What Republicans talk about when they talk about the 'working class'

Democrats think of the working class as essentially the working poor. Republicans mean an entirely different set of voters.

The working class.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Ever since Donald Trump seized control of the GOP, Republicans have been talking about turning themselves into a "worker's party."

From the start, Democrats have treated the aspiration as absurd — at best delusional and at worst a cynical marketing ploy. Sure, the Trump administration started several trade wars and embraced intentional cruelty on the southern border to discourage immigration. But neither yielded any measurable benefit for American workers. Meanwhile, the only major legislative achievement of the past four years, passed when the GOP controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, was a massive corporate tax cut. When it comes to representing and advancing the interests of the working class, the Democrats remain the only game in town.

But what if, as in so much else, the two parties are talking past each other when they appeal to the working class?

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When Democrats champion the working class, they tend to mean the working poor — unskilled or low-skilled labor earning meager wages with few if any benefits: service workers, manual laborers, house cleaners, and so forth. These are people focused on getting by, putting food on the table, paying bills, getting access to affordable medical care and public transportation, and so forth.

When Republicans say they aim to become a working-class party, Democrats assume they mean they're trying to make inroads with this economic group. This strikes Democrats as wildly implausible, even ridiculous — and for good reason, since little if anything in Republican rhetoric and policy priorities seems to address itself to this group's interests or anxieties.

But that's because Republicans are talking about an entirely different set of voters.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz helpfully summarized what the GOP means by "working class" in a recent tweet promoting his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference: "The Republican Party is not just the party of country clubs, the Republican Party is the party of steel workers, construction workers, pipeline workers, police officers, firefighters, waiters, and waitresses."

Waiters and waitresses earn a wide range of income depending on how much they bring home in tips. Police officers and firefighters begin careers with modest wages, but they enjoy generous benefits, including pensions that allow for early and comfortable retirement. Steel workers, pipeline workers, and construction workers are highly skilled employees — think carpenters, welders, electricians, and operators of heavy machinery — who often earn a comfortable salary. Aside from those on the low end of restaurant and building work, these are middle-class professions leading to decent wages and benefits. Many are also independent contractors, which makes them small-business owners.

These are the people Republicans are talking about when they make appeals to the working class — and they aren't at all the same groups Democrats are talking about when they use the same term.

What separates the two broad groups isn't labor unionization, since service workers on the Democratic side and construction workers and police officers on the Republican side are typically organized for collective bargaining. What separates them far more is economic class. When unionized workers earn relatively low wages with minimal benefits, they lean left. When they earn middle-class or higher wages with good benefits, they lean right. (Though when workers are both middle-class and highly educated, as unionized professionals like journalists tend to be, they tilt left once again.)

But the raw class divide isn't the only thing noteworthy about the chasm separating these very different groups of workers. Most of the people on Cruz's list of professions have been voting for the GOP for a long time. This is especially true of independent contractors, who support Republicans out of frustration over the tax burdens and costs of regulatory compliance for small-business owners. They see their interests as quite distinct from big business and the professional classes, as well as from the low-skilled and low-wage workers who comprise the working-class segment of the Democratic Party's electoral coalition. That has made these high-skilled, middle-class, and upper-middle class voters longstanding supporters of the Republican Party.

How longstanding? Joe the Plumber — actually Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio — played a significant part in the 2008 presidential race by speaking out in favor of the McCain-Palin ticket and against the campaign of Barack Obama. He did so out of concern that the Democratic candidate would raise taxes on small-business owners.

But Wurzelbacher's concerns were nothing new when he expressed them more than 12 years ago. Decades earlier the owner of a successful extermination business in Texas named Tom DeLay entered state and then national politics as a Republican angry over repeated clashes with the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency. DeLay was elected to Congress in 1984, elevated to House Majority Whip as a result of the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and eventually became the House Majority Leader before being consumed and brought down by scandals during the administration of President George W. Bush.

DeLay's story, stretching from just before the election of Ronald Reagan on down to the second term of the last Republican president prior to the election of Donald Trump, is a big part of the story of the modern GOP. It is the story of a party that builds a formidable electoral coalition by promising to champion the interests of small-business owners, including independent contractors, in the name of lower taxes and cuts to meddlesome federal regulations.

The main thing that's changed is that Republicans now say this makes the GOP a "worker's party."

But that's not the only thing that's changed. To the economic appeals that began with Reagan, the post-Trump Republican Party has added a much stronger message of cultural identification and grievance. Now in addition to championing the interests of this segment of the electorate, the GOP claims that it embodies its cultural outlook and view of the country and its history — and that it feels the same outrage at those who seek to change or denigrate that outlook and understanding of the American present and past.

Think of it as a strategy designed to maximize the party's appeal to the same bloc of voters that have supported the GOP since 1980. The aim is less to expand the party than to squeeze every last drop out of the electoral coalition that has sustained it for 40 years.

If that sounds like the strategy of a party in decline, that's because it is. The same could be said of its corollary — the GOP's efforts to make it more and more difficult for the Democratic Party's working-class base to vote.

Yet the results of the 2020 election complicate the story. Apparently, the distinctive combination of economic and cultural appeals Republicans advanced during the campaign had the effect of luring large numbers of Hispanic voters (and a smaller but still significant number of Black voters) to the GOP. It wasn't enough to push an unusually unpopular and polarizing president over the top. But it was enough to quash Democratic hopes of taking both houses of Congress by comfortable margins and making inroads at the state and local levels.

Call it an unanticipated windfall from a strategy motivated by electoral desperation. The question going forward is whether Republicans can build on their 2020 gains to construct a winning multiracial coalition of middle- and upper-middle-class workers and small-business owners. Either way, the outcome is unlikely to be decided by a battle with Democrats over whether the GOP gets to call itself a worker's party.

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