Pride in their lives: Working-class voters are generally not a despondent group. Life is harder for them in many ways, but they take pride in who they are. They are not “bitter people, clinging to religion or guns”; they celebrate their lives and crave respect from the educated and wealthy classes. They flock to politicians who show genuine respect for their lives, and turn on those who display contempt or disdain.
Anger at being disrespected: This is the flip side of their pride. Working-class voters are very cognizant of their status in American life. They rarely occupy executive positions in their jobs and are consumers rather than producers of ideas. They feel keenly this relative lack of control over important features of their lives, and resent being ordered about as if they were merely pawns in someone else’s grand plan. They particularly dislike having their lives belittled as unsophisticated or inferior to the lives of educated or wealthy folk.
This anger can be expressed against big business, big government, or big anything. If working-class voters feel they are being treated as mere tools, they will react with anger whether the source of the treatment is an employer, a politician, or an academic.
Belief in public order: Working-class voters rely more on the public order to provide a structure in their lives than do upper-class voters. They can’t afford private security services or retreat to homes with large yards far from unruly elements. They live closer together and in closer contact with crime. Accordingly, they place a high premium on effective police and fire services and greatly respect policemen and firemen.
Patriotism: Working-class voters are highly patriotic. They love their country openly in ways that often seem odd and embarrassing to the educated class. They are likelier to express open support of and deference to the military (while simultaneously recognizing that “big military” is wasteful); their children volunteer for the military in much greater numbers than those of any other class. This is partly economic — learning a trade in the military is a better opportunity for them than for people who think they can graduate from college — but it is also genuinely patriotic.
This sentiment is particularly strong among recent immigrants. One way to show your devotion to your new country is to revere its symbols and institutions, and for the working class the military is perhaps the most accessible institution of all. Hispanics in particular enlist in the military, and it is no surprise that Republican presidential candidates who are strongly supportive of the military, like Reagan and George W. Bush, have fared best among Hispanic voters in the last 45 years.
Fear of rapid change: Working-class voters recognize that they are less equipped to handle sudden changes; consequently, they value stability highly. They fear sudden recessions and distrust sudden changes in government programs. Ronald Reagan, the conservative who has best understood the working class, put his finger on it in a prescient 1964 National Review article on why Goldwater lost: “Human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” Upper-class educated people may embrace risk and change, but working-class voters do not.
Now consider these values in the light of the primary features of liberal progressivism. Liberal progressives inherently crave rapid, transformational change; working-class voters abhor it. This was as true in the 1960s (the Great Society) and the early Clinton years as it is today. The impatience that characterizes liberal progressivism often leads to the impression that its apostles feel contempt and disdain for those who disagree; working-class voters sense this and react against it. Liberal progressivism requires high tax rates, not only on the rich but also on the middle and working classes (overseas, this is accomplished via the VAT); working-class voters know this will choke off economic growth and increase the financial stress in their lives. Liberal progressivism typically displays less concern with public order and the institutions that provide public order; working-class voters opposed this in the 1960s and 1980s when it appeared that crime was rampant, and they remain sensitive to it to this day.
Many of the Obama administration’s actions directly attack these core beliefs. Working-class Americans crave economic security, but they see an administration that talks more about health care and climate change than about jobs. The current recession exacerbates their natural fear of downward mobility, but they see an administration seemingly incapable of providing the very thing they want most from a center-left government. In the Henry Louis Gates and Ground Zero mosque controversies, liberal progressives saw an articulate leader defending individual rights; working-class voters saw someone who questioned the police, perhaps the bedrock institution that provides public order, and showed an insufficient degree of patriotism.
Some of President Obama’s personal habits also rub working-class voters the wrong way. The president’s urbane articulateness and emphasis on rational argumentation attracts many highly educated voters, but is offputting to the working class. His preternatural calm and seeming lack of emotion also work against him. These traits have been lampooned by Doonesbury and commented on in the recent New York Times Magazine profile, but historically, working-class voters have been drawn to politicians who connect with them on an emotional level, from FDR to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. They need their politicians to demonstrate warmth and humor; they respond to speakers who use example, story, and narrative as much as specific analysis to make their points. President Obama’s aloof and academic manner is the exact opposite of what working-class voters want in their leaders.