Social-democratic or labor parties in Europe were never movements of the industrial working class alone; they required class coalitions with agrarian and other groups to succeed. Educated intellectuals from bourgeois backgrounds were an important element of these coalitions. Perhaps the best-known instance is the involvement of middle-class intellectuals as journalists, theorists, and teachers in the German Social Democratic Party. Although American Progressivism was not identical to European socialism, reformist intellectuals also worked together with trade unions and popular women’s groups in the US to promote social legislation, and radical intellectuals played an outsized role in the Socialist Party of America.

A growing chorus of voices suggests that these historical alliances between workers and intellectuals may now be breaking down. The journalist Thomas Frank argued that the Republican Party promoted pro-business economic policies while using anti-intellectualism to mobilize working-class support in Kansas. John McGowan contends that the American sociologist Alvin Gouldner, writing in the late 1970s, failed to foresee the emergence of “an unholy alliance between the capitalists and the non-intellectual workers” against the “New Class” of humanistic intellectuals and technical intelligentsia. According to the Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein, “the Brexit referendum in the UK, Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States and the success of all sorts of nationalist-populist parties in many European countries” show that “the more than 150-year-old alliance between the industrial working class and … the intellectual-cultural Left is over.”

Does the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the US signal the breakdown of past alliances between workers and intellectuals, and the emergence of new cross-class coalitions? Or have the worker-intellectual alliances that were integral to social-democratic movements in the past endured in some form? My co-author Masoud Movahed and I investigate this question in “The New Class and Right-Wing Populism: The Case of Wisconsin,” recently published by The Sociological Quarterly. Wisconsin pioneered Progressive social and political reforms in the US in the early 20th century, but a right-wing populist regime came to power in the state after 2010 that anticipated Donald Trump’s national election victory in 2016. This trajectory allows us to examine what role a worker-intellectual alliance played in the early period and whether it broke down in the later period.

The starting point for our investigation is a theoretical framework derived from the work of the sociologists Alvin Gouldner and Pierre Bourdieu. Neither Gouldner nor Bourdieu were orthodox Marxists, but they both drew heavily on the Marxian theoretical tradition and its emphasis on class analysis. The framework we derive from them roughly distinguishes three main social classes: a capitalist or business class with economic capital, a highly educated “New Class” (Gouldner’s term) with cultural capital, and a manual working class with relatively little capital of either kind. The theoretical framework also explains how and why two of these classes (workers and intellectuals) have historically allied themselves against the third (capitalists). We then present historical evidence that 20th-century Progressivism in Wisconsin was supported by such an alliance in which workers and small farmers joined with an emerging New Class of highly educated intellectuals and professionals against the state’s business interests. Next, we examine the class coalition that supported Wisconsin’s turn to right-wing populism under Governor Scott Walker from 2011 to 2019, when conservatives controlled all three branches of government and the state was effectively under one-party Republican rule. The ensuing “conservative revolution” in governance (as journalists described it) advantaged business interests, harmed the New Class, and made populist appeals to the working class. But were these appeals effective in realigning the social classes identified in our theoretical framework? We analyze survey data to determine whether Wisconsin’s turn to right-wing populism in the early 21st century was associated with a breakdown of the worker-intellectual alliances that characterized state politics in the early 20th century.

Our study yields an important set of findings about the New Class, and another equally noteworthy set of findings about the working class. First, we find that the state’s highest-income individuals supported Walker, while its most highly educated individuals opposed him. These antithetical political stances indicate that the New Class is not merely an agent of business interests or subservient to the old moneyed class. Furthermore, our research suggests that the educational divide in Wisconsin politics has shifted: it is not between the college-educated and those without college degrees, as many accounts of right-wing populism in the US suggest, but rather between those who pursued postgraduate study and all lower levels of educational attainment. College graduates and those with postgraduate degrees may share an interest in the social and economic advantages they derive from their educational credentials, but fewer college graduates evince an awareness of themselves as belonging to a New Class opposed to the old moneyed class. This finding serves as a useful reminder that the boundaries and definition of a class are themselves one of the major stakes in class struggles.

Our second important set of findings challenges widespread claims that right-wing populism owes its success to the support of the white working class. To the contrary, we demonstrate that working-class Wisconsinites—those with relatively little economic capital or education—tended to be politically aligned with the state’s most highly educated residents against the former governor’s right-wing populism. This finding calls into question claims that the intellectual-worker alliances of the past have broken down. To be sure, we do not claim that Wisconsin’s social classes or the relations among them have remained frozen or unchanged since the early 20th century. Rather, we conclude that in 21st-century Wisconsin, New Class actors and the state’s dominated classes are politically aligned in a way that is analogous to past intellectual-worker alliances theorized by Gouldner and Bourdieu. In other words, Walker succeeded not because the intellectual-worker alliance broke down but because it failed to carry the day between 2011 and 2019. The right-wing populism of these years owed its success less to the working class than to affluent Wisconsinites, especially those employed in the private, non-unionized sector of the state economy.

Many scholars and journalists have interpreted right-wing populism as a working-class revolt against neoliberal globalization and the political establishments that encouraged it. Our study implies that this narrative is doubly wrong: first, because it presumes that the most economically wealthy and most highly educated classes rule together in a unified neoliberal establishment; and second, because it implies that the dominated classes with little income or education form the social base for right-wing populism. Our finding that intellectuals and workers remained politically aligned in Wisconsin suggests that such an alignment may remain possible elsewhere as well.

Chad Alan Goldberg is Martindale-Bascom Professor of Sociology and an affiliate of the Department of History, Department of Political Science, George L. Mosse Program in History, and George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He writes about politics, history, and social theory.

To read more, see: Chad Alan Goldberg and Masoud Movahed, “The New Class and Right-Wing Populism: The Case of Wisconsin,” The Sociological Quarterly 2023.

Image: Scott Walker Press Conference via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).