Apparently when he was a consultant Mitt Romney would praise the merits of ‘wallowing in data.’ I agree with this, you can’t get more data than you need. Therefore I highly commend Public Religion Research Institute‘s survey of the “white working class.” More specifically, do read the full PDF. It’ll take you some time, but just trade that in for commenting on a weblog! Of course the results are strongly contingent upon the definition of what the white working class is. In this survey they fix upon the white population which does not have a college education (though may have some college) and is not employed in salaried labor. This seems like serviceable definition. The incomes range from low to lower upper middle class, with a mode in the lower middle class, so you get a broader cross-section of non-elite white America than Honey Boo Boo, which is to working class white America what the “ghetto life” is to working class black America.
But an interesting aspect of the survey is who it is addressed to: not to the white working class, they don’t read white papers by and large. One of the most simple non-linear political conceptualizations has a Left-Right dimension on social and economic values. You have Left-liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and a last group, often termed populists, and sometimes termed more pejoratively ‘authoritarians.’ Roughly, in elite public discourse most of the mind-share is dominated by the Left-liberals and the conservatives, with a loud but marginalized libertarian minority. The fourth quadrant is often simply unrepresented, and left without a voice.
To some extent Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat’s Grand New Party was a faint expression of the priorities of this group, albeit with an explicitly conservative tinge. But neither Salam nor Douthat are representatives of this subculture. One could argue that Pat Buchanan more authentically represents this strain in American politics, but in his personal biography Buchanan is a product of the Washington D.C. gentry. Rather, the vast majority of people who come out of the white working class milieu slowly converge upon a more conventional conservative or Left-liberal political profile. Mike Huckabee would be an example of the former, and Robert Byrd the latter. This is not a dynamic limited to the white working class. Both Hispanics and black Americans strike a far more socially moderate (on some issues conservative) profile than their political elites, which are overwhelmingly Left-liberal. Most people are not aware that Jesse Jackson was originally pro-life, for example. But as he mainstreamed himself in the Left-liberal firmament he had to align himself on social issues, even if those were not his priorities (though he did play an interesting role in the Terry Schiavo case).
The point of surveys and analyses like this to tear down the veils prejudice and incomprehension which plague the mainstream. So, for example, many educated white liberals presume that the white working class perversely votes ‘against their interests,’ and on cultural issues. The apotheosis of this argument is What’s the Matter With Kansas. The only problem with this narrative is that in fact it is not the white working class, but white economic elites, liberal and conservative, who vote on cultural rather than economic issues!
More broadly, I think surveys such as this get to the heart of the ‘dark matter’ of contemporary cultural diversity. What has Wisconsin to do with West Virginia? Because of the importance of race and non-white ethnicity in the United States since the 1960s we have had to live with the tension in our popular and elite culture between the reality of deep fissures within ‘white America,’ and the construct of an operationally monolithic institutional superstructure of ‘white skin privilege.’ In a inverted caricature of white nationalism the child of upcountry ‘hillbillies’ is presumed to be part of the same aristocracy of skin as as privileged children of the coastal establishments.
As I have stated before, that era of simplicity, of black and white, is ending. The new America is multicultural. But among those diverse cultures are those of white Americas, in the plural. A generation of diversity consultants and consciousness raising has sublimated this reality to the salience of race, but the pluralism of white America which has come to the fore tragically in the past, and it will have more valence in a multicultural, rather than biracial, America.