Rush Limbaugh, who passed away on Wednesday at age 70, was conservative talk radio’s most flamboyant and influential provocateur. Boasting an audienceof 15 million, Limbaugh is often credited with persuading working-class voters to embrace a Republican Party whose pro-business, free trade economic policies went against working-class interests. As Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, explained, “Limbaugh was on the forefront of trying to take conservative policies and explain them in a way that appeals to a demographic that typically would not favor the Republican Party.” The result, Wagner suggests, can be seen in “the strength of the Republican party has among working-class Americans.”
But is it really true that Limbaugh, who could be misogynistic and racially inflammatory in his broadcast, appealed primarily to the working class? In fact, as Rick Perlstein has suggested, Limbaugh’s listeners are more aptly described as “the petty bourgeoisie, the Joe the Plumbers, the guys with their own bathroom fixture businesses, the middle managers.”
This case of mistaken identity, of misidentifying people who are actually quite comfortable as “working class,” is one that has plagued coverage of American conservatism for years now—and was a crucial error in how people interpreted the participants in the Capitol riot. Many of those arrested after the January 6 riot were middle-class business owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists and accountants.
So why do so many continue misidentify them—and former President Trump’s supporters more generally—as working class? We can trace the error back to its grain of truth: the economic displacement that explains why white working-class people are so angry.
Back in the 1980s, displaced workers were treated to disregard, and even victim-blaming, by officials and the media alike. When massive plants closed and moved to China and Mexico, displacing entire American working-class communities, workers were told this was part of a “natural economic order” for which they should have been better prepared. No wonder they became disenchanted and lost faith in the institutions—corporations, the government, unions, and even churches—that had once provided support. And yes, some working-class whites blamed African Americans and immigrants for their declining economic circumstances, even though Black and Latino workers were harmed at least as much, and in some ways more than white workers. Over time, no doubt, many did turn to rightwing populism and the conservative media.
But this story misses an important sequel: By the 1990s, some white-collar workers began to see the same erosions in their way of life. Middle-class Americans began to experience what Barbara Erhenreich has coined a fear of falling. Those insecurities grew larger and began to explode as a result of the “lesser Depression” between 2008 and 2010, when middle-class families lost jobs, incomes, pensions, homes, and healthcare—losses from which they did not recover.
While overall, the wealthy and the upper-middle-class have made gains over the last 40 years, many middle-class people have lost ground. Middle-class incomes have stagnated, white-collar jobs have become less secure, professional work is now more likely to be temporary or freelance—all while healthcare, housing, and college costs have skyrocketed.
What this means is that in 21st century America, even a stable middle-class income can’t always provide a comfortable life. Middle-class people who grew up expecting to do better than their parents now see their children struggling not to fall behind. Some of the same people who once blamed displaced industrial workers for not having gone to college to prepare for economic change now find themselves wondering how, after “doing everything right,” they can’t seem to get ahead.
Resentment grew, too. Struggling middle-class voters blamed educated elites for saving Wall Street and giving tax breaks to corporations, insisting on the rights of immigrants or the importance of racial justice rather than doing anything to help teachers, accountants, or other white-collar workers, as they saw it.
Donald Trump tapped into those resentments. His promise to “make America great again” seemed to promise that the American Dream would again become viable. He held out the promise that reinvigorating manufacturing, strengthening trade policies and reducing taxes and regulations would make businesses profitable enough to make jobs secure and maybe even increase salaries. And while Trump’s base is often portrayed as the white working class, many middle-class voters bought Trump’s boasts about low unemployment rates and a booming stock market, despite the fact that during his time in office, the gap between the wealthy and the poor expanded and the share of incomegoing to the middle and working class continued to fall. That he was addressing their grievances at all kept the base satisfied.
And for a tiny minority, these resentments led them to Capitol Hill on January 6. For those who stormed the Capitol, the threats to “their country” today might include Wall Street, the educated elites who dominate the Democratic Party, people of color, and immigrants. All became targets during the insurrection.
Unfortunately, the trend that led to displacement among middle-class Americans is likely to continue. Already during the pandemic, corporations have dumped employees in favor of automation and artificial intelligence, moves that will increase unemployment and deter a strong jobs recovery; the World Economic Forum Survey reports that over 40% of businesses surveyed indicated they would reduce workforces through the introduction of new technology and subcontracted specialists for task-specific projects.
The increased use of automation will certainly impact the middle and working class. It will accelerate job losses in manufacturing, food service, and retail. Artificial intelligence is certain to have a greater impact on middle-class professional and white-collar workers. What is particularly important is that the new technologies will not be influencing single industries as they have so often in the past. Rather, they will be expanding rapidly across multiple industries and occupations.
In the past, deindustrialization resulted in repeated appeals for reskilling and workforce training by government, economists and corporate leaders. But such programs had limited impact in terms of living standards and overall labor force participation. Rather, they added to economic inequality.
Similar appeals today in response to the emerging technology-based economy will have the same result, falling on deaf ears as they did when steelworkers who after 30 years in the mills were told get a college degree or trade schools and study computer science or refrigeration and auto repair.
With state and local budgets in crisis, many will look to the federal government. Clearly, the Biden administration’s American Recovery Plan is an attempt to repair and cobble together a new social safety net to provide economic and healthcare floors for displaced workers and families. But given the scale of the current and pending job losses from the pandemic, automation and AI, such reforms are fingers in the dyke holding back the resentment that led to the attack on the Capital.