Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.
The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.
Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.
The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.
Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.
It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.
Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.
And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.
There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.
I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.
America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.