Stop Demonizing The White Working Class
A reader sends in this strong Financial Times piece based on an interview with Joan C. Williams, author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Williams is a left-wing feminist academic in her sixties, but she became something of an expert on the WWC because she married into it, and began studying it. Excerpts:
To the WWC, Clinton seemed the epitome of an out-of-touch, condescending, PC-spouting professional. Female professionals aspire to successful careers, so Clinton talked about smashing the “glass ceiling”. But Williams thinks the glass ceiling meant little to WWC women, who knew they couldn’t reach the top even if they were WWC men.
He also promised WWC men the masculine factory jobs that progressives said had gone for ever. This is how Williams sums up the two parties’ offerings to the WWC in recent decades:
Republicans: We’re going to deliver you jobs.
WWC: How? Republicans: Give money to rich people.
WWC: How are you going to give us jobs, Democrats?
Democrats: Oh, we’re going to give more money to poor people, we’re going to create equality for women.
And so Trump prolonged the alliance between the WWC and the Republican business elite. When I ask what he has delivered to the WWC since his election, Williams cuts me off: “Dignity! He delivered the biggest FU to my crowd that they have seen in decades.”
She thinks that her fellow progressives are learning none of the lessons they ought to be learning from Clinton’s defeat:
So far she’s unimpressed. “Just read the frigging New York Times, listen to NPR [National Public Radio], key outlets of the progressive elite: story after story of an outpouring of compassion for immigrants.
“Do I feel sorry for immigrants? Yes. But that’s not the point. An outpouring of compassion for immigrants, in the absence of offering dignity to the white working class, will hurt immigrants because it’s just another expression that elites have ‘feeling rules’ — who you should feel sorry for.”
Or better yet, here is the famous Harvard Business Review essay she wrote in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s win. This is the basis for her book. Here’s a really interesting excerpt, based on her point that the white working class is not the same thing as the poor. In fact, the WWC tends to dislike the poor:
Remember when President Obama sold Obamacare by pointing out that it delivered health care to 20 million people? Just another program that taxed the middle class to help the poor, said the WWC, and in some cases that’s proved true: The poor got health insurance while some Americans just a notch richer saw their premiums rise.
Progressives have lavished attention on the poor for over a century. That (combined with other factors) led to social programs targeting them. Means-tested programs that help the poor but exclude the middle may keep costs and tax rates lower, but they are a recipe for class conflict. Example: 28.3% of poor families receive child-care subsidies, which are largely nonexistent for the middle class. So my sister-in-law worked full-time for Head Start, providing free child care for poor women while earning so little that she almost couldn’t pay for her own. She resented this, especially the fact that some of the kids’ moms did not work. One arrived late one day to pick up her child, carrying shopping bags from Macy’s. My sister-in-law was livid.
J.D. Vance’s much-heralded Hillbilly Elegy captures this resentment. Hard-living families like that of Vance’s mother live alongside settled families like that of his biological father. While the hard-living succumb to despair, drugs, or alcohol, settled families keep to the straight and narrow, like my parents-in-law, who owned their home and sent both sons to college. To accomplish that, they lived a life of rigorous thrift and self-discipline. Vance’s book passes harsh judgment on his hard-living relatives, which is not uncommon among settled families who kept their nose clean through sheer force of will. This is a second source of resentment against the poor.
That resonates so deeply with me. As you may recall, I grew up in a WWC home. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, but he was working class to the bone. He had nothing but charity for poor people who tried to better themselves. When he was a kid, everybody he knew was poor, including his family. But poor people who, in his view, weren’t trying, but were living off the government — man, the class contempt was strong. He also couldn’t stand rich people who got their fortune by inheriting it. He admired self-made men. The people Joan Williams describes are my people, for better or for worse. This helps me understand something my folks told me about why my sister resented me: she could not understand why I made more money than she did by writing. To her, that wasn’t real work. I was in some sense cheating.
It is hard to express to people outside the white working class how much dignity matters to them — and that there is no more reliable measure of dignity than the ability to support yourself and your family on your own, without government handouts. Fair or not, this is deeply interwoven into the culture, and if you don’t understand that, you will never understand the WWC.
This is good too:
“The white working class is just so stupid. Don’t they realize Republicans just use them every four years, and then screw them?” I have heard some version of this over and over again, and it’s actually a sentiment the WWC agrees with, which is why they rejected the Republican establishment this year. But to them, the Democrats are no better.
Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that Democrats have so long ignored. Excuse me. Who’s stupid?
One key message is that trade deals are far more expensive than we’ve treated them, because sustained job development and training programs need to be counted as part of their costs.
At a deeper level, both parties need an economic program that can deliver middle-class jobs. Republicans have one: Unleash American business. Democrats? They remain obsessed with cultural issues. I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.
Back when blue-collar voters used to be solidly Democratic (1930–1970), good jobs were at the core of the progressive agenda. A modern industrial policy would follow Germany’s path. (Want really good scissors? Buy German.) Massive funding is needed for community college programs linked with local businesses to train workers for well-paying new economy jobs. Clinton mentioned this approach, along with 600,000 other policy suggestions. She did not stress it.
She also says her fellow progressives need to stop demonizing the police:
I do not defend police who kill citizens for selling cigarettes. But the current demonization of the police underestimates the difficulty of ending police violence against communities of color. Police need to make split-second decisions in life-threatening situations. I don’t. If I had to, I might make some poor decisions too.
Saying this is so unpopular that I risk making myself a pariah among my friends on the left coast. But the biggest risk today for me and other Americans is continued class cluelessness. If we don’t take steps to bridge the class culture gap, when Trump proves unable to bring steel back to Youngstown, Ohio, the consequences could turn dangerous.
And buy her book, White Working Class. It’s very practical. That line she has just above, about what happens when the WWC realizes that Donald Trump is not going to fix the jobs problem, is something we had all better get ready for. Trump is busy blowing up his own presidency out of his personal vanity, but the issues that brought Trump to office are not going away. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I haven’t seen too many national-level Republicans or Democrats who sound like they’ve learned the most important lessons of Trump’s rise. They seem to think of him as an aberration.