Class and Race: Two Sides, Same Coin
Two op-eds by two center-right writers has me thinking about the intersection of race and class in America.
Unlike a lot of other nations, we tend to be more focused on race. Also, unlike a lot of other nations, we want to believe that class divisions don’t exist. Ross Douthat started things off by his critique of the political strategists that lead the Lincoln Project and how they tend to look down on lower-class whites. Bruce Bartlett came to the Lincoln Project’s defense, affirming the racial animus that strategist Stuart Stevens believes animated the party since the 1960s.
Sometimes our focus on race can cause us to ignore how class operates in America.
I am an African American and when people see me, they see that I am a black man. What they don’t see is that I grew up in a working-class household of two autoworkers. When we think of African Americans class distinction is never really thought about. Even though there is a black working class, people see African Americans as a race and don’t think about economic factors that might differentiate African Americans from one another.
When we do think of class, it is presented in racial terms. When I say, “working class” most people mean “white working class.” And when some people think of the white working class, it is not always in the best terms. I’ve heard them called rubes, not very smart, racist, and several other adjectives. The ones usually participating in the name-calling tend to be professional white people.
If you were to look at the intra-Republican fight in 2020, you would have to boil the differences between Trumpists and Never-Trumpers down to those who focus more on race versus those who focus more on class. (Douthat isn’t pro-Trump, but he is someone that focuses more on class than on race.)
I’m not here to say that race shouldn’t matter in America. Of course, it does. Contrary to some, racial issues didn’t cease because Martin Luther King made a speech. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor reminds us that people can still judge people by the color of their skin.
But race isn’t the only problem. It isn’t the biggest problem sometimes. Class is a huge issue in America, but most of us want to pretend it doesn’t exist. Race, and to a larger extent, identity and class tend to intertwine and leaders have long used racism to get people to forget about class.
But class matters and if we as a society don’t come to terms with inequality, racial issues will only get worse.
How did Donald Trump, become the choice of the primary electorate in 2016? The party had one the deepest and diverse fields ever and yet the person chosen was someone who was not fit to serve as president, let alone become the nominee. Why did this happen?
Some people believe the GOP has a voter problem. There is a lot to this belief. Republican lawmakers aren’t afraid of getting a nasty tweet from the President, but they are afraid of his supporters who will go after them.
So, yes, the voters are a problem in that they are given to conspiracy theories and racial resentment. But is that the cause or yet another symptom? Why are these people so hostile to anyone that isn’t white?
To understand that you have to understand two things: what happened in the Republican Party and what happened in the American economy. While people might think the GOP is the party of the rich, it has over time become the party for the white working class. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat were aware of these changes and wrote Grand New Party in 2008 laying out how the GOP could become the party of America’s working class. Their suggestions weren’t considered. This was also the focus of the so-called “reformicons” before 2016.
So, when those 2016 GOP presidential candidates came forward, they didn’t push an agenda geared towards the working class. Instead, they pushed the same policy of low taxes that Republicans supported for the last 40 years. The working-class base wanted something beyond low taxes. Donald Trump spoke in a way that made many working families feel he understood them.
But that is interesting in and of itself. Donald Trump didn’t lift the Douthat and Salam’s policy prescription. Instead, he used class to speak to the white working-class mixed in with a lot of racial grievances. Trump is using the playbook of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama when he ran for president in 1968. Wallace targeted the white working class, using class as a stalking horse for racial resentment.
Why would the working-class be swayed by racial resentment? To understand that, you have to understand what was going on in the American economy over the last 50 years. Journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn wrote a moving opinion piece in the New York Times about how the loss of manufacturing had affected one family in Oregon. The two reporters share what they think happened to the American working class over the last half-century when the jobs left, and it sounds pretty familiar to me:
In the 1970s and ’80s it was common to hear derogatory suggestions that the forces ripping apart African-American communities were rooted in “black culture.” The idea was that “deadbeat dads,” self-destructive drug abuse and family breakdown were the fundamental causes, and that all people needed to do was show “personal responsibility.”
A Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, countered that the true underlying problem was lost jobs, and he turned out to be right. When good jobs left white towns like Yamhill a couple of decades later because of globalization and automation, the same pathologies unfolded there. Men in particular felt the loss not only of income but also of dignity that accompanied a good job. Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable. Family structure collapsed.
It would be easy but too simplistic to blame just automation and lost jobs: The problems are also rooted in disastrous policy choices over 50 years. The United States wrested power from labor and gave it to business, and it suppressed wages and cut taxes rather than invest in human capital, as our peer countries did. As other countries embraced universal health care, we did not; several counties in the United States have life expectancies shorter than those in Cambodia or Bangladesh.
I echo their beliefs because I’ve seen it happen before my eyes. While my hometown of Flint, Michigan is predominantly African American, I saw how changes in the economy could destroy lives. Flint was the birthplace of General Motors and in the 20th century, it became the company town. Flint became synonymous with GM, and GM factories dotted the Flint area. Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, it was common to see car carriers filled with Buicks or Chevys heading to dealerships across the nation. During that same period, the number of people working for GM was about 80,000 and the population of the city was near 200,000 people.
Then things changed. Massive changes were happening in the economy that would send Flint and other cities in the Rust Belt spinning downward. Factories became more efficient, meaning fewer people were needed. It became cheaper to build cars in places like Mexico than it was in the U.S. The dominance of the Big Three automakers ended as the gas crises of the ’70s hit and Americans were looking for more fuel-efficient cars and started buying Hondas and Toyotas. The result in Flint was that GM closed factory after factory until, today, about 8,000 people work for GM and the city’s population is now less than 100,000.
If you’re someone who loses their job and thinks a trade deal took it away and you’re worried that someone who doesn’t look like you (isn’t white) has it instead, you are going to start looking for people to blame. Donald Trump gave the white working-class an excuse, an easy answer.
Trump gave the white working-class an easy answer, but NeverTrump or Trump skeptical conservatives haven’t always shown much sympathy. Tom Nichols rightly complains how conservatives blamed African Americans for their poverty during the Reagan years, but not showing sympathy for the white working class isn’t a good answer. Yes, some of those white working-class were pretty cold when it was African Americans in a bad fix, but turnabout isn’t fair play. Whether poverty is white or black, more often than not it isn’t the fault of the people, but forces beyond their control.
The thing is, people like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney might be heroes to NeverTrumpers like me, but they didn’t speak to the white working class. Trump did.
Some conservatives are starting to see how we treat not just the white working class but all workers matter. Picking up where Salam and Douthat left off, several conservatives are starting to think the rewards of the free market are not being felt by everyone. None of these people are advocating for socialism, but they are wondering if what has passed for conservative economics over the last 30 or 40 years has run its course. Senator Marco Rubio expressed his view on the economy with a speech at Catholic University last fall on what he calls “Common Good Capitalism.” Rubio-based Common Good Catholicism from Rerum Novarum, an 1891 Catholic Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. In that letter, Pope Leo writes about care for the poor and the workers and speaking against the rise of socialism. Writing in the National Review, he describes what Common Good Capitalism is all about:
What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism: a system of free enterprise wherein workers fulfill their obligation to work and enjoy the resultant benefits, and businesses enjoy their right to make a profit and reinvest enough to create high-productivity jobs, which is what I mean by dignified work for Americans. Common-good capitalism also means recognizing that what the market determines is most efficient may not be best for America. For example, we’ve allowed ourselves to become almost completely dependent on China for rare-earth minerals and done nothing to further our ability to provide them for ourselves. That’s why I have filed legislation to support investment in this critical sector.
Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center is another conservative who wants conservatism to speak to the economic needs of the working class. In Olsen’s 2017 book Working Class Republican, we learn that Ronald Reagan was a “New Deal conservative”, someone who was reconciled to the fact that the New Deal was designed so that “the primacy of human dignity sanctions government help for those who need it.” While Reagan was not in favor of big government, he still believed that the government had a role in safeguarding the commonwealth.
Olsen and Rubio should be commended for taking on this issue. The downside is that both men did it at the expense of their consciences. Both men supported Trump and maybe hoped Trump could make an opening to help working Americans. They were willing to ignore the racial scapegoating if they could get their agenda through. They are also ignoring Trump’s allergy to governing. Trump could have done something to help the working class economically, but instead, he chose the cultural route, stoking resentment instead of fattening workers paychecks.
But while I have strong reservations against them for their complicity with Trump, they are on to something here that I think NeverTrumpers are missing.
In addition, Oren Cass and his think tank, American Compass are also providing solutions that will help make America a little less unequal. Their strong statement on the need for conservatives to support unions is something that is sorely needed.
However, there is a concern that a Republican Party after Trump won’t have any interest in tackling class issues. It’s hard to see Olsen and Rubio get a hearing in the current version of the Republican Party. As Tim Alberta notes, this GOP is out of ideas. It only cares about feeding red meat to its base and owning the libs. Olsen and Rubio have ideas and they are worthy ideas, but they no longer have a party that will listen to them.
So if the center-right is going to tackle inequality seriously, it will have to come from the Trump-skeptical/NeverTrump side. It can’t come from within the GOP, but from outside of it. But for that to happen, NeverTrumpers have to see race and class as issues to focus on. They have to care about working-class whites and foster greater diversity within conservatism in the United States. Both of these must go together. To focus exclusively on one means demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to bedevil America.
This means that NeverTrumpers, the old GOP establishment, must give up their obsession with tax cuts. While one can argue that the 1981 tax cuts were a good thing, you can only pull that off a few times. After a while, the middle and working classes will start to notice that they aren’t the ones benefiting from lower taxes. None of this means we must raise taxes back to their 70 percent top marginal rates of the late 1970s. But it does mean that conservatism has to mean more than just giving yet another tax cut to struggling families.
NeverTrumpers have been good at coming to terms with race. But will they come to terms with class as well? In some ways, it’s far easier to talk about race than class because focusing on race doesn’t ask them to make changes to what they believe. American conservatism focuses on the free market and views it as nothing but a good thing. Markets are beneficial, but they aren’t perfect and to admit to class means coming to terms with the imperfection of markets. They can lift people out of poverty; I’ve seen it for myself in the late 90s in China. But markets can also be limiting. Sometimes they don’t benefit everyone. I can see that, but will NeverTrumpers be willing to cross that bridge?
We have no idea if the NeverTrumpers will go back to the GOP or create something new, but they need to be able to wake up as to why they lost to Trump and learn from that experience, especially when it comes to helping working families. One way they can do this is by adopting an American version of “One Nation Conservativism.” Writing for the Niskanen Center, former chair of the Washington state Republican Party, he urges both political parties to adopt this approach which is a staple of British conservatism. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli devised this philosophy describing some of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution on how government should best respond:
We have become two nations — the rich and the poor — between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.
Disraeli believed there was a massive class divide that had to be healed. The way you heal it is through programs that can shrink the distances between classes. Vance offers some ideas to both parties on what could be an American version of One Nation Conservatism. Such a program would include health care reform, immigration reform, free trade that includes help for workers affected by trade, and ample funding for safety-net programs.
So, why should an African American like me care about how we treat the white working-class? Because as long as they don’t have access to good-paying jobs, they will listen whenever a racist Svengali like Trump tells them the people they should be angry with are the black and brown people. So, looking after the interests of this segment of America is at some level about self-interest. If we don’t deal with the issue of class, it will make racial tensions worse, not better.
Douthat and Bartlett don’t realize that their disagreement is two sides of the same coin. What is needed is to develop a conservative economic policy for the 21st century that pays attention to and lifts the working class, and stop selling a policy that worked 40 years ago. If racial reconciliation is to make progress in America, attention must be paid to the working class.
We ignore it at America’s peril…