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The decline of the white working class is a key part of the story.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J.D. Vance
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics
By John B. Judis
Columbia Global Reports
Trump and the Roots of Rage: The Republican Right and the Authoritarian Threat
By Kevin O'Leary
Amazon Digital Services
The End of White Christian America
By Robert P. Jones
Simon & Schuster
The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
By Katherine J. Cramer
University of Chicago Press
Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
By Carol Anderson
White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Five years ago, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild set out to better understand what she called the “deep story” of the mostly white, mostly downwardly mobile Americans who made up the fervent constituency of the Tea Party, and now of Donald Trump. These are the people who ostensibly vote against their economic self-interests, as Thomas Frank contended more than a decade ago in What’s the Matter with Kansas? They loathe a government that often redistributes and regulates in their favor.
What was at work here?, Hochschild wanted to know. What was their “narrative as felt”? Her odyssey took her to an ideal locale to fathom the apparent cognitive dissonance of the right-wing populist backlash—the swampy region around Lake Charles, Louisiana, a town of 75,000 all but ruined by the petrochemical industry.
In ten extended trips to southwest Louisiana, Hochschild proceeded with great humility, sitting around kitchen tables, taking drives, going to church, listening respectfully to the life stories of 60 people, accumulating 4,690 pages of transcript. Despite their political differences, she grew to like, even admire, most of them, for their generosity and fortitude.
Hochschild’s account, Strangers in Their Own Land, is novelistic as well as an exemplary political ethnography. Her tale is at once baffling, demoralizing, and a wake-up call for liberals. It is the clearest narrative exposition yet of the social basis of the Trump backlash and of right-wing populism generally.
“Virtually every Tea Party advocate I interviewed for this book,” she writes, “has personally benefited from a government service or has close family who have. Several have elderly disabled parents and had them declared indigent in order to enable them to receive Medicaid.” Louisiana, like most red states, is a net recipient of federal aid; the lower you go on the income ladder, the more pronounced is that cost-benefit tilt in your favor.
Places like southwest Louisiana also desperately need government protection from predatory industry. A region that these adults remember as a paradise of plentiful fishing, hunting, swimming, and boating on lovely bayous is now a substantially uninhabitable landscape, due to the predations of companies like Union Carbide and PPG. Water cannot be safely drunk and is dangerous to swim in. The fish are mostly gone or toxic to eat. Methane seeps out of the earth. Birds are dying. Nearby, along the Mississippi River, is an 85-mile strip of more than 150 chemical plants, widely known as Cancer Alley because of the elevated cancer rates linked to toxic waste. One of Hochschild’s interviewees, Mike Schaff, lost his home and neighborhood to a giant, 30-plus-acre sinkhole in Bayou Corne that was created when salt domes rented for toxic storage by chemical companies gave way. The locals are indeed strangers in their own land.
Touring the lost world of a 77-year-old Cajun man named Harold Areno, in Bayou d’Inde, Hochschild is introduced to scenes of dead cypress trees, blind turtles, and species of fish and game that either no longer exist or are toxic. As she grasps the personal impact and environmental catastrophe caused by insufficiently policed chemical dumping, Hochschild writes, “I feel as if I’ve come upon the scene of a slow-motion crime.”
Yet to a person, her interviewees hate the Environmental Protection Agency, and vote for political leaders who want to shut it down. Even Mike Schaff, who personally crusaded against the chemical companies at risk to his own livelihood, votes Tea Party.
How can this possibly be? These people, after all, are not stupid. More to the point, she finds, they are good, worthy, likable folk, quick to help a neighbor in distress. To summarize a complex human story that deserves to be read in all its rich detail, here’s what she finds:
People hereabouts don’t trust government, state or federal, and not without reason. They’ve watched, close-up, as the government of Louisiana, one of the most chronically corrupt, has given the oil and chemical industry a free pass. The federal EPA may be somewhat better, but it is even more remote, and seems to care more about protecting obscure species than saving bayous. But the government is great at extracting taxes, often to help people who don’t deserve it, and at adding nuisance regulations. If the government had been doing its job, their homes would not have been turned into a ruined landscape of toxic waste. The most fervent recruits to the Tea Party, as Alec MacGillis has observed, are not working-class, much less underclass. They are dispossessed middle-class, who see neither political party respecting, much less serving, them. Government promised, didn’t deliver, and tendered visible help mainly to the dependent poor. Genuine benefits like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid aren’t enough to tilt the balance.
Unlike hopeful liberals, Hochschild’s Louisiana friends derive their view of government not from what it might be but from what it is, in their own experience. Harold Areno puts it just about perfectly:
The state always seems to come down on the little guy. Take this bayou. If your motorboat leaks a little gas into the water, the warden’ll write you up. But if companies leak thousands of gallons of it and kill all the life here? The state lets them go. If you shoot an endangered brown pelican, they’ll put you in jail. But if a company kills the brown pelican by poisoning the fish he eats? They let it go. I think they overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top.
This view sounds almost like something Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader might say, but it leads to an opposite brand of populism—a sense of both resignation and deep resentment, a feeling that all we can rely on is our own grit; even an acceptance of environmental destruction as the price that must be paid for jobs (though the jobs are becoming unreliable). Jackie Tabor, one of her subjects, tells Hochschild without a shred of irony, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”
That sensibility is what makes these folks right-wing populists. They hate all things big, including big business and big government, and they correctly see the two as conjoined. Based on their own lived experience, they have no confidence that government, as John Kenneth Galbraith hoped, can serve as a countervailing force against business for the benefit of the people. Culturally, Hochschild reports, they seek “relief from liberal notions of what they should feel—happy for the gay newlywed, sad for the plight of the Syrian refugee, un-resentful about paying taxes.”
How do the good people of Lake Charles cope if they don’t look to government for help? They have their church. Harold Areno, mourning his lost cypress trees, says thoughtfully, “They say there are beautiful trees in Heaven.” And they have each other—their own sense of community decency and proud self-reliance. They are victims who reject a language of victimhood, Hochschild writes. Government seems not to respect any of this.
Hochschild puts her finger on something that has eluded many analysts who focus on the economics, namely the role of culture. These people feel condescended to. “They … felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward,” she writes. They felt like a besieged minority. One of her interlocutors tells her, “[T]here are fewer and fewer white Christians like us.”
After considering her interviews at length, Hochschild synthesizes what she takes to be the credo of the Tea Party supporters of southwest Louisiana:
You see people cutting in line ahead of you! … Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches. … Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. …
Unbelievably, standing in front of you in line is a brown pelican.
The credo is not just about economic displacement. It’s about honor. The Tea Party supporters of Lake Charles are no longer honored, either as whites, or as male breadwinners, or as women homemakers.
Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home. … There is a political movement of people such as yourself who share your deep story. It’s called the Tea Party.
Hochschild emails her rendition of what she calls “The Deep Story” to the people who have become her Louisiana friends. One emails back, “I live your analogy.” Another says, “You’ve read my mind.”
Her subjects go out of their way to tiptoe around race, though it is tacitly present. There was a time when government delivered enough that people like them could feel that government was on their side. Their grandparents voted for Huey Long, and for FDR. Once, Louisiana regularly elected Democrats. For most of the 20th century, they enforced racial segregation. Now, government seems to be an alliance between the lowest classes, racial minorities, and the culturally avant-garde. The government not only insists on race-mixing but expects welcoming smiles.
AS IT HAPPENS, THE number-three book on the nonfiction bestseller list, as of this writing in late September, is Hillbilly Elegy, a first-person memoir by a 31-year-old who could have been one of Hochschild’s interlocutors, except for the fact that he hails from Appalachia rather than Louisiana. Author J.D. Vance’s people came from the hill country in eastern Kentucky. His parents set out for Ohio, looking for work. But his is the ultimate dysfunctional family. His mother ends up bouncing from one toxic boyfriend or husband to another, becoming a drug addict and an abusive parent. Vance flees to his estranged father, but leaves. Ultimately, he is saved by his grandparents, known as Mamaw and Papaw, who give him a semblance of a stable home life and decent if rugged values, for his last three years of high school.
He gets into Ohio State, but realizes he is ill-prepared. So he defers admission and joins the Marines. They make a man of him, and he manages to avoid combat with a public-affairs job. Vance comes home, excels at Ohio State, and is accepted at Yale Law School.
Hillbilly Elegy turns out to be a very sly piece of work that professes to express great nostalgia and compassion for the hillbilly way of life. (“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”) But Vance is on the trail of a bait and switch. Despite the down-home charm, he ends up sounding condescending to his neighbors and kin. Vance not only excelled at Yale Law; he is now at a Silicon Valley hedge fund. And, according to Vance, you could be, too—if you weren’t so gol-durned lazy. If you weren’t selling your food stamps, blowing off jobs, deserting your kids, and getting stoned on Oxycontin.
In the end, it’s not about rapacious corporations and collapsing small-town economies. It’s about values. For all of his idyllic reminiscences of small-town Appalachia, good old boy Vance, now also a columnist with National Review, is Charles Murray with a shit-eating grin. Hillbilly Elegy is a conservative infomercial, disguised as an affectionate memoir.
Here are extracts of Vance in an extended, three-page reverie of hillbilly self-hate, describing his extended family and neighbors. He tacks back and forth, offering a dollop of occasional structural analysis, but in the end firmly coming down on the side of values and character:
We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs. … We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. …
We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs. … Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. …
We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. … Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing. … We talk to our kids about responsibility, but we never walk the walk. …
Our eating and exercise habits seem designed to send us to an early grave. … We eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner. We rarely cook, even though it’s cheaper and better for the body and soul. Exercise is confined to the games we play as children.
And so on. But, as Tonto memorably asked, “What you mean, we?” Is “we” his extended family? Appalachian hillbillies generally? Working-class Americans? Or an extrapolated rant against his mother?
Some elegy! His cartoon may describe some hillbillies, but the exaggeration is breathtaking. People don’t lose jobs because the jobs disappear but for tardiness and stealing? We never walk the walk as parents. Never? This muddle of memoir and faux social science comes from a graduate of Yale Law School.
What does come through loud and clear is the self-hate, projected onto his extended family. And then, in a sleight of hand, Vance exempts himself from the “we”: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hard-working. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.” Values to the rescue.
Yet if Vance is not worth taking seriously as a pop sociologist, he is very worth reading as primary data. The fact that there are so many people like Vance spells trouble for liberals. Kentucky, after all, is the state that did an exemplary job of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, securing health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians, and the grateful citizens then elected a Republican governor who pledged to discontinue it, because they evidently hated government in general more than they liked their Medicaid.
The fact that Vance’s story is set in Appalachia, where there are few black people, tells you that white rage, while partly about race, is not just about race. His neighbors are losing out economically. Yet Barack Obama supercharged the white backlash, as the ultimate case of a black man who rose far above the station of downwardly mobile whites, adding to their sense of displacement and resentment. Vance adds this apt description:
President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. … He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.
Like Ronald Reagan, Vance uses anecdotes. He tells the story of a tile warehouse where he once worked that paid decent wages—$13 to $16 an hour—and a fellow he calls Bob who kept missing work and finally got fired. “Despite this relatively stable situation, the managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee.” He adds, “Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs are impossible to fill for any length of time.”
Vance somehow missed the entire retail sector, where employers such as Walmart, McDonald’s, et al., find plenty of men and women with solid work ethics to accept a good deal less than $13 an hour. Yet he is onto something. His neighbors seem to internalize their sorry economic condition. Appalachia displays one of the hidden injuries of class, which is low self-regard. Many of the people he writes about share the poor opinion of themselves that Vance excoriates. They don’t respect themselves when they have to go on food stamps, they respect others who use food stamps even less, and they respect the purveyor of food stamps least of all. That would be the government.
Why do we liberals lose so many downtrodden white people like Vance and Harold Areno—both the ones who manage to transcend their structural disadvantages and the ones who don’t? Vance’s own grandmother, he says, sometimes sounds “like a European-style social democrat.” But she is becoming the exception. Just how much of the story is economics, how much race, how much culture?
ONE OF MY FAVORITE singer-songwriters is John Prine, a country boy whose parents grew up in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a few hundred miles from the kin of Vance. Prine is a rarity—a hillbilly lefty. He, too, writes of drug addiction (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”) with a compassion that eludes Vance. In “Paradise,” the name of a Kentucky mining town that was torn down in 1967, Prine writes:
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
The good people of Lake Charles, Louisiana, could sympathize with the sentiments, and likewise Vance’s cousins in the ruined coal country of eastern Kentucky. But in general, they don’t extrapolate from their own situation to progressive inferences or progressive politics. Their brand of populism tends to be that of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, not Harry Truman, much less Bernie Sanders.
John Judis, in The Populist Explosion, has written a terrific short book that sheds further light on these vexing questions. His is a brisk tour of the horizon, of the right and left versions of populism, their history and current state, with a useful comparison of the populist upsurge in the United States and in Europe. His general insight: Populism gains adherence whenever mainstream parties let ills fester. Populist parties “often function as warning signs of a political crisis.” That surely describes the state of the political establishment in both the U.S. and Europe:
On both sides of the Atlantic, the major parties favored increased immigration, only to find that in the United States voters were up in arms about illegal immigration and in Europe about immigrant communities that became seedbeds of crime and later terror. The populist candidates and parties gave voice to these concerns. In Europe, the major parties on the continent embraced the idea of a common currency only to find it fall into disfavor during the Great Recession. In the United States, both parties’ leaders embraced “free trade” deals only to discover that much of the public did not support these treaties.
Have you heard this linguistic riddle? What is the difference between envy and jealousy? Answer: Envy is about two people; jealousy is about three people. In the same spirit, Judis draws a useful distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism.
Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top.
Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Leftwing populism is dyadic. Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out-group.
As Judis tells the story, there have been three great bouts of populism in America, the third of which has culminated in the Tea Party and Trump. All three resulted from worsening economic circumstances experienced by the common people and not remediated by major parties. The first was the original populist revolt of the 1870s and 1880s, produced by the rendezvous of falling farm prices, extortionate local merchants, and monopolist rail operators, causing free farmers to fall into debt peonage. The rise of the robber barons intensified the sense of injustice. The populists failed as a party in the 1890s, but much of their program was eventually enacted.
In the 1930s, populist demands for redress were effectively co-opted into the New Deal, in which the president of the United States rhetorically embraced a kind of left-wing populism (“I welcome their hatred”) and delivered practical benefits. Following the assassination of Huey Long and the long period of uplift of the American white working class, the New Deal was institutionalized and populism pretty well fizzled—until it was revived by Alabama Governor George C. Wallace.
In Judis’s typology, the first two bouts were left-populism—masses against elites. The populism of the 1880s had its racists, but it also had abortive efforts to build bi-racial coalitions. The Roosevelt brand of populism didn’t need to be racist in its appeals, because the New Deal itself scrupulously (or maybe unscrupulously) maintained the Southern system of segregation as part of its bargain with Southern Democrats. As Richard Rothstein has documented, the New Deal even extended state-enforced residential segregation to the north, via its public housing and mortgage programs. One of the dirty secrets of America’s quasi–social democratic era was that the social contract excluded blacks, as Ira Katznelson so powerfully demonstrated.
But the latest bout of populism, which has slowly gathered force since the late 1960s, is not just masses against elites—it is native white masses against both unresponsive elites and rising “others,” first blacks, later immigrants, as well as gays and feminists—following Judis’s model of a triad, not a dyad. Historically, right-wing populism was contained as long as working- and middle-class whites felt they were getting their fair share, and as long as government took seriously grievances of class. The lost sense of fair play that opened the door to a new era of right-wing populism was a blend of economic, racial, and cultural grievances, compounded by the demands of new cultural insurgents. And in a collision of bad luck, the upsurge of black demands for long-deferred rights beginning in the 1960s happened to coincide with the start of a prolonged economic shift that undercut the white, blue-collar middle class. Today’s backlash is an intensified echo of the one in the Wallace-Nixon era.
For Judis, the distributive aspects of the downturn that ended the postwar boom reflected a power shift. In the 1970s, the Keynesian/New Deal model of how to run an egalitarian economy gave way to a very different power constellation that embraced neo-liberal policies. Business was resurgent, labor unions weakened. The process was cumulative. The elements—budget balance, tax cuts, deregulation, liberal trade—undermined both the living standards and the political influence of working people and increased the power and wealth of financial elites. During the same period, cosmopolitan liberals and the national Democratic Party embraced multiculturalism. Wall Street liberals fought regulation and taxation, but didn’t mind either the “amnesty, acid, and abortion” trinity against which Spiro Agnew railed, or a measure of redistribution to the bottom. The Democrats became a party of the well-educated, the cosmopolitan affluent, the socially liberal, in coalition with minorities and the dependent poor. Some white working-class voters were still in the coalition, but as unions declined, increasing numbers of workaday whites felt deserted.
Was this shifting coalition a good idea? For decades, analysts such as Thomas Schaller, Ruy Texeira, Stan Greenberg (and John Judis in an earlier incarnation) have been forecasting that the growth of demographic groups that favor Democrats—the well-educated, the young, ethnic and racial minorities—portends a Democratic-majority nation. Schaller titled his book Whistling Past Dixie. Presumably, Democrats could stop obsessing about winning back the South because they didn’t need it. And anyway, thanks to the influx of Northerners and Hispanics, the South was becoming more like the rest of America.
But what if the opposite is true? What if the sense of class and racial and cultural hurt so vividly on display in Lake Charles and in J.D. Vance’s Appalachia is creeping northward? Kevin O’Leary wrote of this trend in a recent Prospect article that was the germ of his new book, Trump and the Roots of Rage, taking George Wallace as the harbinger. Wallace, who carried five states in 1968 and whose vote in several northern states exceeded the margin by which Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey, “spoke the language of the white working class first in the South and then across the nation. In doing so, Wallace perfected an angry rhetoric that was implicitly racist while being explicitly critical of the federal government and the ‘liberal elites’ who dominated Washington.”
Harold Meyerson wrote of a complementary, equally alarming trend in a seminal article, “How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy,” published in the Prospect’s Summer 2015 issue:
The South today shares more features with its antebellum ancestor than it has in a very long time. Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies.
As the Southern political economy invades the north, the economy may well be generating downwardly mobile white people faster than the society is producing more racial and ethnic minorities and well-educated liberals. At best, it’s a close contest.
IN THE POLITICS OF Resentment, political scientist Katherine J. Cramer conducts hundreds of interviews with residents of rural Wisconsin, seeking to learn why the state that elected Robert La Follette, William Proxmire, and Russ Feingold has Scott Walker as its governor. She finds “people making sense of politics in a way that places resentment towards other citizens at its center.” In particular, rural Wisconsinites in the northern part of the state, most of whom have lost income and economic security in recent decades, feel that the big cities are taking too much at their expense.
The state’s biggest city happens to be Milwaukee, a city with a large black population. The other large city, Madison, combines the ultra-liberalism of a Cambridge or a Berkeley with the role of state capital. Small-town Wisconsin increasingly abhors Madison for both reasons. As the rest of the economy has lost income and economic security, the public employees who once had a pay package that seemed merely normal now seem to be enjoying privileges financed by the tax dollars of people who are worse off. “The teachers union,” says a man named Harold. “They were in there like the cat at the bowl of milk. Then they turned it to cream. Then they turned it to ice cream.” Harold, it turns out, is a former member of the United Automobile Workers, a union that epitomizes the shrinking blue-collar economy.
Race and the perception of racial favoritism compound the problem. “They give everything to Milwaukee,” says one of Cramer’s subjects. The old liberal formula of tax, spend, and regulate has ceased to be effective or persuasive. Government itself is the enemy.
The comments quoted by Cramer could have been from Hochschild. The political sentiments that result seem Southern. But here they are, in one of the great progressive northern states. It’s true that Wisconsin has a history of going right as well as going left. This was Joe McCarthy’s state, too. And that’s the point—populism can go either way, whether the driver is downward mobility, or nationalist anxiety over communists or Muslims. In Wisconsin, at this writing, Clinton is up just five points over Trump.
Many whites attracted to the populist backlash also feel beleaguered as Christians. As Robert P. Jones, a mainstream scholar of religion and columnist for The Atlantic, writes in The End of White Christian America, both mainline and evangelical Christian denominations consider themselves to be sadly in decline. The statistics, of which Jones provides plenty, bear that contention out. As a share of the population, self-described evangelicals have declined from 22 percent in 1988 to 18 percent in 2014. Mainline Protestants have dwindled more precipitously, from 24 percent to 14 percent.
You might think, with Schaller and Teixeira, that these trends would lead to a declining religious influence on politics. But the sense of an alien, secular society disrespecting traditional faith and values leads to intensified fervor, especially in the red states (and some swing states) where religious conservatives are concentrated. And another paradox: While support for some social issues such as same-sex marriage has grown among evangelicals, the effort to use religious teachings and values to enlist evangelicals to join a progressive pocketbook coalition has failed to materialize. PICO, a respected coalition of progressive faith-based groups, is heavily rooted in mainline Protestant, left-Catholic, and Jewish congregations. One reason, observes Richard Parker, who teaches religion and politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is that evangelical teachings stress the direct connection between the congregant and the Lord. The cherished community is the church. The state has no place.
FOR TOM FRANK, THE problem is a Democratic Party that too easily turned away from the ordinary working class in favor of the educated, the successful, and the dependent poor. In What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), Frank argued that working-class whites were being duped by conservatives based on cultural appeals on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, and religious fundamentalism; they voted Republican in spite of their economic self-interests. A number of political scientists, such as Larry Bartels, countered that Frank had it wrong. Class was still a prime predictor of partisan preference if you defined it properly, and working-class whites still tended to support Democrats. But in the subsequent decade, as the economy has become even more precarious and divided, the terrain has shifted. More downwardly mobile whites are not just voting Republican—they are voting Tea Party and Trump.
As Frank argues in his latest book, Listen, Liberal, the problem isn’t just that the Tea Party is gaining these voters, but that the Democrats disdain them. Rather than the “party of the people” epitomized by FDR and Truman, Frank argues, the modern Democratic Party has become “the party of well-educated professionals.” Frank excoriates Bill Clinton for carrying out essentially Republican projects such as punitive welfare reform, NAFTA, financial deregulation, and the embrace of budget balance. Obama, in Frank’s telling, squandered an opportunity to have the financial collapse blow up on Republicans by hiring many of the same people who led Clinton astray and placing restoration of money-market “confidence” ahead of drastically reforming the banking system. As a consequence, when the Tea Party backlash came, it was against the Democrats rather than Bush, and against a bipartisan establishment in general.
This is a familiar and apt criticism—I’ve made some of these arguments myself. Frank adds to it by making great fun of the Democrats as the party of technology and innovation, as if that were a substitute for an ideology. He reports on self-celebratory events at which Democrats and tech billionaires make vapid pronouncements like, “To win the future, we must out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” He writes, “Technological innovation is not what is hammering down working people’s share of what the country earns; technological innovation is the excuse for this development.”
Frank’s analysis, however, is off in some key respects. He doesn’t have much to say about race. Unlike discerning observers of the Tea Party and white backlash such as Alec MacGillis and Tom Edsall, he treats the white working class and the skidding middle class as basically one and the same. In his history of how the Democratic Party went astray, Frank also airbrushes the history that moved the Democrats to where they are today—the divisive role of the Vietnam War, the civil-rights revolution, the rise of identity politics, the impact of globalization on secure blue-collar jobs, and the crushing of trade unions. To read Frank, you would think a group of Democratic Leadership Council strategists, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraisers, and new-economy theorists sat in a room and decided that the party needed to move upscale, independent of these structural forces.
Frank also leaves out Republican obstructionism, a prime factor in the failure of Democrats to deliver more for the working class. It’s not as if Democrats didn’t try to pass several measures that would have delivered tangible, practical help. The Republicans play a neat game—make it impossible for government to succeed and then reap the gains as people start giving up on government.
Yet despite these flaws, Frank has a point. The plight of working people does not loom as large for the Democratic Party establishment as it once did in the era of Roosevelt and Truman. Today’s liberalism, Frank charges, with its boundless faith in technology, education, and professionalism, is “liberalism for the rich.” That’s a caricature, but it is how a lot of working people have come to view a lot of Democrats.
The proof is the rise of Trump on the right and Sanders on the left, and the fact that a buffoon like Trump at this writing is in a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton in the polls. Clinton, for all of her experience and clear competence to be president, represents continuity, and Trump, however bizarre, represents change. With all of the pent-up resentments in the land, this is not a good year to be the candidate of continuity. The fact that Sanders, as a declared socialist, a 74-year-old Jewish transplant to Vermont, and not even a Democrat, came close to edging out Clinton for the nomination attests to the depth and breadth of the feeling that the politics of continuity are not working, that politics and government “are rigged.”
In 2008, Barack Obama, as a barely known 46-year-old African American, could wrest the nomination from Clinton partly because he sounded like the more populist of the two. He was the outsider, and the public was getting sick of insiders. Obama even carried a surprisingly impressive share of the white working-class vote, both in the primaries and in the general election. In North Carolina, fully 35 percent of white people, including more than 55 percent of those with incomes under $50,000, voted for Obama against McCain. Obama represented change. In 2008, Sean Quinn of the site fivethirtyeight.com told the story, possibly apocryphal, of the voter in Western Pennsylvania who told a canvasser, “We’re voting for the nigger.”
IN SUM, AMERICAN progressivism today is foundering on what we might call the clash of deeply felt injuries. The insecurity and downward mobility of the white working and middle classes collides with a well-justified upsurge in black consciousness of continuing racial outrages and a demand for their remediation. Feminists and oppressed cultural minorities pile on. Today’s story is one of dueling cultural and economic wounds, each with substantial basis in reality.
It’s hard to tell white hillbillies, residents of Lake Charles or of rural Wisconsin, to “check your privilege,” when they are far less privileged than their parents or grandparents. It’s liberal and conservative elites whose children are privileged. The charge of political correctness, used so deftly by Trump, resonates with white workaday voters in part because liberals seem to give priority to every other downtrodden group, from illegal aliens (sic) to transgender people to brown pelicans. The rainbow parade on display at the recent Democratic National Convention epitomizes everything workaday conservatives of the sort interviewed by Hochschild and Cramer hate about liberals.
CAROL ANDERSON'S FINE book, White Rage, is less about the current upsurge of white resentment than it is a concise recapitulation of more than 150 years of black efforts to attain full citizenship and economic uplift, and how each effort was crushed by a reassertion of institutional white power. The current all-too-successful efforts of the Republican Party to undo the most fundamental of civic rights, the basic right to vote, is evidence that institutional white rage continues. “White rage,” she writes, “doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively. … The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.”
If you need a refresher course in this shameful history, Anderson, chair of the African American Studies Department at Emory University, provides it with passion and precision. From the reversal of Reconstruction, to the segregation of the North in response to the Great Migration, to the rollback of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action and the continuing police targeting of black youth, every black effort to advance seems to produce a politics of white reaction and suppression.
Yet in our own time, most non-elite whites are also suffering great insecurity. If the latest upsurge in African American consciousness, Black Lives Matter, has not produced the sympathy and solidarity its sponsors hoped for, part of the reason is that lower-class whites are also feeling their own sense of deep grievance, not just against blacks but against the system as a whole.
The vulnerabilities and the hatreds of the white working class are an old American theme. Nancy Isenberg begins her history White Trash with a scene from the classic novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the courtroom scene in which Mayella Ewell has accused the upstanding Negro, Tom Robinson, of rape. Her father, Bob Ewell, is a bully, a liar, and a classic figure from the white Southern underclass. “They were human waste,” Isenberg writes. She quotes author Harper Lee: “No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms and diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings. Garbage was strewn everywhere, making the cabin look like the playhouse of an insane child.”
Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University and columnist for Salon, has written her book to remind us that “white trash” have been part of the American experience literally from the first colonies. It is a mistake to see America as “born equal,” even apart from the stain of slavery. Especially in the South, the planter aristocracy ruled at the expense not just of blacks, but of lower-class whites. From the beginning of the colonial era, many in England saw America as a place to jettison the social classes that the poet Emma Lazarus would later celebrate as wretched refuse.
Isenberg quotes one Richard Hakluyt the Younger, in a treatise prepared for Queen Elizabeth I, urging that America become a dumping ground for those whom he termed “waste people.” He urged that the offspring “of wandering beggars that grow up idly and hurtfully and burdenous to the Realm, might be unladen and better bred up.” Isenberg comments, “What Haklyut foresaw in a colonized America was one giant workhouse.”
And indeed, the American colonies, especially the ones of the South, reflected not just the racial hierarchy of slavery but the rigid class structure of mother Britain. The white lower orders, seldom landowners, suffered less than the black slaves but suffered nonetheless. This legacy did not disappear with the American Revolution. But in providing a useful reminder of the continuing injuries of class among white people, Isenberg cherry-picks history. Reading White Trash, you would never know that the Massachusetts colonial constitution was drastically different from its Southern counterparts, and intended to promote free, yeomen smallholders. Isenberg even mocks Jefferson’s efforts to create a system of broad landownership, the Jacksonian revolution, and omits entirely the Homestead Acts of Lincoln, which extended democratic property ownership throughout the West. Despite the erudition and more than 100 pages of footnotes, Isenberg’s is an almost unrelieved picture of class oppression, when the reality is a back and forth of contention and struggle.
Yet Isenberg is right to underscore that it wasn’t just slaves and their descendants who were oppressed. And this was especially true in the South. “Confederate leaders knew they had to redirect the hostility of the South’s own underclass, the nonslaveholding poor whites.” The entire history of aborted Reconstruction is one of the planter class fomenting racism so that a potential alliance of blacks and poor whites would never be realized. Isenberg quotes Lyndon Johnson: “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice that you’re picking his pocket.”
Martin Luther King Jr. often observed much the same thing. “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King said from steps of the Alabama Capitol, following the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”
Today, the clash of deeply felt racial and class grievances, compounded by cultural wounds on both sides of the identity divide, is crowding out the progressive brand of populism that America once had and so sorely needs. It will take uncommon leadership and rare social empathy to redirect the crosscurrents of rage and hurt into a broad popular coalition of uplift against the one group that floats above it all—today’s economic super-elite.
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