Work and the 2016 Election: Lessons and Challenges for Sociology

Arne L. Kalleberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Explaining the astonishing results in the 2016 presidential election will undoubtedly keep social scientists busy for a long time. While the eventual consequences of the election are yet to be seen, it is clear that sociologists have tremendous challenges ahead. At the same time, there are also great opportunities to explain how broad institutional and cultural factors generated the insecurity felt by those whose precarious economic siworkerstuations and futures were dire, and felt in need of hope and a sense of dignity.

The anger expressed by Mr. Trump’s core constituency—namely white, blue-collar men without college degrees—is not that surprising considering that they were the main casualties of the major economic shifts that have occurred in the United States over the past three decades. During this period, we have seen a rapid growth of jobs that paid low wages and offered few benefits, and which had virtually no long-term security or opportunities for advancement. Long gone are many of the secure, well-paying industrial jobs that enabled millions of American workers to join the middle class in the mid-20th century. Today, only the most skilled workers prosper, while others must settle for jobs with paltry compensation and poor prospects.

This growth of precarious work has led to significant outcomes, both related to work (e.g., job and economic insecurity, inequality) and non-work spheres (e.g., stress, family disruption, community fracturing). The decline of the middle class has spilled over into a very large range of social problems: gender and race disparities, civil rights and economic injustice, family insecurity and work-family imbalances, concerns about immigration, political polarization, and so on. This situation has festered for some time, as many of these formerly middle-class workers increasingly felt that political leaders did not hear their concerns nor provide them with much guidance on how to chart an increasingly insecure and uncertain landscape. Their precarious position thus made them very susceptible to the political overtures from someone who provided an explanation for their plight, ranging from bad trade deals that sent their jobs overseas, a “rigged system” that answered only to the rich and powerful, immigrants that were responsible for terror and crime.

Where Does Sociology Fit in?

The (re) emergence of nonstandard work arrangements, technologically induced changes in work, and the replacement of people by automation and robots illustrate only some of the numerous important issues that sociologists need to explain in terms of the sociological, cultural, economic, and political dynamics over the past three decades. Perhaps even more urgently, sociologists need to identify the kinds of policies that might be effective in addressing these concerns and thereby to contribute substantially to the framing of effective policies to rebuild the social contract.


  1. I agree with the analysis.Since the media focus always in what happens in this country, a lot of people- no immigrants – ignore or minimize the effect of globalization over the world : XXI can’t be understood as the past century. However, presidential candidates also should transform the style to talk with the people about world problems…

  2. I always like Arne’s analyses because they are grounded in a close reading of the evidence. So I was disconcerted at this comment:

    “The anger expressed by Mr. Trump’s core constituency—namely white, blue-collar men without college degrees—is not that surprising considering that they were the main casualties of the major economic shifts that have occurred in the United States over the past three decades.”

    This is not grounded in evidence because “white, blue collar men without college degrees”[wbcmwcd’s] have not been the “main casualties” of the neoliberal era. In fact, the minorities wedged in below wbcmwcd’s have been hit harder and more comprehensively than the wbcmwcd’s.

    This fact does not automatically disqualify Arne’s argument, which does not depend upon wbcmwcd’s being at the bottom. But it does mean that his argument is fatally incomplete. Because we need to comprehend why economic discontent among wbcmwcd’s produces support for a billionaire who has a long and notorious track record of exploiting, oppressing, and misleading wbcmwcd’s. Given the choice between two candidates whose credentials for helping them are non-existent, large numbers of wbcmwcd’s chose Trump, but large numbers chose Clinton. What distinguished these supporters of Trump from their class brethren who supported Clinton?

    The answer is pretty straightforward, but not in Arne’s analysis. Bigotry of a particular variety that has been built in the US of A for fifty years . It comes from the racist/sexist myth that the problems faced by wbcmwcd’s result from the (mythological) progress made by undeserving minorities, who have jumped ahead of wbcmwcd’s through ill gotten gains based on government largesse. And that racist myth leads to the associated belief that if minorities are put back into their place, then the wbcmwcd’s will be “restored” to prosperity. So what distinguishes the wbcmwcd’s who supported Trump from those who did not is belief in a most dangerous bigoted canard.

  3. Arne Kalleberg’s post is especially insightful and shows his deep understanding of class in the United States. I am so tired of hearing the stereotype of people who voted for Trump as racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic, although there does appear to be a lunatic fringe that fits that description. In my own experience as a volunteer for the Sanders campaign, I met people who were planning to vote for Trump. Instead of simply attempting to persuade them that this would not be a good idea, I actually tried listening to them. They seemed to be working-class people who were terrified of their economic prospects, and who mistakenly thought that their jobs were being taken by immigrants. Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric validated that notion. In any case, I’ve just printed multiple copies of this post for distribution to the students in my Social Inequality class.

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