In a recent long post, I argued that one reason white working class Americans are alienated from government is that they lack the productive political power that comes from organizations, such as political parties that rely on ordinary members, and unions. Moreover, because of the weakness of such organizations, white working class people are simply not visible in positions of power. A few leaders can rightly say that they started life in the working class, but almost by definition, they are now all well-paid and highly educated professionals.
As a supportive data point, here is a graph from a 2012 PRRI survey. Respondents are asked: “When you think and talk about government, do you tend to think of it more as ‘the government’ or more as ‘our government?'” The adult population is fairly evenly split, with almost half of Americans opting for “our government.” More than half of white college-educated people see things that way. But six-in-ten working class whites perceive it as “the government.” Among seniors who are working-class whites, a majority still see it as “their” government. That could be because they are invested in certain government policies (such as Social Security and Medicare), but it’s also true that they came of age at a time when working-class people exercised political power. Among young working-class whites, 70% see it as “the government.”
I don’t think they’re wrong. It is “the” government rather than “their” government in a meaningful sense. But as long as they feel this way, and no one offers actual empowerment, they are going to be ripe targets for demagogues who want to blow the whole thing up.