How did the white working class come to see itself as peripheral in society and what are the political consequences of this?
Why has the middle fallen out of politics on both sides of the Atlantic? How do we explain the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States and UKIP and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom?
In his new book The New Minority, Dr Justin Gest – Deputy Director of LSE’s Migration Studies Unit – argues that this trend can be traced to the decreasing size of the white working class communities who once occupied the middle ground, as well as their movement to the political fringes.
During the mid-twentieth century, the vast majority of white people did not go to university, instead working in manual or non-managerial labour, often in the manufacturing industry. Alongside them were the non-university educated middle class and the wage gap between those with and without university educations was relatively small.
White working class voters were the bellwether that backed presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and prime ministers Winston Churchill and then Clement Attlee. Today, Dr Gest found that these same voters feel silenced and ignored by mainstream political parties.
His research was based on interviews with people from white working class communities in Barking and Dagenham in East London and Youngstown, Ohio in the United States. These are both areas which have both undergone simultaneous economic, social and political collapse over the past decades.
After World War I extensive social housing was built in the East London suburb of Barking and Dagenham, in part to provide comfortable homes for returning soldiers to whom the country was indebted.
Factories belonging to Ford Motor Company and May & Baker’s chemical plant and the Barking Power House electric station sprang up. These all provided dependable jobs for working class men and women, along with a community in which family and social ties were strong.
However, after the mid 1970s, Britain began to shift to a post-industrial economy and Barking and Dagenham's factories downsized. There was little use for Barking and Dagenham's white working class tradesman.
New immigrants moved in, assigned to the council terraced houses and tower blocks. Some were high skilled members of the middle class and others were unskilled labourers or refugees.
Lou Griffiths, who lives with his wife, on the old Becontree Estate explained the impact of this: “We live in a multicultural society and I think that’s good. But when it happened so quickly, the existing community feels threatened. In the 1960s when the West Indians came in, no one area was taken over and they mixed in. But the way we’ve been flooded, it inspires the animosity of right-wing groups.”
The trajectory of Youngstown, Ohio has a similar arc. Once the steel capital of the world, Youngstown was home to half a dozen companies which provided jobs, housing loans, supporting industries, philanthropy and sites for political organization and social life.
The allocation of housing and jobs by factories correlated with ‘employee desirability’. This social hierarchy placed white Protestants at the top, followed by a mix of Central and Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Irish, Italians, and finally African Americans at the bottom.
A swift collapse in Youngstown’s steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to an estimated 50,000 jobs being lost in six years. Unemployment reached 24.9 per cent in 1983, causing a wave of personal bankruptcies and foreclosures.
Today the jobs that do exist are insecure with companies doing little to invest in their employees. “You’re constantly reminded that you’re replaceable with someone else who demands less money,” said Didi Schumer, a hospital clerk.
Today the city has barely a third of its 1970 population, and about half of its citizens are now black or Latino – groups who simply did not flee as quickly as their white neighbours. Youngstown’s white population has declined from over 80 per cent of the city to a mere 47 per cent today. For residents, this shift has been dramatic and fast.
These changes have impacted both how people from the white working classes see themselves and their place in the world. Dr Gest asked people from these communities in both Barking and Dagenham and Youngstown to consider where people like themselves were situated in terms of relative power today, compared to one or two generations ago.
He found that the extent of an individual’s sense that the white working class has lost social status over time, in comparison to other groups in American or British society, could explain his or her political behaviour.
Those respondents who felt there had been a significant regression in the status of white working class people were more likely to engage in anti-system political behaviour that used anti democratic tactics – such as joining the British National Party or English Defence League in the UK. Some, however, joined peaceful protest movements.
Many of those Dr Gest interviewed felt subject to discrimination in the form of affirmative action and diversification policies. In Dagenham and Barking, for example, he found that people were frustrated because they perceived that the current social system grants immigrants advantages that are not provided to white Britons, such as public housing preference, and favouritism disguised as antiracism platforms
"If there's a job interview and an immigrant doesn't get it, they'll say the employer is racist," said Nicki Josephs. "I feel like they're taking our jobs, homes, and everything that the government is trying to do for English people, they're getting it first.
As the descendants of immigrants, nearly all Youngstown respondents are sympathetic to the struggles of American minority groups, except undocumented migrants who they believe are responsible for driving down wages. However, many were still convinced of their emerging minority status.
In particular, they are critical of welfare recipients whose integrity they judge. While this was framed as a moral rather than a racial issue, those Dr Gest interviewed frequently used coded language by referring to people on welfare who bought Cadillacs and gold chains – items stereotypically associated with African Americans.
In fact, a disproportionate number of white working class Americans consume Social Security, food stamps, disability and unemployment benefits in comparison to racial minorities.
“Many white working class people are down today,” said Father Candiotti, a local priest, “because they realise that they are becoming the very people they used to criticise. “
According to Dr Gest, white working class respondents do not only yearn for greater political influence, but to restore a sense of their lost centrality in their countries’ and communities' social hierarchy.
He points out that a vast sector of the electorate has been uninspired – but also unsolicited – by political campaigns. In both the US and the UK, he argues that great rewards await the party that finds a way to sustainably reintegrate them into part of a grander coalition.
To do this he recommends that political parties should recruit working class candidates and talk more about the realities of unstable jobs, declining wages and benefits, and a greater strain on family life because of these burdens. This means emphasising the common goal that everyone should be able to work one job, forty hours a week, and take care of their families.
Furthermore, parties should not confuse the working class with the helpless. Most working class people are not earning the minimum wage, nor do they think of themselves as reliant on government welfare programmes – even if they are benefitting from them. They want to be seen as independent, self-sufficient and hardworking.
And unions should not be regarded as synonymous with the working class when, in fact, most workers are no longer unionized. Parties and candidates must address their constituents directly and stop depending on unions as intermediaries.
“Some of the views of the people I interviewed were tinged with an uncomfortable racism, but there is some validity to the frustrations they expressed,” said Dr Gest. “Their lives have been radically disorientated over the past 40 years. They are estranged and disempowered in countries they once defined.
“Members of the white working class in their mid 40s, and older, have had to face the fact that globalisation means theirs skills are no longer wanted or are outmoded. For the younger generation, education is the key to restoring the mobility that used to define the US and UK economies.
“Political parties need to challenge nostalgia with hope. No party will ever deliver on promises to turn back the clock, so leaders must seize the challenge to envision a future that incorporates white working class people into the global economy and into coexistence with ethnic minorities,” he said.