What Sociologists Have Gotten Wrong About Social Class
Sociologists have rightly argued that social class is a fundamental factor in shaping social life. Social class refers to unequal economic status. Poor people, middle class people and rich people have completely different experiences. Poor people are more likely to be physically sick, to have mental health problems, to have their marriages break up, to be arrested, to live near ecological disamenities such as waste dumps, to be victims of crime, to commit crimes, to have authoritarian attitudes, to have less autonomy at work, to raise their children using corporal punishment, and to have children who themselves become poor. Scientists can disagree about the precise causal mechanisms involved. There is little disagreement, however, that being lower class puts individuals at a greater risk of a wide range of adverse consequences.
What is more in question is the relationship between class position and political life. For much of the twentieth century, in most capitalist nations, there was a rough approximation of a class vote. Middle and upper class people voted for Republican, Conservative or Christian Democratic parties. Working class people voted for Democratic, Labor, Social Democratic, Socialist or Communist parties. There were plenty of exceptions to this general tendency. White voters in the American South voted Democratic in the first half of the twentieth century and Republican in the last quarter of the twentieth century regardless of what class they were in. Catholics regardless of social class sometimes favored Catholic parties.
The Trump era has upended much of this. Biden received much of his support from middle class suburbanites. Trump has substantial support from working class voters in both the North and the South. However, [lower class] vs. [middle and upper class] does not really tell much of the story of who is for and against Trump. There are significant divisions within each class that sends some voters to the left and some voters to the right.
Let’s start with the obvious one everyone knows about.
1. Trump voters tend to come from dying industrial areas which were losing jobs to globalization. Liberal democrats tend to come from high tech cities on the West Coast, the East Coast and university towns whose economies are robust. Workers losing their jobs to foreign competition are, not surprisingly, going to be America First and hostile to globalization. Workers in technology heavens whose companies are internationally dominant welcome globalization and welcome international cooperation. This is not a matter of rich vs. poor or upper class vs. lower class. Owners and managers of companies that are dying from Chinese competition will support anyone who will protect them from China. Baristas and Uber drivers in the prosperous international areas will support a friendly globally-cooperative agenda even if they are on the low end of the pecking order in that prosperous international area.
There are other factors that are less obvious.
2. A dominant factor in the Trump-Biden election was disagreement about COVID-19. Biden supporters wanted strong public health measures to combat the pandemic. Trump supporters were militantly against lockdowns and mask wearing. This was more than mere identity politics. Biden supporters often had jobs that could be done from home. They could work on computers, staying in professional and social communication via Zoom. While lockdowns involved some issues involving childcare and home-schooling, neither their income flow nor their fundamental routines were disrupted that much by staying home. Some of these workers were well paid yuppies, such as computer programmers or professors. But others were lower down the class scale, such as clerical workers. In contrast, Trump supporters often had jobs that could not be done from home. This could include working class people such as factory workers. But it also included middle class individuals such as bar owners or factory owners for whom lockdowns represented an economic catastrophe.
3. Democrats were utterly surprised by the Latino vote that came out for Trump notably in Texas in the border counties. They had assumed that there would be solidarity among Latinx voters in reaction to Trump’s crackdown on Hispanic immigration. Why didn’t that happen? A substantial proportion of the Mexican-Americans have jobs enforcing immigration laws. The Rio Grande Valley is depressed and has few non-government jobs. Border enforcement is one of the few economic growth areas. Workers who don’t work for the United States Customs and Border Protection or ICE have opportunities to join state or local police forces, work in either public or private detention facilities, to do construction work on the wall, or enlist in the armed services. All of those settings produce workers who are relatively conservative.
Energy was a further complication in the Texas Hispanic vote. Many South Texas Mexican Americans migrate to the oilfields even as they keep their homes in the Rio Grande Valley. A shutdown of the oil and gas sector sends them home. They are as hostile to climate change programs and to reductions in the use of hydrocarbons as are West Virginia coal miners. In this regard, there is a complete community of interest between Mexican Americans in Edinburg, Texas and oil company executives in Houston.
4. A profound split has occurred between finance capital and the top 1% of the income distribution and the rest of the middle and upper classes. The 1%, and notably the 1% associated with the top echelons of the banking community, have interests that are notably different from both those of the petty bourgeoisie and those of other business owners. All of those groups have some interest in tax reduction. However, the banking community has an interest in deregulation and speculation that is not necessarily in the interest of the companies being bought and sold. Such transactions are in the interests of top executives who benefit when the share price of their companies go up or when they are offered golden parachutes to sell their company to an outside acquirer – but are not in the interest of lower or middle management in these firms. Nor is deregulation and speculation in the interest of the owners of small companies who are particularly likely to be the victims of financial crises. Wall Street and the rest of the upper class are not always in perfect harmony.
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So why does any of this suggest that sociologists went awry?
One of the purposes of the concept of social class in sociology is to explain the link between people’s economic position and their political activity. Class conflict was a central preoccupation both of the classical sociological theorists and the social commentators of the late nineteenth, early twentieth and mid-twentieth centuries. This was a period of increasing worker mobilization. Nineteenth century Europe was characterized by working class campaigns, including
a. demonstrating for universal suffrage,
b. forming unions,
c. holding strikes which could range from small local affairs to general strikes which closed down entire nations,
d. violent revolutionary movements. The Russian Revolution led to a global Cold War between communist and capitalist nations. France was overthrown by radical revolutionary workers in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, and 1936. It was almost overthrown once more in 1890.
The twentieth century was characterized by the rise of big unionism. Scandinavia and Central Europe came to be governed by left-wing labor parties that mandated universal union membership. The United States had the CIO strikes of the 1930’s and the anti-Communist campaigns of the 1950’s.
In this world, it seemed very important to explain labor-management conflict. Elaborate theories were developed to explain why workers could not get along with their employers. The most classic example is Marxist theory, which argued that proletarians and capitalists have a fundamental conflict of interest because capitalists extract surplus value from workers. Max Weber and his followers saw social class as a simple matter of how much income one had. Rich people and poor people did not have to fight – but it could happen if political parties and organizations structured things that way. Erik Wright developed a Neo-Marxist theory that created subtle class categories based on how much ownership and control of the means of production different groups had.
None of these characterizations are particularly helpful in explaining the dynamics of class politics in the Trump era. In each of the examples that were given, economic interest and placement in the occupational and industrial structure led to particular political actions – either supporting Biden or supporting Trump. None of those theories suggested any particular link that could explain the link between economic position and politics.
The Marxist and Neo-Marxist conceptualizations gave too much emphasis to the employer-employee relationship itself. Employer-employee tensions may well explain the Swedish General Strike of 1909 or the CIO sit-down strikes of the 1930s. But Trump era politics rarely involved disputes between workers and employers.
The Weberian accounts do not explain the fact the Trump-Biden battles were not a struggle between rich and poor.
Working class and upper class voters appeared on both sides of the divide.
However, linkage into the economic system – be it whether one benefited or did not benefit from globalization, whether one could economically survive a lockdown, whether one was an employee of an immigration enforcement agency or an oil company or a coal company, or one was the top executive of a major bank or corporation did affect one’s politics.
So how does one conceptualize this phenomenon sociologically?
Marx himself had an answer to this question which is not the Marxist approach to class that is used in most sociological textbooks. He suggested that in the study of politics, class fraction is a more useful concept than class itself. He ran into the same misfit between theories of class and political action in his own empirical work that we run into in the study of the 2020 election. Notably in the Eighteenth Brumaire, he observed the complexities of participation in the 1848 French Revolution. One group was simply the working class. They rose up asking for generally leftist things – and were quickly crushed by the authorities. However, a struggle persisted between two branches of the upper classes, associated with factions known as Orleanist and Legitimist. When all the dust cleared, neither the Orleanists nor the Legitimists won. An independent dictator, Napoleon III ruled France, who owed nothing in particular to either of the two upper class groups. In a Trump-like manner, he ruled France as he thought fit, steamrollering any economic interest group that got in his way.
Marx had to deal with the question “If Capitalists Control Everything, How Do You Explain the Rise of an Independent Dictator Who Gives Orders to Capitalists?” He used the concept of class fraction to explain this. The two factions of upper-class politics were tied to finance capital and industrial capital. One group wanted policies good for banking. The other wanted policies good for manufacture. There were a lot of contradictions between the wish-lists of the two groups. (Wanting a cheap or expensive franc would be a huge first difference). No leader could satisfy both interest groups. Because both groups were equally strong, neither faction could militarily overwhelm the other. This allowed enterprising politicians to play one side off against the other. Ultimately the two groups settled on Napoleon III, because civil war was destroying the banks and heavy industry alike. They needed someone to re-establish order and jump start the now shuttered economy.
Class fractions solve a lot of the problems that would otherwise be associated with class analysis. Employment relations can be relevant – but they are not the only economic incentive to become politically active. Of course, the use of class fractions requires a lot more work and understanding than does simply using plain old social class. You can’t apply a one-size-fits-all model just based on an abstract model of harmony or exploitation. You have to know the actual economic interests of all the parties involved. This often requires detailed study of local circumstances and a full understanding of the business realities associated with each industry.
But this is what it takes to really make the connection between economic structure and political activity.
The 2016 election was full of surprises. The 2020 election surprised as well. A fuller analysis of real class fractions keeps one from being blindsided when results come in that don’t match the publicized predictions of polls and liberal or conservative mass media.
For More Information
For an elementary but perfectly sound exposition of the effect of social class on life chances see Lumen’s Boundless Sociology, an internet introductory textbook. The page on the impacts of social class has a collection of current statistics showing the effects of social class on physical and mental health, marriage dissolution, education, religious affiliation, and probability of voting.
More scientific treatments of the effects of social class naturally concentrate on one effect at a time to allow for more complete and thorough coverage of the issues specific to that variable. The Annual Review of Sociology, a journal which consists entirely of reviews of the sociological literature, has many articles analyzing specific effects including among other topics, fertility, access to health care and gender behavior.
For an introduction to the long, methodologically complex and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t literature on the presence or absence of class voting in the late twentieth century, see Jeff Manza, Michael Hout and Clem Brooks 1995 “Class Voting in Capitalist Democracies Since WWII: Dealignment, Realignment or Trendless Fluctuation” in the Annual Review of Sociology and Geoffrey Evans 2000 “Continued Significance of Class Voting” in the Annual Review of Political Science.
A reasonable introduction to all three forms of class theory can be found in Erik Wright’s book 1985 book Classes. Verso. If you really want to go into exhaustive detail of how Western sociologists have measured class, David Grusky has an excellent 600+ page reader entitled Social Stratification: Class Race and Gender in Sociological Perspective. (2001)