Class and Participation in Movement and Electoral Politics

By Daniel Laurison

Although this is a forum on class and social movement participation, I am going to use this space to write about class and participation in electoral politics. This is for three reasons. First, that’s what I know the most about, so, you know, that’s what I’ve got to contribute. Second, because I believe that social movements and electoral politics ought to be thought about, studied and analyzed together far more often than they are. And finally, and most importantly, because I think there are real similarities in the ways in which poor and working-class people can be or feel excluded from engaging in both electoral and movement politics and organizations.  I think it’s especially worth reflecting on what we can say about class and political participation in this post-2016 era.

The first thing to know is that there are deep and persistent gaps in political participation by class position, however either class position or political participation is measured. Overall, only about 60% of eligible American adults vote in Presidential elections (58% in 2016, though what you put in the denominator to figure out that number makes a big difference, see a post on that here). Fairly consistently since at least 1972, around 85-90% of people in the top tenth of the income distribution report voting, while only around half of those in the bottom tenth do. These estimates of voting participation (based on General Social Survey data) are likely slighted inflated since we know people over-report voting on surveys, but they get at the overall pattern.

While researchers often use single-variable indicators of class (occupation, or education, or income), different resources each matter for political participation; among those with less than a high school degree, for example, nearly twice as many people who were in the top fifth of the income distribution reported voting as did those in the bottom fifth (my analysis, ANES 2016).  And all forms of political engagement have a similar class gradient – more educated people are more likely to belong to political parties, professionals and managers are more likely to volunteer for campaigns, and so on.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (long version; short version), there are three main ways that this disparity is explained – through disparities in individual resources (e.g. Schlozman, Verba and Brady), through structural barriers (e.g. Piven and Cloward), or through what I think of as relational approaches (e.g. me, and work by Sarah Bruch & Joe Soss, and this book by Meredith Rolfe). And while there are important pieces to the individual resources and structural barriers analyses, I think the relational approaches are the most important, both for understanding inequalities in political participation, and for thinking about how to remedy them.

These relational approaches come out of different schools and disciplines, but what they have in common is taking seriously the social, relationship-driven nature of most kinds of politics.  Betsy Leondar-Wright argues in her (excellent! Everyone go read it!) book that Professional Middle Class (PMC) people tend to start from abstract ideological commitments, and then look for movement activities. When working class people get involved in movements, on the other hand, it is most often because of personal connections to others who are involved, and their involvement in turn shapes their ideological commitment to a movement’s goals. As Lara and Robert Putnam recently pointed out, though, there aren’t really political party organizations in most places that regular people can easily join, or invite their friends to. Instead there are networks of professional political organizers and operatives, who again tend to be from better-off backgrounds, and (as I argue in the book I’m working on, and also here) definitely do not see themselves as in the business of building relationships with communities.

Many people who work in politics, like too many of those who study it, implicitly assume that everyone will approach politics as an exercise in calculating which candidate or vote choice best fits with their values or material interests – in other words, using the style of abstract, disconnected reasoning most associated with PMC people in Leondar-Wright’s book. Moreover, political scientists and campaign professionals alike tend to understand voters as atomized individuals, collections of traits that might predict their propensity to vote or their vote choice, but not, meaningfully, members of groups and communities. This means that the political parties don’t do very much to form ongoing connections with people in groups or communities. Instead, campaign communications strategies are most often about figuring out, every 2 or 4 years, how to reach targeted voters through phone calls, door knocks, and ads on TV and the internet. This approach may work for the class culture of PMC people, the same group that’s also most likely to know people working in politics, and to see politics overall as a field that is designed for them. But it seems to be failing to meaningfully engage poor and working class people, and has for quite some time.

This isn’t only a problem of class-cultural mismatch; another factor is that campaigns tend not to contact those who have rarely or never voted, which creates a vicious cycle because poorer people are less likely to vote in the first place, and then are also less likely to be invited to vote (Enos, Fowler & Vavreck). Moreover, poor and working class people (and especially poor and working class people of color) have good reasons to think that most politicians, in both parties, are not particularly interested in helping solve their problems.

But it is not the case that it is impossible to increase political participation for poor and working class people. In 2016, turnout among white non-college-educated people went up 3 percentage points compared to 2012 (it also increased, but less, among whites with college degrees – see here). It seems possible Trump was able to communicate to some in this group that politics could include them; possibly in part by holding unusually large numbers of campaign rallies in places that don’t normally see politicians visit. The content of those rallies was frequently, in fact, deplorable, and there is nothing laudable about most of his campaign or presidency. Still, the tactic of connecting directly with potential voters likely pulled in people who don’t normally get involved in politics.

There’s more systematic and less problematic evidence for the importance of social connections as well. First, group membership tends to increase political participation: people who belong to unions and churches vote substantially more than those who are otherwise similar but not members. Second, in communities of color in California, experiments showed that when neighbors invited community members who’d never voted to participate in an upcoming election, voting rates went up as much as 10%. Making real connections with people and asking them to be involved is the most basic of social movement organizing techniques; those of us who care about electoral politics should be thinking of ways to incorporate the lessons of social movements into this work.

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