Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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We can thank Donald Trump for one thing: he’s put the white working-class on the political map.*

In recent months, we’ve seen a veritable flood of articles, polls, and surveys about the characteristics, conditions, and concerns of white working-class voters—all with the premise that the white working-class is fundamentally different from the rest of non-working-class, non-white Americans.

But why are the members of the white working-class attracting so much attention? My sense is, they both represent a threat—because many plan to vote for Trump and, more generally, reject much elite opinion (including, but not limited, to Trump)—and, at the same time, are assumed to be a dying breed—as the U.S. working-class becomes more female, more racially and ethnically diverse, and increasingly employed in non-manufacturing jobs. So, the argument goes, the white working-class, supposedly radically different from the rest of Americans, is motivated by fear and resentment occasioned by a loss of identity and standing.**

Hence the curiosity—best exemplified by a new CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation [ht: ja] poll, about what white working-class Americans think. The results of the poll are interesting, if only because on many issues (aside from support for or opposition to Trump and immigration) the white working-class holds views that are not all that different from other whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

The fundamental problem with CNN/Kaiser poll (as with so many others) is its basic definition of the working-class: “those who have attained less than a four-year college degree, excluding those between the ages of 18-24 who are currently enrolled in school.” As I have argued before (e.g., here and here), that’s not the working-class. It’s just people who never went to or didn’t finish college. What they’re using is a definition of the working-class that doesn’t include all those other people, many of whom have college degrees, who are forced to have the freedom to work for someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. Together, most Americans with and without college degrees work for the boards of directors of large corporations—and they don’t manage the production process or supervise other employees.

As Vivek Chibber explains,

Workers show up for work every day knowing that they have little job security; they are paid what employers feel is consistent with their main priority, which is making profits, not the well-being of employees; they work at a pace and duration that is set by their bosses; and they submit to these conditions, not because they want to, but because for most of them, the alternative to accepting these conditions is not having a job at all.

The working-class, as I am defining it then, turns out to comprise the vast majority (70-80 percent) of the U.S. population. And most of them, of course, are white.

So, what does the CNN/Kaiser pool reveal about the views of, to be clear, one portion of the white working-class? As I wrote above, on many issues, they’re not all that different from other whites or blacks and Hispanics without college degrees. In terms of their own lives, most of the so-called white working-class, as the other poll respondents, are not angry, worried, pessimistic, or unhappy. But they are dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation and with the influence on the political process of people like them. In recent years, they report it’s become harder for them to get ahead financially and to find good jobs. Finally, they blame the federal government much more than their employers or Wall Street for the economic problems facing the working-class and they believe the federal government helps wealthy people too much and members of the working-class too little.

That’s exactly the set of answers one would expect from the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic, with and without college degrees—right now. They’re getting screwed and, while they may not be dissatisfied in their own lives, they certainly think both the economic and political systems are stacked against them. Perhaps the only surprising item in the survey is the extent to which they blame the government, and not their employers or Wall Street, for the economic problems facing the working-class.

The only major differences within the working-class have to do with Trump and the role of immigrants. While 56 percent of whites without a college degree would consider voting for Trump, most other respondents would definitely not vote for him. A similar difference emerges with respect to immigrants: a much smaller percentage of the so-called white working-class believe immigrants “strengthen our country” and a much higher percentage thinks “immigrants today are a burden on our country” than the other groups.***

In the end, those two differences—on Trump and immigration—are what make the so-called white working-class interesting to the media. It’s not their conditions or their grievances, much of which they share with other members of the working-class. It’s only the fact that they threaten to vote for the renegade presidential candidate and they’re wary about the role played by other, immigrant members of the working-class. And, of course, many of them are thrown into the “basket of deplorables” by the opposing campaign.

Both presidential candidates, then, are sowing and exploiting those differences to their own advantage, which is what U.S. politicians have always attempted to do when it comes to real or imagined divisions within the working-class. That’s how they campaign and that’s how they hope to get elected.

Trump and Hillary Clinton (and their echoes in the mainstream media) have created the “white working-class” and they hope to ride it—as a source of support or a specter—to victory in November. And then, whoever wins, they’ll abandon it—along with the rest of the working-class.

 

 

*Actually, Bernie Sanders also played an important role in focusing attention on the white working-class, especially with his stunning primary victories in Michigan and West Virginia. Since his loss to Hillary Clinton, however, the white working-class (along with the rest of the American working-class) has virtually disappeared from Democratic discourse.

**As Connor Kilpatrick has explained, the Democratic Party “has established a clear line on the white wage-earning class: they’re all either dying (demographically or literally), irrelevant in an increasingly nonwhite country, or so hopelessly racist they can go off themselves with a Miller High Life-prescription-painkiller cocktail for all they care.”

***There is one additional difference that requires mention: while a majority of whites—with (62 percent) and without (69 percent) college degrees—believe trade agreements cost the United States jobs, a much smaller percentage of blacks and Hispanics without college degrees (both 37 percent) think that’s the case.

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Special mention

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Fred Block and Frances Fox Piven make a convincing case, from the Left, for a universal basic income.

In particular, they demonstrate an understanding that wage work has become one of the most elemental pillars of our civic religion,” past relief efforts (going back to Poor Laws) were mostly punitive, and employers will likely resist any attempt to undermine the so-called work ethic.

Not everyone will be on board to sever the age-old ties between poverty relief and tough demands on the poor. The basic-income approach will be resisted by employer interests because it violates that venerable principle, and will make workers more powerful over time by reducing their dependence on any one employer. A generous basic-income policy could, in other words, transform class relations.

There are however other obstacles, particularly problems of political language, that need to be overcome in any attempt to expand the “entitlement society” (a term that itself needs to be recaptured from the Right) through a universal basic income.

As I wrote back in 2012 (at the early stages of the previous presidential campaign), there are at least two issues we need to confront:

First, we need to contest the meaning of dependence. In particular, why is selling one’s ability to work for a wage or salary any less a form of dependence than receiving some form of government assistance? It certainly is a different kind of dependence—on employers rather than on one’s fellow citizens—and probably a form of dependence that is more arbitrary and capricious—since employers have the freedom to hire people when and where they want, while government assistance is governed by clear rules.

Second,. . .corporations have been successful in shifting the financing of government assistance programs from their surpluses to workers’ incomes. But the solution to the pressure on current workers’ standard of living is not to cut government programs but to change how they’re financed.

The campaign for a universal basic income will only be successful when we effectively contest the meaning of dependence (such that wage-labor is no longer viewed as a sign of independence) and change the way government programs are financed (such that the social surplus, not workers’ wages, can be utilized to satisfy social needs.)

Ultimately, then, a universal basic income points toward a new realm of freedom, including freedom from the need to work for the benefit of someone else and from the need to hand over a growing portion of one’s already-low individual income to finance a program that benefits society as a whole.

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Last week, I promised a review of J. D. Vance’s new book‚ because I knew I could count on Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, University of Kentucky sociologist, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

J. D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working- class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

Vance notes that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from those who endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package, which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . .These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself.

There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working-class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success.**

A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience.

It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.

The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam, among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.

I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber, which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber.

J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.

 

*Hillbilly Elegy premiered at number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books. It is currently ranked number 5 in the Amazon list of best-selling books and number 1 in various specific categories (Sociology of Class, Poverty, and Ethnic Demographic Studies).

** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see the interview with him by Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.”

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Here’s an episode concerning U.S. unemployment statistics I was not aware of: in September 1961, James Daniel, writing in the Readers’ Digest, accused the U.S. government of providing “excellent fodder for the communist line.”

Daniel’s article, “Let’s Look at Those ‘Alarming’ Unemployment Figures,” began as follows:

For months the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been pouring out a stream of doleful figures depicting the worst ‘unemployment crisis’ in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930′s. Almost daily some administration official tells us that nearly seven percent of our labor force is out of work. Meanwhile, Congress has passed one emergency spending bill after another on the ground, in part or in whole, that it will help employment…. All this unemployment news out of Washington provides excellent fodder for the communist line, of course.

At least in part in response to the Daniels article, in November 1961, the President’s Committee to Appraise Employment and Unemployment Statistics was appointed. Then, in 1963, the Subcommittee on Economic Statistics of the Joint Economic Committee held hearings on “Measuring Employment and Unemployment” (pdf).

Here’s Robert A. Gordon, the chair of the president’s committee:

You will forgive me if I say that this article represented an egregious example of irresponsible journalism. In effect, it charged that the official data on unemployment were being deliberately manipulated in order to justify larger Government spending and more extensive Government controls.

The entire transcript of the hearings is worth reading, if only to get a sense that there is no level of unemployment “out there” to be measured. The measuring of unemployment (like all such statistics, from national income to profits) is a social construction.

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Today, of course, the rate of unemployment is once again contested, as conspiracy theorists (like Donald Trump) argue the official unemployment numbers out of Washington are exaggerated. However, in their case, it’s not that they’re too high, but too low.

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Presidential polling and forecasts (such as those from FiveThirtyEight) in the United States have quite definitively moved in favor of Hillary Clinton. And, by the time this gets posted, the gap between Clinton and Donald Trump will probably have grown even more.

We should remember all such polling presumes voters are “sincere,” that is, they will vote for the candidate they think is the “better” choice.

But what if voters are strategic, that is, they make tactical decisions in their voting? Then polling, and the forecasts that stem from them, are going to be deceptive. And the loser in the polls might be the winner in the election.

The obvious strategic choice, for those who don’t want Trump elected but also dislike (for a whole host of valid reasons) Clinton, is to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein. The idea is that, at least in states where Clinton appears to be a “lock,” it’s important to run up the numbers to Clinton’s left, in order to put pressure on her electoral campaign and post-election policies. This is presumably the option that at least some, and perhaps a large number, of Bernie Sanders’s supporters will choose in November.

But there’s another strategic choice, which will also lower Clinton’s final numbers: those who are indifferent between Clinton and Trump (because both have moved “too left,” or at least more populist, on economic policy) but certainly don’t want Clinton to win in a landslide. It’s the argument Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. has recently made in the Wall Street Journal:

let’s also remember that even if Trump defeats himself, it would not be the same as reaccrediting the Depublican and Remocrat leadership class of which Mrs. Clinton is so spectacular an example. Our system of institutions is not designed to find us the “right” person to be our national hero/role model. Its job is to harness and constrain the forces and personalities that democratic populism throws up.

Voters are perfectly entitled to ask themselves if one of our major parties has thrown up a candidate unsuitable purely on grounds of personality and temperament, but we also should have some humility about the historical moment we’re living through. A narrow Hillary victory or Trump victory might not be outcomes all that distinguishable from each other in the end—whereas a Clinton landslide that produces, like the first two Obama years, one-party government fundamentally out of sync with the American electorate and out of sync with the national moment could be the larger misfortune.

This is an argument for continued “gridlock,” which may be precisely what American businesses want at the national level. Presuming Clinton is going to win the presidential election, they want to make sure at least the House, if not the Senate—in other words, the result of the down-ticket races—remains in the opposition’s hands. And that’s the reason they may vote strategically for Trump.

I can well imagine both these strategic voting decisions affecting the presidential vote, especially if the polling and forecast gaps between Clinton and Trump continue to grow.

To be clear, I am not trying to make an argument for or against voting (or, for that matter, for or against strategic voting). Precisely because it raises the possibility that the winner might lose (or, alternatively, the loser might win), the case I’m trying to make is that voting in elections is merely the semblance of democracy and that democracy falls far short of the horizon of the politics we actually need today.

I certainly don’t think it’s just a matter of communication or respect. But Vice-President Joe Biden (in the clip at the top of the post) does hit on something important: the mainstream of both major political parties has abandoned the American working-class, especially the white working-class.

The selection of Hillary Clinton continues that tradition (as Biden sees it, of “limousine liberals”) in the Democratic Party. As for the mainstream of the Republican Party, the Kansas strategy (of anti-working-class economic policies covered over by “social issues”) no longer seems to be working.

Enter, then, Donald Trump who, according to J. D. Vance [ht: sm], “at least tries.” I plan to post a review of Vance’s new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, in the near future. In the meantime, the interview with him by The American Conservative includes some useful insights about the current political landscape in the United States. Here is an excerpt:

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book. 

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.