The Inquiring Reader
Discussing interesting writing and ideas

White-Collar Populism

by Dustin Guastella

reviewed by Jon Duelfer

Illustration by Luca Yety Battaglia

Read on Jacobin

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are often placed side-by-side as progressives, contrasting sharply with the moderates of the Democratic party. In White-Collar Populism, Dustin Guastella shows that although they do share similar policies, their bases differ. Elizabeth Warren represents a slice of the white-collar class – specifically those that Guastella refers to as liberal professionals – and outpolls “all others among high-income, postgraduate-educated Democratic voters.”

This may appear to be a positive indicator to some. Why wouldn’t the people want an ex-Harvard law professor with an academic approach to policy and who polls highest with “educated voters”? Guastella makes the case that Warren represents a trend in the Democratic party that has marginalized working-class interests for the last fifty years. He shows that although she is progressive – and represents a reemergence of progressive policies in the American Left – her agenda is not intended for the working-class. Instead, it represents the interests of today’s liberal professionals.

The Professionalization of America

Whereas the number of wageworkers grew by about 225 percent from 1870 to 1940, the white-collar mass of managers, salaried professionals, and office workers rose by an astounding 1600 percent.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of the professional class. “[T]eaching, engineering, medicine, and the law were all transformed from vocations or jobs into ‘professional careers.’” This new wave of professionals looked to tear down corrupt systems. It looked to establish a well-designed order “based on merit and opportunity brought about through the forward march of science and education.”

Before World War I, professionals were only “around 5 percent of the working-age population.” The end of the war brought back investment and innovation, sparking the need for college-educated workers who would surpass “the size of the entire agricultural workforce” by the middle of the century. This new demographic wanted their own interests represented in government.

For their own part, professionals came to see themselves as experts destined to administer society from above. They would protect the public interest against the recklessness of a strike-happy working class and the avarice of the rich.

They were empiricists. They saw the system that they were growing into as corrupt and outdated. They wanted to clean it, make it shine, professionalize it. They were the white-collar class, similar to the blue-collar class in desires and interests, yet saw themselves as slightly superior due of their education, training, certifications, etc. They were the managers of the working-class.

The Takeover of Liberalism

Just as the professionals were arm in arm with wageworkers in the pursuit of a new egalitarian vision of environmentalism, an end to the Vietnam War, consumer protection advocacy, and workplace safety legislation, the strike wave of the 1970s put supervisors and managers directly at odds with the industrial working class.

Liberal professionals understood the basic necessities of government. They wanted a welfare state. They wanted to fight racism. They wanted to help the poor, the homeless, the outcast. But they didn’t see the working-class as the helpless. They saw the working-class – with their unions and strikes – as part of the outdated, corrupt system that they were looking to reform.

The oft-repeated conservative critiques of the labor movement – that the unions are anti-black, anti-individual, kleptocratic, anti-opportunity, and the root cause of rising inflation – were now taken up by liberals.

Animosity grew between the working-class and the liberal professionals. As the white-collar class began to gain a foothold in the politics of the Left, working-class voters began feeling less represented in the political system. Guestella quotes Kevin Phillips, a former Nixon aid who witnessed these changes:

Slowly but surely, liberalism lost much of its Jacksonian and Trumaneque moorings in rural Missouri and steelmaking East Baltimore, and led by the ascendant professors, urban planners, social-welfare workers, minority causists and international economists, managed to become increasingly the political vehicle and banner of those interests, not of blue-collar Americans.

The working class noticed this shift. Unrepresented, they began to fall out of politics entirely. They began to see the new liberal professionals as an “elite” in and of themselves – a separate caste of society that could only be achieved through education and certification, for which they had neither the time nor the money.

Contrary to the culture warrior hypothesis that workers fled the Democrats in order to satisfy their culturally conservative views, the reality is that workers did not, by and large, jump ship to vote Republican, they simply dropped out. In 1980, roughly half of all working-class voters identified with the Democratic Party, and only around a quarter with the Republicans. By 1994, about a third of wageworkers cast ballots for Democrats and around the same amount for Republicans. But by 2016, less than a third were Democrats, and less than a quarter identified with the Republican Party. The story here is not just that the Democratic Party is losing workers, but that the republicans are as well – nearly half of all working-class voters do not identify with either major party today.

Effects

Although Guestella suggests that the working-class did not suddenly jump ship to the Republican party as Democrats moved further and further towards the center, he does outline how the American Right capitalized on the emerging gap in the Left’s base. The Right targeted the liberal class as the enemy of workers and attempted to align manufactures with the working-class. They depicted the new liberal professions – in their cozy offices and cubicles – of keeping down the common man. The common man should not feel loyalty to these people who ran the transformed Democratic Party, rather loyalty towards the manufacters and companies who provide them jobs.

Thanks to a concerted effort on the Right, and professional’s own contempt for the working class, workers arguably resent the professional class almost as much as they despise the ruling class.

Guestella makes a final, extremely poignant claim on the current state of the Democratic party:

The Democratic Party, in its effort to court middle-class voters, transformed itself from a party of social reform with a working-class base to a professional-class party, whose voters have a great deal of compassion for the poor, for the outcast, and for all those elements of society that don’t live in their neighborhoods or attend their schools.

Final Thoughts

The middle-class voter has often been a rearguard force in politics, as Mills pointed out: “In the shorter run they will follow the panicky ways of prestige; in the longer run they will follow the ways of power.” The future of American society lies with its working class, which grows more politically self-conscious and numerous by the day.

The working class does not need a candidate who “has a plan for that.” Nor does the working class need ivy-league economists to tell them why an unbelievably cruel minimum wage – which keeps many people in poverty even when working full-time – is ultimately better for them and America. They need a candidate who understands their concerns and represents their interests in order to bring working-class Americans back to the forefront of politics. Guastella tells us that we must be wary of the allure of white-collar populism, which is propagated furiously through the media, and focus instead on policies that will matter to working-class Americans. He claims that Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who can do this, and I find it hard to disagree.