U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’

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January 15, 1975 – Reverend Jesse Jackson (centre) in a march for jobs around the White House (Thomas J. O’Halloran, Wikimedia Commons). Psychological Public

January 15, 1975 – Reverend Jesse Jackson (centre) in a march for jobs around the White House (Thomas J. O’Halloran, Wikimedia Commons).

In the twelfth of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca professor Paul Kellogg reminds us of a great insight from W.E.B. Du Bois. In the tenth of the, Paul Kellogg examined arguments which equate the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Populist voices

It is not uncommon to see working class populist anger as the key to the 2016 election campaign, fuelling both Bernie Sanders’ insurgent challenge to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.

  • Gerald Seib writing in The Wall Street Journal – calls both Sanders and Trump “populist voices” and labels Trump a “billionaire populist … who has somehow tapped into a­­ deep vein of working-class anger.”
  • Also in The Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray says that “the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class.”
  • In dialogue with Murray, Clive Crook says that: “Supporting Trump is an act of class protest.”
  • Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization argues that: “absence of growth, stagnation of incomes in the US middle class, not only from loss of jobs, but also from loss of dreams of upward mobility for many people. Or perhaps because of imports, or because of direct competition with Asia or other emerging markets … that was clearly one strong element which explains Trump.”
  • Timothy Carney writing in Washington’s Examiner argues that a “huge swath of ­­­the electorate is angry because they agree that the country “is a mess” and the game is rigged. They think it’s self-evident, as Trump says, that “the American Dream is dead”.”
  • Nicholas Confessore, writing in the New York Times, argued that when “as many as one in five adults live on Social Security disability payments , disenchanted Republican voters lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders” and therefore turned to Trump. The Republican “party elite” has “abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party’s donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered.”

There is something missing from these analyses. Figure 4 shows that, it is true, levels of poverty have been rising – from 12.1% in 2002 to 14.8% in 2014. An increase in poverty can well be a signal for growing working class anger against the elites. But this increase in poverty has been felt differently by different sections of society. For white people, poverty rates are less than the national average – in the same period rising from 8.0% to 10.1%. For the Latina/Latino population, rates are more than double those of white people – going from 21.8% in 2002 to 23.6% in 2014. And for African-Americans, poverty rates are horrendous – almost triple the rate of those in the white community – going from 24.1% in 2002 to 26.2% in 2014.

There is a material basis for anger in the U.S. working class, particularly its poorest sections. But that material basis is far more evident for the racialized section of the working class – those who are Hispanic or African-America – than it is for white workers.

An historic problem

Racialized poverty is a long-standing problem in the United States. Before President Barack Obama, there was presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. His political career has been most closely associated with civil rights issues. But the picture on this post – from a 1975 march for jobs – is an artefact from that era, showing the way in which civil rights concerns are simultaneously economic concerns.

In this election – poor, racialized workers are (of course) not lining up for Trump. They, in their vast majority, are supportive of President Obama, and intend to vote for Hillary Clinton. The “class” argument used by some to explain the Trump phenomenon only makes sense when it is seen as a racialized class phenomenon.

Public and psychological wage

W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the greatest social theorists of the 20th century. He understood this perfectly.

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.”

There is a section of the white electorate, who experienced the Civil Rights movement as a cut in their psychological wage, who experienced eight years of an African-American in the White House as a cut in their psychological wage.

Source: Author’s compilation from data available in Carmen DeNavas-Walt and Bernadette D. Proctor, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014.

Source: Author’s compilation from data available in Carmen DeNavas-Walt and Bernadette D. Proctor, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014.

Trump is an oft-divorced, often profane, high-living, urban businessman – not the typical profile of a Christian fundamentalist. “If you’re an evangelical and a believer and not just someone who stops by on Sunday or maybe just Easter and Christmas … I don’t see how you could even consider Donald Trump” said one Republican evangelical, who backed Marco Rubio in the primaries. Yet by July, according to the Pew Research Center, “fully 94% of GOP evangelicals say they would vote for Trump.” Trump is a billionaire who owns a $100 million private jet, a yacht worth between $150 and $200 million, multiple residences including a Manhattan apartment and a 40,000-square foot mansion sitting on 213 acres “complete with marble pool.” Yet, as an earlier post pointed out, he swept the counties in Appalachia, home to some of the country’s poorest people.

An earlier post outlined Trump’s entry into politics through the racist and bizarre “birther” movement. This didn’t make him an isolated crank. It put him in touch with a mass base. In 2011 a “New York Times/CBS poll showed 25 percent of adults nationwide believed the president was born somewhere other than the U.S. Stunningly, 45 percent of Republicans thought the president was born in another country.” In 2010, when Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter endorsed the pursuit of lawsuits against President Obama on this issue, “more than 40 percent of Americans” indicated that “they don’t believe the president was born in the U.S. or don’t know.”

Du Bois’ notion of the psychological wage is the key to explaining the appeal of Donald Trump, and his otherwise counter-intuitive ability to build a very unlikely coalition of support. He is not an evangelical candidate. He is not an Appalachian poor white candidate. But he wins the support of both because he is crystallizing a racism with deep roots in U.S. political discourse.

In the next and final post, entitled Political Futures, Paul Kellogg identifies some of the possible future directions in U.S. politics, made visible by the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures


Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.

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