November 5, 2016
The Great White Nope
Poor, Working Class, and Left Behind in America
By Jefferson Cowie
A stunning U-turn in the fortunes of poor and working-class whites began in the 1970s, as deindustrialization, automation, globalization, and the growth of the high-technology and service sectors transformed the U.S. economy. In the decades since, many blue-collar jobs have vanished, wages have stagnated for less educated Americans, wealth has accumulated at the top of the economic food chain, and social mobility has become vastly harder to achieve. Technological and financial innovations have fostered economic and social vitality in urban centers on the coasts. But those changes have brought far fewer benefits to the formerly industrial South and Midwest.
As economic decline has hollowed out civic life and the national political conversation has focused on other issues, many people in “flyover country” have sought solace in opioids and methamphetamine; some have lashed out by embracing white nationalist rage. As whites come closer to becoming a plurality in the United States (or a “white minority,” in more paranoid terms), many have become receptive to nativist or bigoted appeals and thinly veiled promises to protect their endangered racial privilege: think of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and his invocation of an unspecified bygone era when the United States was “great,” which many white Trump supporters seem to understand as a reference to a time when they felt themselves to be more firmly at the center of civic and economic life.
Trump also loves to tell his audiences that they are victims of a “rigged” political system that empowers elites at their expense. On that count, the evidence supports him. Consider, for example, the findings of a widely cited 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who researched public opinion on approximately 1,800 policy proposals (as captured by surveys taken between 1981 and 2002) and found that only those ideas endorsed by the wealthiest ten percent of Americans became law. This domination of politics by economic elites has produced the de facto disenfranchisement of everyone else—a burden experienced by the entire remaining 90 percent, of course, but perhaps felt most acutely by those who have fallen the furthest.
For poor and working-class white Americans, the profound shifts of the past few decades have proved literally lethal: beginning around 1999, life expectancy—which had been increasing dramatically for all Americans during the twentieth century—began to decrease for less educated middle-aged whites. Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who discovered this trend along with his wife and collaborator, the economist Anne Case, speculated that this demographic group is “susceptible to despair” because they have “lost the narrative of their lives.”
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash aims to uncover the historical roots of this social calamity and explain its political effects. It’s an ambitious book that doesn’t quite succeed but that is nonetheless frequently revelatory. Isenberg braids together political philosophy, popular culture, literature, and cultural studies to examine the importance of class in the United States and to demonstrate how lower-class white Americans have been kicked around by elites and mistreated in myriad ways since the founding of the republic. Her main objective is to bury the myth “that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England.” In Isenberg’s rendering, for poor whites, the American dream has always been a bit of a nightmare.
The title of Isenberg’s book is just one example of the many ugly epithets that have been applied over the centuries to poor and working-class whites. The book offers a more complete list: “Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters. Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people.”
Most middle-class, wealthy, and nonwhite Americans are familiar with the stereotypes these terms evoke; many even traffic in such derogatory language, if only under their breath. And even Americans who harbor no prejudice against poor whites tend to misunderstand them, seeing the emergence of a white underclass as a relatively recent phenomenon brought about by deindustrialization, immigration, and globalization. Isenberg sets out to correct that misimpression by helping readers unlearn what they think they know. “Historical mythmaking,” Isenberg proclaims, “is made possible only by forgetting.” Her narrative is a myth-busting tour of American history that recasts it into a brutal tale of domination, subordination, and class conflict.
FROM OBAMA TO TRUMP
Democrats and Republicans are fond of blaming each other for the plight of poor and working-class whites. The reality is that both parties have failed to look out for these groups, as Barack Obama pointed out while running for president in 2008:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not.
The next part of Obama’s statement got him into political trouble: “So it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter—they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” This smacked of condescension, and it foreshadowed how difficult Obama would find it to reach out to poor and working-class whites as president, even when his policies explicitly sought to benefit them. And his intentions aside, those groups have not fared much better during his presidency. Meanwhile, the growth in the nonwhite portion of the electorate has allowed the Democratic Party to win in reliably “blue” states without making inroads with less educated white voters. This year’s Democratic National Convention presented a beautiful multicultural tableau. But at a number of points during the event, some viewers might have felt that the subtext was: “We’ve completely given up on white guys.”
By contrast, the Republican Party—or at least the subset of it that has propelled Trump’s candidacy—often seems to be appealing to hardly anyone other than white men. In an analysis that compared county-level demographic data with results in the 2016 GOP primary elections, Neil Irwin and Josh Katz of The New York Times found that the level of support for Trump in any given county correlated strongly with the percentage of its residents who were white and did not finish high school, the proportion of inhabitants who reported “American” ancestry on census forms, the percentage who lived in mobile homes, the percentage who identified as evangelical Christian, and the percentage who had supported the segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. But support for Trump also correlated strongly with high levels of dependence on “old economy” jobs and with low levels of participation in the labor force. That is why Trump’s campaign has also featured elements of economic populism, centered on trade protectionism and a commitment to federal entitlement programs such as Social Security—an agenda that Trump promises will afford working-class whites the security and prosperity their parents and grandparents enjoyed during the postwar era.
Even if Trump loses, his campaign seems likely to have a profound impact on the Republican Party. “Five, 10 years from now—different party,” Trump mused during an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in May. “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.” Trump has said some outlandish things during his campaign, but he may very well be right about that. Liberals, along with many conservatives, see Trumpism as a disease afflicting the American body politic. In fact, it is a symptom of a deeper pathology whose roots, as Isenberg’s book shows, extend far back in U.S. history.
The Trump campaign is filling a long-standing void in U.S. politics: the space where the interests of poor and working-class whites used to be. Trump himself might pass from the political scene. But until one or both parties find a way to address the problems faced by poor and working-class whites, Trumpism is here to stay.