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America's Misunderstood Working Class

A Donald Trump supporter is hoisted up holding an American flag as the group faced off with Trump protesters, near the site of a campaign appearance by the Republican presidential candidate in Bethpage, N.Y., Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
A Donald Trump supporter is hoisted up holding an American flag as the group faced off with Trump protesters, near the site of a campaign appearance by the Republican presidential candidate in Bethpage, N.Y., Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Say this for presidential elections: They can get silly, even nasty, but they’re a useful, quadrennial Rorschach test for the American right and left. As candidates battle for the trove of working-class voters in New York’s April 19 primary and in Pennsylvania after that, this thrilling/depressing/aspirational race, and some commentary on it, have taught us one thing about politics and workers:

Neither conservatives nor liberals get it. The former demonize struggling workers; the latter romanticize them.

I should follow New York Times columnist David Brooks’ commendable confession that workers’ thinking eluded him before the election because they aren’t part of his social circle. Nor mine: Save for occasional professional interaction with laboring folks as a writer, I don’t hang out regularly with those whose collars are blue. But neither, apparently, do two preeminent spokesmen for the left and right — Bernie Sanders and the editors at National Review, William F. Buckley’s iconic journal.

Neither conservatives nor liberals get it. The former demonize struggling workers; the latter romanticize them.

Sanders’s shortsightedness is old news and easily recapped: He has long predicted that if the working class would only turn out to vote, he’d win big. This year, they have turned out — and white ones have largely sided with Donald Trump. (Workers and people of color have gone for Hillary Clinton.) Psychologists studying the election explain what Sanders missed: the mindset of folks who swoon for an authoritarian blustering about their problems being the fault of others (immigrants, America’s trading partners).

Ignoring or being blind to poor people’s prejudices is nothing new on the populist left. William Jennings Bryan remade the Democrats into the party of the common person with his 1896 presidential campaign. But he needed Southern white workers’ votes, and many were vicious racists, so he shamefully passed on condemning Jim Crow. He lost anyway.

This April 8, 2016 photo shows Bernie Sanders' campaign offices in a working-class industrial neighborhood with the Gowanus Canal and a toxic waste site nearby in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Beth Harpaz/AP)
This April 8, 2016 photo shows Bernie Sanders' campaign offices in a working-class industrial neighborhood with the Gowanus Canal and a toxic waste site nearby in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Beth Harpaz/AP)

If Sanders was naive, National Review reporter Kevin Williamson wrote a demented March meditation that blamed the white working class’s desperate straits solely on — the white working class. (NR is the house organ of the conservative dump-Trump movement.) Williamson deserves quoting at length; he wrote that seeing workers as victims “is immoral because it perpetuates a lie: that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn’t."

He goes on:

"The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about 'globalists' and — odious, stupid term — 'the Establishment,' but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

Let’s agree there’s an idea worth discussing about federal moving subsidies to help the unemployed find work elsewhere. Otherwise, this spasm of uncorroborated assertions about non-existent economic forces and “welfare dependency” withers under a moment’s scrutiny.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the wage stagnation and the collapse of economic mobility that began before today’s younger poor were even born. Or the impediments to earnings-boosting college education that made hundreds of our best schools oases of the well-off. Or how more generous welfare states avert our dire inequality.

Rich and poor are alike in one respect: They’re human. Some are good and decent. Some are not.

Permit a personal anecdote. During the recession, I spent more than a year seeking steady work. I didn’t succumb to heroin needles or OxyContin, but I did let areas of self-care lapse in quiet despair over whether I’d ever work again. If that happened to me despite my not falling out of the middle class (my wife’s job supported us, thank God), only the terminally non-empathetic would be shocked that some people slide into worse self-abuse under graver circumstances.

Of course people must take personal responsibility. Habits can be self-destructive, as when poor people forego the advantages of bank accounts, partly for access problems but also out of financial illiteracy and misguided distrust. We shouldn’t excuse the ill-informed, especially when they’re conned by bigotry like Trump’s.

But wealth and poverty both can warp human beings. The former steers some into greedy materialism and a belief that money is the only measure of good. The latter can breed toxic resentments and self-destructive behaviors. Rich and poor are alike in one respect: They’re human. Some are good and decent. Some are not.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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