Must-Reads for 2017: Mysteries of the White Working Class
Nov. 8, 2016, left a lot of people standing around with dumb looks on their faces. Including me. (Okay, I was sitting on my sofa when I realized that Donald Trump was going to win. But the dumb look was definitely there.) In the wake of his election, a lot of folks in the Acela Corridor have become interested in exploring the sociology and history of that exotic creature, the White Working-Class Male.
How did this person come to vote for a guy who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and managed -- by dint of cheating his tradesmen, playing on his father’s political connections and strategically declaring bankruptcy -- to turn it into a gold one? Was their support all about racism? Sexism? Anger toward the elites? Or something else?
Any number of books have been put forward to explain what’s going on in the heads of people who don’t even like arugula. Many of them have useful things to say. But there are three, in particular, that I have found helpful in thinking about what has happened to the white working class over the last 40 years, and how that led them to vote for Donald Trump last fall.
The first is a book out this year, "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America." Joan C. Williams is a law professor, and quite left wing, but she evinces a sensitivity to her subject highly uncommon to her class. This isn’t the strained anthropological sympathy of a coastal professional dropping in for a quick look under the microscope; Williams is married to a man from a working-class background, and she writes as someone who knows these people intimately, and respects and loves them, even when she disagrees with them. She is able to portray the strengths and weaknesses of their point of view with neither sentimentality nor ineptly concealed condescension. As often happens with these sorts of books, she is weakest when she proposes solutions that might reconcile the left with its former base of support, but her diagnosis of the problem is spot-on and consistently thought-provoking.
In that same vein is J.D. Vance’s "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." It seems slightly redundant, at this late date, to propose last year’s New York Times bestseller to readers. But there are still people who haven’t read it, and if they want to understand the earthquake that has upheaved our electoral politics, they need to. Vance writes, not as a sympathetic outsider to the white working class, but as a member who has made the often-uneasy transition to upper-middle-class professionalism. He casts an unsparing eye on the problems of his Appalachian community, but also on the smug, entitled denizens of the class he joined. He maintains an appreciation of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of both sides of our political divide.
The third book I read this year takes us back even farther into the past, to the Boston busing controversy of the 1970s. "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families," by J. Anthony Lukas, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for its deep dive into the lives of three families -- one black, one white working class, and one a white affluent couple -- who found themselves caught up in the political storm of school integration as Boston struggled to achieve the promise of the civil rights movement.
What you see in this book is the complicated ways that racial politics plays out among white people, with poorer whites feeling that they are asked to bear the brunt of social change. Arguments about racial progress turn into a proxy battle in an even older war between “white ethnics” and educated elites. Were the busing battles “about” the racism of Charlestown residents? Indisputably, yes. But they were equally “about” working-class Catholic anger toward a Brahmin class that had alternately ignored and snubbed them, and now ordered them to integrate their schools while the suburban districts where the Brahmins lived remained largely lily-white. Those two threads were so tightly twined that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other leaves off … but all of the toxic rage they produced was taken out on the vulnerable kids of the public schools, rather than the powerful adults who remained beyond the reach of the ordinary people of Charlestown. The echoes of that moment are still playing out in today’s politics, making it essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got where we are today.
It's been more than a year. Those who still startle at the phrase "President Trump" can find some smart explanations from these three thinkers.
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