The Wall Street Journal calls them the “forgotten Americans.” Others see them as racist and xenophobic. Then aspiring-President Obama characterized them in 2008 in the following way: "And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Whether they are forgotten, dismissed, or demonized, the “white working class” has been discovered this election season.
As with any new species, researchers are scrambling to probe, dissect, and analyze white workers; pundits are spinning theories about their habits and dispositions; and politicians are searching for keys to unlock their votes.
Arguably, no social segment has been under the sociological microscope this intensely since US elites and their intellectual courtiers “discovered” African Americans some sixty years ago. Class, like race, must force itself on to the stage before notice is taken.
In the case of the “white working class,” the surprising success of Bernie Sanders on the left flank and Donald Trump on the right flank-- successes that, in part, are believed to owe something to white workers-- sparked the new interest.
Even a decade ago, it was widely believed that there was no working class in the US-- only a vast middle class and the poor. Fostered by social scientists, mainstream politicians, and union functionaries, the fiction prevailed that, apart from the very rich, everyone was either middle class or poor. Of course this illusion began to shatter in the wake of the 2008 crash and the ensuing economic stagnation. Likewise, the rebellion against corporate, cookie-cutter candidates in the 2016 primary fights exposed a class division that poorly fit the harmonious picture of one big class with insignificant extremes at the margin.
Whatever else the 2016 electoral campaigns have revealed, they surely have shattered the illusion that the US is largely a classless society.
But US elites and their opinion-making toadies struggle to find the “white working class.” Some accounts refer to them as “white males without a college degree,” still others, “middle-aged white males.” The Brookings Institute takes a small, but confused step closer to insight, by adding “the additional qualification of being paid by the hour or by the job rather than receiving a salary.”
Vulgar, crude characterizations reach heights of stereotypicality and ignorant simplicity: “Moreover, the political stuff they like – bombastic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly – can turn off minorities and college-educated whites, particularly women.”
Just as the mass media has fostered caricatures of African-Americans, the media and cultural/entertainment corporations craft an unflattering image of white, working class citizens. Where Black people are saddled with imagery of violence, idleness, promiscuity, and criminality, white workers are portrayed as bigoted, socially, culturally and intellectually backward, superstitious, and conservative.
One would never know from “hood” movies, talk radio hysteria, and the crime-obsessed news readers, that most African Americans are a significant part of the working class, maintain stable households, and work diligently for a better life.
Similarly, most white workers are neither gun fanatics nor Bible-thumpers. Most white workers do not attack gays, abuse their spouses and children, raze mosques or lynch Black People.
Nonetheless, both caricatures are part of the baggage borne by elites, including liberal elites.
The common perception dished by the mass media is that white workers constitute the electoral base for Donald Trump, when the truth is that the median household income for Trump’s primary voters was $72,000. In truth, the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments associated with Trump are more typical of the white petty-bourgeoisie than the white working class.
Certainly media elites, pundits, and politicians do not want to talk about the latent rebelliousness of the white working class-- a large majority of white workers believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, an opinion that should not surprise anyone given the fact that the median household income in the US has declined by 7% since 2000. Unfortunately, the current crisis of political credibility shows that they, like most of the rest of the population, have yet to find a way out.
Social scientists have begun to acknowledge the toll that corporate pillage has taken on the working class, very dramatically of recent in the case of the white working class. Death rates, especially from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide have risen sharply among white workers. The institutions that formerly traded a measure of privilege to white workers for their compliance and docility have now abandoned them. The Democratic Party, for example, is so thoroughly corrupted by corporate money that there is little more than gestures for the causes of workers of every ethnicity.
Yes, there is an element of lost privilege that fuels white working class anger and despair. At the same time, the economic advantages that separated white from Black workers in the past are diminishing in many sectors and afford a rare opportunity to unite workers against their common foe. Until the left and workers’ organizations undertake that task, working class rebellion may well succumb to false friends and bombastic demagogues.
Nothing reveals the distance of the upper classes from the realities of working class life like the current media fascination with the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Writing as one of their own, J.D. Vance-- a principal at an investment firm-- relates his unhappy working class childhood to book club liberals and country club conservatives.
Feeding the stereotypes, Vance exposes a dysfunctional childhood spared from ruin by an enlistment in the Marine Corps, a stint at Ohio State University, and a climb to the summit, Yale Law School. Looking down from the rarified air of Yale, he feels qualified to speak of “the anger and frustration of the white working class” and the hunger to “have someone tell their story.” The thirty-one-year-old investment executive’s rags-to-riches tale urges “people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. ‘Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives…”
There are echoes in Vance’s biography of the many “hood” oracles that depict Black life as, without exception, dysfunctional and unbearably ugly. But in this case, it is white, working class life that is soaked in alcoholism and threatened by senseless violence.
This profile, like the book title’s derogation of white workers as “hillbillies,” is deeply offensive to anyone growing up in a working class family or community. Vance’s addicted mother and sometimes absent father are neither exceptional nor common in white working class families anymore than they are unique to or absent from families of different ethnicities or socio-economic classes. To believe otherwise is to feed the ugly monsters of racism and class arrogance, the twin beasts nurtured by every ruling class.
Growing up in working class communities, we see the ravages of exploitation, the divisiveness of racism, and the despair of joblessness and poverty. Of course, these occasion harmful, counterproductive behavior. They wreck the lives of many. But they are not remedied by self-help bromides the likes of which Vance advances.
Capitalism produces and reproduces wholesale misery that may no longer fall as unevenly as it has in the past. While African American workers are continually and relentlessly victimized by racist practices and denied access by exclusionary craft unions, capital today offers white workers little reward for supporting or tolerating racist policies. The twenty-first century global economic turmoil has devastated workers’ standards of living regardless of race or “choices.”
The future lies in the hands of those who reject divisive, elite-fashioned stereotypes and unite to face their common enemy.