Put Working Class Americans at the Center of Presidential Politics
Recent conversations in southwestern Ohio put the 2024 race into perspective.
This essay is adapted from American Compass’s Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers.
As news about Trump’s indictment dominates cable news and consumes the Beltway, it’s easy to forget that a huge segment of America has given up on politics altogether. Politicians are crooks and the media needlessly divide us—that’s a common diagnosis made by Americans of all backgrounds.
Rather than ignore these disengaged voters, what if presidential candidates focused on those everyday people and their everyday reasons for distrust? Whatever you think of President Trump, talk to enough Trump voters—and, remember, this is a multiethnic group of voters—and you realize that Trump secured their trust because they saw a leader that they perceived as unbeholden to the elites who treated them as fellow citizens and invited previously overlooked people to participate in American political life.
We’ve spent the past decade living in a working-class town in southwestern Ohio, initially on a short-term research project and then settling in as citizens, neighbors, and friends. We recently talked with fourteen of our neighbors about the American Dream, their experiences in the economy, and what they think policymakers can do to improve their lives. Based on those conversations and given the working-class realignment, we see a massive political opportunity for any candidate serious about leaning into the concerns and aspirations of working-class Americans.
Here are six themes we heard:
“I don’t think the American Dream really exists anymore.”
The people we spoke with described the American Dream as being increasingly out of reach. “The American Dream means everyone has a chance at success, but I don’t feel that is true for the low-income or anyone who has a criminal record,” said a woman who works as a supervisor at a homeless shelter.
Cody, a father of three working sixty-hour weeks between two jobs as an independent contractor to an internet company and in his grandfather's custom furniture workshop, and whose wife also works part-time, said that the American Dream means “independence”—in terms of both self-sufficiency and freedom from government interference—but that that's harder to achieve than it used to be. He qualified his view by saying that at the community level we have become “too independent.” Social capital matters, he said, but, “everybody needs help sometimes.”
When Corrie thinks of the American Dream, she thinks of newly arrived immigrants who start family businesses and rise to the middle class. “I think a lot of people have forgotten that the American Dream also applies to Americans, as well.” She admires the immigrant story, but says that for families like hers who have been in America for generations, “I don’t think the American Dream really exists anymore. Because it’s so hard. It may exist, but what we think of as the American Dream is unattainable for a lot of people.” (It does exist, she added with a smirk, “for rich people.”)
As evidence, Corrie cited the rise of the “working homeless,” of which she is part. Though she and her husband have been married for almost twenty years and he has kept a steady factory job while she worked part-time at McDonald's and raised their three children, they are unable to afford rent in the current market and have moved in with her sister’s family.
“In the middle is where you get screwed.”
For families like Corrie’s, part of the problem is that their income is too high to qualify for government assistance but not high enough to pay their bills. A common sentiment we heard was, as Corrie put it, “you have to be rock-bottom poor for you to even get any help."
Means-tested welfare programs can create a “lobster trap” effect, in which programs are easy to enter but difficult to get out of. Brittney, a mother of four living in government-subsidized housing, explained the incentives discouraging work and marriage this way: “I got a job and my husband has a job. We lost our food stamps and our rent went to $1,200. I am basically working to buy food at this point. There was no ‘bettering’ our situation there.” She and her husband delayed marriage for years because they knew that it could jeopardize Brittney’s housing.
“I think that’s where it’s hardest is for the people who are just starting to come up the income bracket, and not really knowing what they can afford, and what they can do, and if it’s going to hurt them to make a little more money,” said Cody, the father of three. “It’s really tough. Once you get up in there, you know you’re fine. But in the middle is where you get screwed.”
These incentives are psychologically demoralizing and contribute to lower-income people's sense that it’s difficult to get ahead, even if (and maybe especially when) they work hard. Income cliffs create resentment on the part of the working class toward those who receive benefits, and toward the government for undermining the value of hard work. People often face the challenge from both sides at different times in their lives, vacillating between frustration that higher income would mean the loss of benefits and frustration that others are receiving benefits that they cannot.
“We want to thrive, not just survive.”
When Wyatt was working at a hotel in Cincinnati, he observed that his Gen Z coworkers were different. While some labeled them as lazy, Wyatt said he liked that they were idealistic and had life priorities other than working and making money. It’s not that young people are afraid of hard work, he said, but they have different expectations about what an employer can rightfully demand from them.
Corrie talked about her time in the service industry when managers asked her to stay past her shift or pick up another shift when other workers didn’t show. They seemed to insinuate that being a good employee meant taking one for the team, canceling evening plans, and staying at work. Corrie admires that younger workers are pushing back. “I want to be able to show my kids that there’s more to life than just working.”
Stephanie, a homemaker whose husband works at a factory, is concerned about “quality of life issues” with his employment. During the pandemic, he had time at home for family meals and baby’s milestones. Now he’s missing those things; she wishes he could work from home part-time.
“Family trumps work.”
The priority for many working-class young adults is time with family. Shayla, who works seasonally at an amusement park, said her children are “my American Dream.” Growing up, her parents worked opposite shifts at a restaurant, one early in the morning, one late into the night. She doesn’t want that for her kids.
Brittney, who had postponed marriage to keep her subsidized housing, summed up a common attitude: “I want to survive, but I have my whole life to work, as well. It’s important that my children look back and remember time together with me. I do try to work around their school hours so we have the whole night together and weekends are important…. That’s when they have games and stuff with sports.”
As Corrie put it, “We would have no time as a family if we were to do things the way we need to do them to get the goal that we want [homeownership].” Reflecting on the toll of long work hours, she asked, “how is my marriage supposed to be successful if I’m never home to work on it? You should not have to give up your family time for work.... I’ve seen so many relationships and marriages fail because all people do is work, because that’s what they have to do to pay their bills.”
Desiree, a young woman who grew up “lower middle class” and started her own successful construction company, described her friends who have become parents: “I see many people spending all of their money on basic necessities after having children.” She thinks this should be addressed with “affordable and accessible” paid leave and child care. Lauren, a homemaker, mentioned child allowances as another possibility to ease the financial burden on parents and give them time with their kids.
“Just talk to me like I’m human.”
When asked what kinds of opportunities they would like the economy to provide, many people discussed workplace culture. Respondents mentioned a desire for “a cohesive team environment,” being treated with “respect and dignity” whether or not they had a college degree, and forming relationships with managers who were more like “mentors” than adversaries. One respondent mentioned NUMMI, the joint venture between Toyota and GM, as an ideal workplace model that emphasizes teamwork and collaboration between labor and management. Another said it’d be nice for workers to have a real voice in company management.
Nicole got her first factory job right out of high school. Over the years she never missed a day and was recognized twice as employee of the month. She had a supervisor who was also a mentor, and when he moved to another company, he asked Nicole if she’d like to follow him there. She appreciated that “he knew what I was capable of.”
But Nicole found that not having a college degree disadvantaged her in terms of pay and advancement. At one point, the mechanical contracting company she was working for fired their warehouse manager and temporarily put Nicole in his place. She did the job for eight months, but never received the title or a raise from the $13 per hour she had earned previously. They hired someone from outside the company. “He was a man. He had a degree,” Nicole says. “I trained him. And then they pushed me back out.”
When we told Nicole about the American Compass proposal to ban bachelor’s degree requirements, she exclaimed, “That would be awesome! More power to people who get college degrees, but some of us didn’t have the money.”
Many people mentioned feeling looked down upon in the workplace. “Treat me like I’m a normal human being,” Shayla implored, recalling one particularly judgmental manager. Anna, a restaurant server, mentioned that the way people talk to her, specifically the way management talks to employees, makes the job hard.
Nicole seemed remarkably unresentful, and spoke matter-of-factly. “The people in the office have the degrees and make more money…. The highly educated sometimes think they’re better than the average worker.” She said that a common problem is management’s unwillingness to take seriously problems raised by workers. They say they’ll look into it, but months go by. “Just talk to me like I’m human,” she said. “If I have a solution to bring to the table, let’s talk about it.”
“I don’t trust the government anyway.”
If working-class Americans feel dismissed in the workplace, the problem is even more acute in politics. In our interviews, there was disillusionment with, but no rage against, politicians. People didn’t mention them unless we asked. Political leaders are too irrelevant for rage—seen as clownish, “pandering” and “inept” on all sides, the butt of jokes, not sources of serious hope.
Skyler, a project manager at an electrical company, diagnosed the problem this way:
[Politicians] are increasingly becoming an elitist group that speak to us and campaign to us with the corniest and most patronizing ways. Few people trust politicians. And even fewer think politicians will even try and do what they are promising to do.
For example, the commonly invoked “kitchen table” image—of a husband and wife looking at their budget late at night trying to make ends meet—needs updating. “That’s my go-to metaphor whenever I’m imitating a politician!” laughed Cody. “It’s more like chilling on the couch looking at my bank account on my smart phone saying, ‘What the hell?’” Corrie added that many families don’t even have a kitchen table, or family dinners, anymore.
Skyler lamented that “those who should go into politics are either turned off by the insanity of partisan politics or have no viable pathway into politics as they are not filthy rich, well-connected, and so on. So the standard for political leadership continues to decline.”
Frank, a young adult who had received disability checks “since I was a baby” but recently received an unexplained letter about the termination of those payments, put it more succinctly: “I don’t trust the government anyway.”
This distrust leaves many skeptical that the government can do much to improve economic outcomes. Desiree, who founded the construction company, said that “with all the events our age group has lived through thus far, and how little our government has supported bettering our lives, I don’t expect the economy to provide any sense of security.”
Cody added, “There are examples of what the government could do positively, but there are lots of examples of what they’re doing to make it harder.”
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But while many Americans are growing ever-more skeptical about the attainability of the American Dream and politicians’ ability to solve problems, they also mention a strong desire for a practical, collaborative approach to problem-solving. And they see a role for themselves in that process as well—treated as fellow citizens, not uneducated grunts.
“The college-educated have something to bring to the table, too. We know what they don’t know. They know what we don’t know,” says Nicole. “It’d be crazy what we could accomplish if we could come together, if people would stop thinking they’re better than everyone else. If we could come together, this world would be a different place.”
Presidential candidates and the media would do well to take note.