White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, by Joan C. Williams
Like many progressives, these days I find myself drawn to the imperative to oppose the abuses of a president who has just been called (by George Will of all people) the “Vesuvius of Mendacities.” Few of us doubt that Donald Trump is the gravest threat to our democracy in our lifetimes.
Yet we don’t get it when the polls consistently show Trump holding the forty percent (give or take) of his base, which is the vast majority of Republicans, but also a significant majority of whites without a college education—the white working class.
Joan Williams really wants us to get it, because our failure to get it in 2016 let Trump win, and because even if we can manage to defeat him the next time, we will just be in for a repeat of the discord we saw in the Obama years. We need to understand and respond to these people.
Most of the chapters in this brief (131 pages) and to-the-point book raise questions that many of us discuss among ourselves as we try to get a grip:
- Why does the working class resent the poor?
- Why does the working class resent professionals but admire the rich?
- Why doesn’t the working class just move to where the jobs are?
- Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college?
- Why don’t they push their kids harder to succeed?
- Is the working class just racist?
- Is the working class just sexist?
- Don’t they understand that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back?
- Why don’t working class men just take “pink collar jobs?
- Why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it?
And it concludes with two pointed chapters about liberals and Democrats:
- Can liberals embrace the white working class without abandoning important values and allies?
- Why are Democrats worse at connecting with the white working class than Republicans?
Based on her own research and that of others such as Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land), she gives us a very perceptive sketch of the values and thinking of this part of our population. Thus white working class people typically resent the poor because they think the poor are getting help from the government without working, while working class people often have to work two or more jobs, perceive that they get no help from the government, and barely survive from paycheck to paycheck.
Or take the refusal to move to where the jobs are. Working class people typically have an intricate family network that not only provides concrete help (e.g., with child care), but is also positively valued. Professionals are much more likely to go where the jobs are, but they sacrifice the dense extended family relationships.
Well, then, why don’t working class men take pink collar jobs such as nursing? Increasing numbers do, but such jobs are no substitute for the high-paying manufacturing jobs they’s lost. Pay is much lower precisely because these are jobs for women.
And speaking of pink collar jobs, working class women take them because they need the money, not because of a career. Most would rather have the long-lost status of stay-at-home mom whose husband is the bread-winner. This is another contrast with professionals, for whom stay-at-home moms have lower status than professional moms.
Williams forcefully affirms that liberals and Democrats not only can but must embrace the white working class, without abandoning its other constituencies. The key to this will be an emphasis on enhancing equality and opportunity for all, rather than emphasizing righting the wrongs done to some. Opportunity is key: white working class people don’t typically want a guaranteed annual income regardless of employment: they want jobs that pay enough for a decent standard of living. If they can’t find a job, they’ll go on Disability before they will accept Food Stamps.
Today’s Democratic Party is controlled by what Williams calls the Professional-Managerial Elite (PME), in coalition with racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. Many PME people are contemptuous of the white working class and share few values with them.
[dc][/dc]ut substantial parts of the black and Latino communities actually have values that are more congruent with the white working class than with the PME. Williams argues that Democrats must address the needs and grievances of the white working class—or the era of Trump could be a lot longer than we expect.