The Class Culture Gap

I think Joan C. Williams’ research and analysis is a valuable contribution to understanding our current political situation. I first became aware of Williams when I read her article What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class in the Harvard Business Review a few days after the 2016 presidential election.

Her core point is that what she calls the “class culture gap,” the gap between the white working class and the rest of the country, put Trump over the top in the election. She describes white working class attitudes towards people like Hillary Clinton:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Williams says class is a greater force than gender and is the driving force in American politics. And the class conflicts strongly follow the urban-rural divide.

She concludes:

If we don’t take steps to bridge the class culture gap, when Trump proves unable to bring steel back to Youngstown, Ohio, the consequences could turn dangerous.


The class culture gap is not limited to the United States. If you changed the geography and a few names Williams could be writing about Marine Le Pen’s supporters as described by Édouard Louis in Why My Father Votes for Le Pen. This article, published a few days before the French elections, tells the story of a father who left school at 14 and worked in a factory until an accident crippled him. His workers’ compensation decreased every year, leaving his family in poverty. Édouard’s novel based on his life growing up was rejected by a publisher who claimed the poverty he described hadn’t existed for over a century. Voting for the National Front was his father’s outraged rebellion against this invisibility.


I’m sure Williams and Louis are describing a real phenomenon, but I can’t tell how much it was a factor in the election. The Center for Economic and Policy Research published a more empirical analysis of the election in The Working Class’s Role in Trump’s Election. The author, Caroline Freund, analyzes patterns of action more than attitudes, and focuses mostly on economic motivations, not cultural ones.

Freund compares 2016 electoral data with previous elections and suggests that overall, education and race were greater factors than a county’s share of manufacturing jobs in the change in voting patterns since 2012. (Employment in a manufacturing job is how she defines the working class.) She does conclude that the white working class was indeed positive on Trump:

None of this is to say manufacturing as an economic foundation for a county did not matter at all in the election. But it boosted Trump only in counties that were predominately white.

But she also says it was low response among white working class Democrats that gave the election to Trump:

…on average across counties, as compared with 2012, relatively low voting rates among Democratic voters was a bigger contributor to the results than high voting rates among Republicans. Put differently, Trump did not win the white working class, Clinton lost it.

As I said, I don’t know how much the class culture gap is a factor in our elections, but I think it’s real. And it isn’t going away, even if Trump does, because the people who voted for Trump and Le Pen aren’t going away. And that’s because the forces that created them aren’t going away. Those forces are growing, and the class culture gap will grow with them, to no good end.


Joan C. Williams is a professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, and Foundation Chair and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law. She has published extensively at the Harvard Business Review. Her book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America was published in May 2017.

Caroline Freund is a Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Prior to that she was Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. Besides the World Bank, she has worked at the IMF and the Federal Reserve Board. Her work has been published in American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Review of Economics and Statistics, and Journal of International Economics, among others.

Édouard Louis is a French writer.