How White Working Class Culture Shaped American Politics
White people as a whole voted for Donald Trump. This includes a lot of white people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. There are countless thinkpieces about why whites who voted for Obama voted for Trump. Prominent among these is Joan C. Williams‘ piece in the Harvard Business Review.
Professor Williams was born in 1952 and was one of the many baby boomers to benefit from the New Deal and Great Society. She writes about her father-in-law who grew up during the Great Depression and WWII with an alcoholic father but who rose in the post-war years to a decent life. He was a Wall Street Journal reading Republican with a blue-collar job. As I noted in my previous essay, the big debate on the Democratic Party and the left is whether there is a racism problem or an economics problem in why Trump won.
I’ve mentioned before that I side more with the “it’s racism” crowd than the “an economic populist like Bernie Sanders could have won crowd.” Often as not, the debate seems to be tested with hypotheticals — only they are usually intellectually dishonest, and end up proving what the author wants to be true. We know Trump’s rhetoric from the campaign and it was filled with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other bigotries. We also know that Trump won among almost all segments of white voters, regardless of education and income, except maybe whites with advanced degrees.
However, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, a few razor thin margins in select states gave Trump the victory and Democrats need to win more whites in order to win the Presidency and other elected offices. The trick is for the Democratic Party is going to be keeping true to their commitment of anti-racism and anti-sexism while appealing to more whites.
I am not sure how much this can be done and Prof. Williams inadvertently provides some reasoning her in article, although not in the way she might imagine. First:
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
I’m not sure how much this is an unknown feature. This seems to jive with thoughts going back to Steinbeck’s quip that socialism never took hold in the United States because there are no poor people here, just “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Nevertheless, the size of the cultural divide between the white working class and upper-middle class professionals has also been noted through out the election.
Very few people know the ultra-rich, so they can be a blank state. Most people know Trump from The Apprentice and his other TV appearances. Even though Hillary Clinton is really wealthy, she comes across as being more from the upper-middle class and exhibits its mores and mannerisms effectively. Perhaps this played Clinton false in the election: the politics of resentment in the United States seems more directed at upper-middle class white liberals than the ultra-wealthy. This has been true since Sarah Palin came on stage in 2008 if not before. Upper-middle class liberals are disliked for choices in entertainment (NPR instead of talk radio, Game of Thrones instead of NCIS, minimalist design instead of Trumpian gaudiness), where to live (in and near diverse cities instead of than more rural “real American” areas), and publicly allying and sympathizing with minorities instead of less well-off whites. In short, upper-class white liberals are seen as race traitors.
There is also a job creator paradox. Upper-middle class liberals form businesses that are often small- to medium-sized, and tend to have large numbers of knowledge workers who are often imported from elsewhere in the world. Large, prominent examples include Facebook and Google. This new economy, however, does not found companies that hire people with high school educations. On the other hand, Trump sees and sells himself as a builder. Building can’t be outsourced offshore, and does create lots of jobs for the unskilled or semi-skilled. Same with resource extraction. Moreover, upper-middle class concerns about the environment and climate change sound like they run counter to creating well-paying jobs for semi-skilled workers.
Professor Williams’ second point:
Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals. Clinton’s clunky admission that she talks one way in public and another in private? Further proof she’s a two-faced phony.
“Blunt talk” seems like a red herring to me; in court I’d challenge it as void for vagueness. One person’s “blunt talk” could be another person’s “bigotry and racism.” This dichotomy manifests with Trump’s and many of his supporters’ overt dismissal of “political correctness.” What I think of as being “PC” reduces to “Don’t be a dick; try to think of others’ feelings before speaking.” Those who criticize political correctness, however, seem to see something else there.
There are also plenty of times when the white working class does not seem to like blunt talk. When one bluntly states that the mines will not reopen because of coal’s uselessness. When one bluntly states that the factory jobs are not coming back because of automation and globalization. I don’t see how any of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail on these subjects counts as “straight talk” or “blunt.” 1
This avowed desire for “blunt talk” connects with the third point that Williams wants to make:
Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. It’s comfort food for high-school-educated guys who could have been my father-in-law if they’d been born 30 years earlier. Today they feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.
Again, this is an area where it seems clear that the white working class does not want to hear blunt talk. They want to hear that they can go back to a past that sort of existed, but did not really exist. The political scientist Ira Katznelson dedicated his career to exploring the white supremacy that was at the heart of the policies that rose the white working class into the middle class. Franklin Roosevelt might have wanted the New Deal to apply to all Americans, but he needed the support of Southern Democrats — who made sure that it did not extend to many black and brown Americans. This led to whites without college degrees getting the plummest unskilled and semi-skilled jobs for decades. They got the well-paying factory jobs and/or the skilled labor positions at refineries and in construction. Working class whites became the steamfitters, the pipefitters, the welders, the plumbers, the electricians, and so on. Many minorities were stuck in the lower paid work of domestic service, garbage pickup, fast food work, and similar lower-tier jobs.
Those days are largely gone, and the white working class has been told this for several generations and seemingly refuses to believe it. The biggest losers, then, are probably the whites who managed middle-class lives at unskilled labor.
I don’t know if there are any solutions here. I don’t want the Democratic Party to abandon anti-racism and anti-sexism. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that several horrible government policies still work as jobs programs for rural whites. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs is a good example. We build prisons in white rural areas and mainly house urban residents in these prisons. The prisons provide construction jobs and staff jobs for rural white populations. Ending the war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies will lead to fewer of those sorts of jobs in rural America. Border Patrol and other Homeland Security programs also seem to provide jobs for rural whites.
The best option for the rural working class may well be a blunt truth that they don’t want to hear: “The factory and mining jobs are not coming back. The best that can be done for you is higher wages in service work. Dignity is something that you have to create for yourself, perhaps despite your job rather than because of it.”
- Similarly, I observe that Trump supporters also evidence discomfort when journalists call out Trump and his surrogates’ statements as “lies” rather than “opinions,” or when their references and rhetoric are bluntly correlated with identical phrases and political maneuvers mirroring the rise of European fascism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. — BL.