financial elite, that the working class mostly commonly experiences class inequality and oppression in America. Working people might see hyper-opulent “rich bastards” like Trump, Bill Gates, and even Warren Buffett on television. In their real lives, they carry out “ridiculous orders” and receive “idiotic” reprimands from middle- and upper middle-class coordinators—from, to quote a white university maintenance worker I spoke to earlier this summer, “know-it-all pencil-pushers who don’t give a flying fuck about regular working guys like me.” This worker is voting for Trump “just to piss-off all the big shot (professional class) liberals” he perceives as constantly disrespecting and pushing him around.
It is not lost on the white working class that this professional class elite tends to align with the Democratic Party and its purported liberal and multicultural, cosmopolitan, and environmentalist values. It doesn’t help that the professional-managerial elite is aligned with the politically correct multiculturalism and the environmentalism that white workers have frankly rational pocketbook and other reasons to see as a threat to their living standards, status, and general well-being.
Progressives are foolish to dismiss that sense of threat and workers’ class resentment of professional and managerial elites beneath the One Percent as reactionary and racist twaddle on the part of brutish and under-educated white proles who need direction and supervision from their supposed middle- and upper middle-class superiors.
A Trump victory in November seems highly unlikely. The gaff-prone and highly unprofessional nature of the candidate, the vastly superior ruling- and professional-class resources and expertise being marshaled around the de facto moderate Republican Hillary Clinton, the racial and ethnic demographics of the national electoral map, and the relative weakness and likely low turnout of his white working-class support – all this and more points to a major defeat for “the Donald.” To drive voter turnout for their right-wing candidate Hillary Clinton, Democrats want people to believe that Trump could actually win. Don’t bet on it. But if Trump somehow pulls it off (and nothing is impossible in these volatile times), he will do so with a white working-class protest vote that the multiply class privileged Democrats will have largely created on their own—and not just the One Percenters among them.
Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa City, Iowa. His latest book is, "They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy."