Photojournalist Chris Arnade spends his time among those on desolate street corners in the Bronx and in McDonald’s restaurants in Rust Belt towns. But last Monday evening, he traded his usual surroundings for a much different crowd at the American Enterprise Institute in downtown Washington. In a wide-ranging, 90-minute presentation and discussion with AEI’s Katharine D. Stevens, Arnade explained why his photographs—and, more importantly, the stories of their subjects—have become essential to understanding the growing divisions in American society.
It’s no accident that a major Washington institution like AEI has taken an interest in Arnade’s work. The stories of the “forgotten America” that he documents, in inner cities and flyover country alike, present both political parties with uncomfortable and difficult realities. As Arnade, a self-described liberal, charged Monday, “There is no home for the working class. Both parties are run by the Front Row,” a term that he’s coined to describe the divide between educated elites (Front Row) and those he photographs (Back Row). And while Arnade is careful to insist that he would prefer to avoid policy discussions, he acknowledges the increased political import of his work in the wake of the 2016 election. His pursuit of the country’s most devastated areas took him to almost all of what he terms “O-O-T” counties (“Obama-Obama-Trump,” referring to their voting preferences in the last three elections) before President Trump’s triumph last November.
So what is the crux of the Front Row-Back Row division? A quick look at the stories of Arnade’s subjects reveals a vast gulf in how we define that which gives life meaning. Take, for example, our views on getting ahead. The one approved path to success, according to the Front Row, is “leave your town, your family, and get credentials.” American perceptions of success are driven by material, quantifiable metrics: graduate degrees, networking connections, investments, GDP, economic growth, and the like.
For others, like “Rosa,” whom Arnade met in East Los Angeles, competing definitions of meaning prevent them from following the established path to success. Rosa is an aspiring teenager who frequents the neighborhood McDonald’s for its wifi access, a commodity unavailable at home. Despite her desire to travel, her post-high school plans are to attend East LA Community College because, according to her, she “can’t leave.” Rosa is her mother’s translator, and the value that she places on “being there” for her non-English-speaking mother exceeds her desire to travel and attain the credentials that the Front Row values.
Then there’s Andrew, who attends a community college in his hometown of Reno, Nevada.He, like Rosa, opted for the local over the highly regarded for his higher education, not due to a lack of ability—Andrew is a strong student—but because of familial ties. Andrew’s mother is a recovered addict, six years sober, and right now he doesn’t want to leave his family.
The questions that these stories pose get to the heart of America’s divisions. Why should they leave? Isn’t staying to help family more valuable than going to Harvard? While these situations are certainly messier than that simple dichotomy, Andrew’s and Rosa’s choices reveal the insidious ways in which “Front Row” conceptions of meaning have colored our conversations about poverty in America. We have devalued non-economic metrics of success. As Arnade put it, “There are a lot of people who buy into this idea that education is the way out, and I believe it. I’m not saying that’s not right. But they end up $70,000 in debt; they try their best and it doesn’t work. They end up in debt.” Is one who struggles through college in a far-off city, accumulating staggering debt in the process, really more successful than one who forgoes school to instead support a family and community that desperately needs him?
Arnade’s photographs paint a picture of America that is jarringly foreign to those in the Front Row bubble. Our fellow citizens’ experiences in towns and neighborhoods that most of us only view from 30,000 feet or the window of the Acela should serve as a wake-up call to reevaluate the ways in which we define American success. Many of our countrymen hold family, place, faith, and work as far more important than GDP, graduate degrees, LinkedIn connections, and 401Ks. If we are to bridge the ever-widening divide that cuts through our civil discourse, it’s time we in the Front Row recognize, rather than degrade, those who define success differently.
Emile Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative.