February 18, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Stop the Nonsense about the Working Class. 2016 Was a Revolt of the Petite Bourgeois

Don't appeal to voters immune to "health care, health care, health care."


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I’m not sure what congressional Democrats are thinking. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her caucus will pivot from investigating the president to “health care, health care, health care.” I suppose, as Sheryl Gay Stolberg said in Sunday’s Times, the Democrats are indeed “recovering from their failed push to remove President Trump from office.” But this president continues to prove the arguments against him. Why stop now?

Donald Trump pushed for preferential treatment in the federal criminal sentencing of Roger Stone, his garrulous goombah. US Attorney General Bill Barr, the president’s favorite fixer, is trying to suppress a rebellion at the Department of Justice while weathering outside criticism from more than 2,000 former federal prosecutors who served presidents from both parties. They are calling for his immediate resignation.

Trump is the perfect vessel into which the petite bourgeois can pour their anti-democratic bile.

Furthermore, the president maligned the integrity of the foreman of the jury that convicted Stone. Stone has since asked for a retrial. Then Trump did, too. Now a national association of 1,000 federal jurists has scheduled “an emergency meeting” to “address growing concerns about the intervention of Justice Department officials and President Donald Trump in politically sensitive cases,” according to USA Today.

Sure, the House Democrats must protect their majority, and that means protecting freshmen now representing conservative districts. But if soliciting foreign interference was enough for those Democrats to join the impeachment effort, surely a president behaving as if he were the embodiment of the nation-state is be enough to continue investigating his administration. I mean, the least they could do is impeach Barr!

Perhaps, as she has before, Pelosi is being coy. Stolberg said oversight will continue even as the Democrats move on to health care and economic issues. “They plan in particular to press Attorney General William P. Barr over what they say are Mr. Trump’s efforts to compromise the independence of the Justice Department.” And last week, Pelosi herself said—in no uncertain terms—Trump’s intervention in the Stone case was “abuse of power,” the first charge against the president in his Senate trial.

Perhaps Pelosi is playing both sides, as she did leading up to impeachment. But I don’t think so. This is an election year, and she really does believe the conventional wisdom.

The conventional wisdom is that people who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016 due to “economic anxiety” and feeling “left behind” in the global economy. Given this understanding of 2016, pocketbook issues—“health care, health care, health care”—makes sense. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

The people who voted for Trump were not working class. Not if you measure class by money. Two-thirds of his supporters earned above-average incomes—which is to say, annual household earnings of more than $50,000. Yes, they were white. Yes, many of them didn’t go to college. But many of them did, and they still voted for the president. Meanwhile the real working-class voters, many of them white, voted for Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t a working class revolt at all. It was a revolt of the petite bourgeois.

The phenomenon is international, wrote Simon Kuper in the Financial Times. The “middle-classness of populism,” he said, is evident across the west. The middle-class populist “isn’t keen on positive discrimination for women or people of colour, or on high taxes. In fact, he doesn’t want anyone to get ‘handouts.’ In a NatCen Social Research study of the Brexit referendum, ‘affluent Eurosceptics’ were the segment of the electorate least likely to have financial troubles, and most likely to be anti-welfare.”

[The middle-class populist’s] advance has been slow. He has never been invited into the fast lane of life: the top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations. He feels, with some justification, that his exclusion has been unfair—based on his accent, schooling, clothes and unfamiliarity with trendy conversational topics.

They believe they are better than the real working class, and they yearn to be among their “betters.” But in the end they are victims of their own ideology, because their “betters,” who benefit from the same ideology, don’t want anything to do with them.

If this sounds like the president’s attitude toward New York’s cultural and business elite (think: Michael Bloomberg), it is. In this light, you can see why Donald Trump is the perfect vessel into which the petite bourgeois can pour their anti-democratic bile.

The president wants us to believe his base is populated with “Reagan Democrats.” That wouldn’t be so bad if everyone else, including the House speaker, didn’t accept that as true. The leader in the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination is a self-identified “socialist” while an oligarch has bought his way to the next debate. The real left-behind aren’t the working class. The real left-behind are liberal Democrats.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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