Although a few political analysts have been focusing on the white working class for years, it is only in response to the rise of Donald Trump that this large group of Americans has begun to receive the attention it deserves. Now, thanks to a comprehensive survey that the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) undertook in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, we can speak with some precision about the distinctive attitudes and preferences of these voters.
There are different ways of defining the white working class. Along with several other survey researchers, PRRI defines this group as non-Hispanic whites with less than a college degree, with the additional qualification of being paid by the hour or by the job rather than receiving a salary. No definition is perfect, but this one works pretty well. Most working-class whites have incomes below $50,000; most whites with BAs or more have incomes above $50,000. Most working-class whites rate their financial circumstances as only fair or poor; most college educated whites rate their financial circumstances as good or excellent. Fifty-four percent of working-class whites think of themselves as working class or lower class, compared to only 18 percent of better-educated whites.
The PRRI/Brookings study finds that in many respects, these two groups of white voters see the world very differently. For example, 54 percent of college-educated whites think that America’s culture and way of life have improved since the 1950s; 62 percent of white working-class Americans think that it has changed for the worse. Sixty-eight percent of working-class whites, but only 47 percent of college-educated whites, believe that the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences. Sixty-six percent of working-class whites, but only 43 percent of college-educated whites, say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In a similar vein, 62 percent of working-class whites believe that discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other groups, a proposition only 38 percent of college educated whites endorse.
This brings us to the issue of immigration. By a margin of 52 to 35 percent, college-educated whites affirm that today’s immigrants strengthen our country through their talent and hard work. Conversely, 61 percent of white working-class voters say that immigrants weaken us by taking jobs, housing, and health care. Seventy-one percent of working-class whites think that immigrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages, a belief endorsed by only 44 percent of college-educated whites. Fifty-nine percent of working-class whites believe that we should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries; only 33 percent of college-educated whites agree. Fifty-five percent of working-class whites think we should build a wall along our border with Mexico, while 61 percent of whites with BAs or more think we should not. Majorities of working-class whites believe that we should make the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States illegal and temporarily ban the entrance of non-American Muslims into our country; about two-thirds of college-educated whites oppose each of these proposals.
Opinions on trade follow a similar pattern. By a narrow margin of 48 to 46 percent, college-educated whites endorse the view that trade agreements are mostly helpful to the United States because they open up overseas markets while 62 percent of working-class whites believe that they are harmful because they send jobs overseas and drive down wages.
It is understandable that working-class whites are more worried that they or their families will become victims of violent crime than are whites with more education. After all, they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher levels of social disorder and criminal behavior. It is harder to explain why they are also much more likely to believe that their families will fall victim to terrorism. To be sure, homegrown terrorist massacres of recent years have driven home the message that it can happen to anyone, anywhere. We still need to explain why working-class whites have interpreted this message in more personal terms.
The most plausible interpretation is that working-class whites are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability. On every front—economic, cultural, personal security—they feel threatened and beleaguered. They seek protection against all the forces they perceive as hostile to their cherished way of life—foreign people, foreign goods, foreign ideas, aided and abetted by a government they no longer believe cares about them. Perhaps this is why fully 60 percent of them are willing to endorse a proposition that in previous periods would be viewed as extreme: the country has gotten so far off track that we need a leader who is prepared to break so rules if that is what it takes to set things right.
President-elect Bolsonaro has embraced tough-on-crime measures that egregiously violate basic human rights and eviscerate the rule of law. Responding to Brazil’s 63,880 homicides in 2017, Bolsonaro calls for increasing protection for police officers who kill alleged criminals and arming citizens. He calls for further militarizing urban policing, reducing the age of criminal liability from 18 to 16, reinstating the death penalty, authorizing torture in interrogations and imprisoning more people... Brazil’s police are already notorious for being one of the world’s deadliest in the use of force. In many favelas, Brazil’s retired and current police officers operate illegal militias that extort and control local communities, murdering those who oppose them and engaging in warfare with Brazil’s highly-violent gangs and in social cleansing. Bolsonaro is simply threatening to turn the rest of the police into state-sanctioned thugs.