One definition is: those who have nothing to sell but their labor. But this immediately degenerates into an unmanageable ambiguity. This is not simply the lineman and plumber; it may include the computer programmer and the bank clerk and the teacher. It describes a condition of property lessness, characteristic of many who came to live in industrial cities in the nineteenth century, the poor in the age of Jackson and Grant, of Victoria, often depicted by Dickens.
It is a tribute to capitalism and socialism in the West that this class has largely disappeared, property lessness being ameliorated by social security and other safety networks, and by a generally rising market economy. It is difficult to find persons without social security; 64% of Americans own their homes and 32% have a 401K, while private pension plans are numerous. This is not to say that there are no more propertyless persons.
Often the working class is not imagined economically but according to slippery defining characteristics. Working with one’s hands, laboring manually, should define a member of the working class, but this definition catches piano tuners, the folk who hold the “Slow” sign at the site of street repairs, the cable tv repairman who can climb the pole as well as figure out just which of the little wires is disconnected, the HVAC installer, the bricklayer, the finish carpenter and hundred of other hands-on projects, and a vast range of ‘tech’ workers. Interestingly, tech people who now inhabit offices by the thousands are not considered working class, although they are now often the landless peasants of post-modernity. Among some of these, especially in the building trades, craftsmanship survives. Then there is the popular image of the working man, who used to drink Bud Light, drives an F150, who finished High School but did not go to college, who usually thinks religion is a good thing whether he does much of it or not, and whose moral education is various. A good number of these folks are technically racist; they sometimes compete with African-Americans. These are the folks from among whom come a disproportionate number of the soldiers and sailors that make the projection of American power possible. They are to be found mostly in the South and Midwest. They are usually decent. They do the dry-wall, bring the mail, manage the McDonald’s, man the Seven Eleven, mow the lawn. At its upper edge is the Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus, where working men culture overlaps with the bourgeoisie. They read People. Only at the very top edge of this ‘class’ will anyone listen to PBS; they are glued to Fox or Newsmax.
If “working class” cannot be defined functionally, there are other characteristics. They are united against a class the dimensions of which they probably discern but dimly. It is a class whose members feel responsible for rearranging society to amend social ills, especially inequality; they are theoretically socialists although they are often haut bourgeois rentiers, living off the capital somebody in Oklahoma bequeathed to them. They graduated from a northeastern college; they read the Atlantic, Washington Post, and New York Times. They are located disproportionately in the Northeast. They know wine. They know opera. They listen to PBS. They are generally untroubled by religion. Sometimes they are refugees from the midwest. Their careers are in law, finance, academia, government, and the nonprofit world. Their charities are not libraries and schools but projects working men do not understand and, when they do understand them, view with apathy or hostility; more birth control in Kenya, equality projects in Louisiana, climate melioration in Morocco. .
The realities that bind the elites to working men, making them citizens of one country, are the tax system, national elections, and Delta Airlines. How did the separation between the elite and workingmen develop? National organisms and organizations that had been national became regional or sectional. The national religions, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholicism have to some degree become regional, with conservative Protestants, often in rebellion from the national church, located disproportionately in the South and Midwest. The political parties that have always been sectional to some degree have become decidedly more so. It is difficult for a democrat to gain state office south of the Potomac, and impossible for a Republican to be elected in a blue city. National elections will depend upon the outcome in fours states—we pretty well know how the other forty seven will vote. All universities are to some degree woke, but red state universities are generally less woke. It would be interesting to have someone do a study of the differences in student culture between Texas A & M and the University of Massachusetts, the differences if not dramatic might still be significant. Working men country is still marginally closer to mother earth than the elite northeast. Not only is the farm likely to still be in the family, but if you are rich in Dallas as well as a townhouse in 75205 you have a ranch. Elite folks ski in Colorado or Switzerland, where they may own a chalet. They listen to PBS and CNN.
To seal the differences between these two cultures, the high priestess of elitism, running hard to be the first woman elected president, called working men deplorable. That crystallized the differences between working men’s culture (and their allies in the bourgeois middle class) and the elite. [Incidentally, someone with a sympathetic eye should study the American bourgeoisie middle class, which thrives on a mixture of capitalism and socialism.] The ‘deplorables’ remark, which had force because it represented the contempt of not just one woman but of elite, left working men with a permanent sense of resentment, not least because as Massachusetts has always done, the elite proceeded to activate, passive aggressively, the southern racial minority against the majority. But a more substantive difference was on the question of access. The elite controlled the national capital and its culture, the means of communication, existential access to power, to senators, to the national press.
But the working men found a populist champion, a champion who could not be defunded because he had enough money, and who understood the resentment, who now represents the interests of working men, the degree to which this alliance is cynical on his part being left to individual insight, [Another study needs to be made of just why the elites hate the populist champion. It is true that he dislikes the bureaucracy and might try to dismantle it, but the contempt is visceral and runs deeper. Why?] There are analogies to his political success. One thinks of the liberal party’s victory in 1906, which ended Tory dominance for a generation, but a more apt analogy may be the rise of Benito Mussolini in 1921 It is important to understand the very personal connection that working men feel with their hero, who repeatedly says, they are coming after you, I’m just standing in the way. This resonates because it is true, “they,” understood to be the elite bureaucracy, are coming after your truck—they want you to buy an electric car, which is intuitively understood to be an attack on freedom—they want your natural gas heaters, and most importantly they want you children; they want you son to consider seriously the possibility that he may be a girl, and they want your children to start thinking about sex when they are six. On top of this the elite intuitively despise your religion as a matrix for racism and resistance to wokeism.
This is the situation, and it is unlikely that anyone from the right can achieve political power without earning the loyalty of the working men and women who flock to his rallies. A kind of moral sense exists among them as well as a sense of independence, and because they are often not quite propertyless, there exists a fierce defense of what they have.