The Invention of the “White Working Class”

As liberals came to terms with what happened on Election Day 2016, early press reports focused on the so-called white working class. We’d seen these ...

As liberals came to terms with what happened on Election Day 2016, early press reports focused on the so-called white working class (WWC). We’d seen these folks highlighted at Trump rallies; Trump himself valorized them as real Americans, ignored by the powers that be, forgotten by establishment politicians more concerned with social issues than bread-and-butter working-class jobs. On November 8, it seemed, these “real Americans” had tipped the Electoral College to an unexpected Trump victory. More recent analysis suggests the WWC’s role was less pivotal than all that, but the narrative has remained consistent.

The victorious candidate and commentators alike cast the election as the revenge of real America: the return of the repressed “Joe the Plumber.” But who are the members of the WWC? What do they believe? How can they be at once so familiar—the “real” America—yet so distant that their political choices come as a shock?

Who makes up the WWC and what makes them tick is the subject of at least six popular books—most written before the election of Trump, some after. In each, the author tells readers that unraveling the mystery of this group is essential to understanding the populist movement that gave rise to Trump’s candidacy and presidency. They imply, if not overtly say, that there is a single WWC culture and character, monolithic and unchanging. But the WWC is neither, and by treating it that way these books at once miss the diversity within the WWC and reinforce the myth that the WWC is more authentically American than the rest of the country.

The key move a populist such as Trump must make to succeed is to split one group of Americans off from the others, glorifying that group as more “real,” more “true” than the rest of the populace. This is a point political scientist Jan-Werner Müller makes in his recent book, What Is Populism? Seen in this light, the Trump campaign was, in an important sense, an extended exercise in creating and valorizing the WWC at the expense of all others. Every person who isn’t part of the WWC is presumed to be less American, while the WWC is the favored group: made up of real Americans, living in “flyover country,” distant from coastal elites, victimized by political correctness, and the only ones left behind by globalization, experiencing falling wages and rising economic insecurity.

Once he pulls that off—prioritizing one “real” slice of the populace above the whole, transforming this slice into the whole—Müller’s populist can use that group to build power. And, crucially, the power will be in the name of “the people,” though this is a rhetorical sleight of hand. In the process, the populist sets whole segments of the people off to the side as unworthy of representation, or, at least, of as much representation as the chosen group. Populists, Müller teaches us, rule in the name of the people by promoting only some of the people to sovereign status. Those outside are treated as not fully part of the people. They are not sufficiently authentic.

We’ve been here before. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno diagnosed what he called a “jargon of authenticity” in German culture. Shallow claims to authenticity were weaponized as justifications in and of themselves for otherwise inexcusable, or unexamined, ways of thinking, talking, relating, and behaving. Faced with the struggle and conflict of the modern world, authenticity was not so much found as strategically deployed. Jews, cities, “sinful intellectuality” were all deemed inauthentic, and as a result the jargon could serve to provide people with substitute templates that would reflect it instead of their real character: it would offer “patterns for being human … which have been driven out of them” and a mode of “reflected unreflectiveness.”


Populism, Right and Left

By Matt Wilde

The similarities are eerie: Adorno identifies German authenticity language as “a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homey at once—sub-language as superior language. … While the jargon overflows with the pretense of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world that it officially negates.” Then, as now, the simple and old-fashioned—the “authentic,” the “real”—are held up as noble and timeless, in contrast to the soulless, dangerous, diverse complexity of the modern city. The jargon that Adorno identifies is a fake authenticity imposed from outside. Culturally conservative, rural, pure character is a product of the jargon, which people are led to accept as authentic. Importantly, these are the same traits the authors of the books reviewed here ascribe to the WWC, thereby forming their own jargon of authenticity.

Many liberals, shocked and dismayed by the 2016 election, also seemed to understand the populist revolt in this way. How did it happen that “authentic” Americans—working-class ones, even—were so pivotal to the success of the divisive Republican campaign of a multibillionaire? How to understand this exotic culture next door? These six books try to answer that question, and in the process reify the WWC’s authenticity.

The most recent among them is Joan C. Williams’s aptly titled White Working Class, which is an expanded version of an essay she addressed to urban, liberal elites. Williams, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, acts here as more of an anthropologist. A self-described “silver spoon girl,” she claims direct knowledge through her marriage to a bona fide “class migrant”—someone who moves between the working class and the wealthy—a position that recurs in several of the other books as well. Working from the premise that the 2016 election was about “populist, anti-establishment anger that welled up,” she presents a caricature—a sympathetic one, to be sure, but still a caricature—of working-class views, values, and experiences.

Consider the imagery here: something that “wells up” was previously lying dormant but essentially the same. Perhaps it had been building natural pressure or just waiting for an opening to erupt. The anger must have been there all along, lying in wait for a sympathetic candidate to provide opportunity for its expression. The implication is that the properties of the thing welling up (in this case, the WWC’s antiestablishment anger) are fixed, not subject to change. That’s why it takes a class migrant—someone with personal experience on both sides of the divide—to certify the authenticity of those on the other side.

Williams’s motives go beyond electoral strategy; she is explicitly “committed to social equality, not for some groups but for all,” and is convinced that the working class (the “white” modifier mostly disappears after the title page, its conspicuous absence suggesting that Williams has written off the rest of the working class) is socially excluded, even insulted, by the professional class. It’s certainly true that the working class is economically excluded; wages have stagnated for nearly two decades and productivity gains have gone entirely to employers and stockholders, as have nearly all the benefits (though not the costs) of globalization. But, by and large, that’s not what this book (nor the others reviewed here) is about. Rather, it is about what political theorists call recognition, not redistribution: “The working class … want[s] respect, … recognition, … dignity—and they deserve it,” Williams writes. That desire for recognition is, apparently, what’s welling up.

Such images—of the WWC as unified, honorable, genuine, and grounded, but scorned and excluded by educated elites—run through several of these other books too. And that, of course, is the problem. Indeed, Williams draws heavily upon two of these texts, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, as evidence for her own argument. The way she uses them, as confirmation of the essential deep character of the WWC, suggests a kind of closing of the ranks. It’s as if this small group of observers—who have successfully migrated across class boundaries in one way or another—share privileged access to the exotic tribe that lives next door. The figure of the class migrant is a critical part of establishing these books’ claims to document the authentic WWC to outsiders and thus serves to reinforce the idea of that authenticity.

Hillbilly is a politically motivated memoir—heartwarming if, ultimately, unremarkable—of Silicon Valley finance lawyer J. D. Vance, another class migrant. Vance recounts his upbringing among “hillbillies” of Kentucky and Ohio. He credits his rags-to-riches experience to a unique combination of adoring grandparents, personal optimism, and military discipline.

Throughout the book, Vance presents a tale of two cultures: one, the Appalachian, authentic, rooted, poor, and unambitious; the other, the “Acela corridor,” fancy, out of touch, rich, and ambitious. Crossings between the two are few and far between; periodically an Appalachian kid escapes for college (good, but the kid should beware the lure of college’s corrupting influences). Frequently the outside world steps in with welfare (bad, of course), other government programs (bad too), educational resources (you guessed it, bad), all of which serve mostly to convince genuine Appalachian folks not to work hard enough to actually succeed.

Vance, though, elevated himself through effort and optimism, joining the Marines on little more than a whim, then taking the self-discipline learned there with him to college at Ohio State and law school at Yale, all the while feeling utterly culturally alienated by the high-status world he’d entered. A compelling story, to be sure. Even authentic, from one class migrant’s point of view. But hardly a definitive examination of WWC culture!

The figure of the class migrant is a critical part of establishing these books’ claims to document the authentic White Working Class to outsiders.

Vance’s by-the-bootstraps theme plays contradictory roles in the narrative. Vance relies on it to be at once accessible and rare. The whole folksy description of the hopelessness of his hometown implies that it’s difficult to escape Appalachia; hence the vast cultural divide between where he grew up and the Acela corridor. It’s that rarity that establishes Vance’s authority as a class migrant. At the same time, though, he implies that if only others had sufficient discipline, optimism, and energy, they too could succeed as he has. He is nobody special; he is just a product of folksy discipline combined with his own personal optimism. The book’s core argument can’t stand without Vance being both rare and an everyman: a logical impossibility. And yet that’s what he wants us to believe as he extrapolates from his admittedly extraordinary story a morality tale for the whole Appalachian region.

How does this extrapolation take place? How are we asked to move from Vance’s own life out to an assured expertise in his native culture? Vance squares that circle by relying on the timeless, rooted authenticity of his people. They are who they are, the result of their Scots-Irish ancestry.1 Since Vance claims, implausibly, that Appalachians are who they are by nature, the dysfunction he sneers at must be the result of outside influence: the very federal and state social and economic programs that provide needed support for the folks he grew up with.

Strangers in Their Own Land, the work of sociological giant Arlie Russell Hochschild, is in many ways very different from Hillbilly. But although it takes a different approach to identifying the authentic WWC, Hochschild’s work shares the presumption of that authenticity. (Both books, remember, are used as insiders’ evidence in Williams’s White Working Class.) And yet this assumption threatens to undermine the success of both.

Hochschild seeks to “scale the empathy wall”—becoming, essentially, a temporary class migrant—to understand the lives and worldviews of rural white conservatives in southwestern Louisiana. Disturbed by the social divisiveness she saw in the Obama years, which, she argues, ultimately gave rise to Trump, Hochschild traveled to rural Louisiana, living among, interviewing, and most importantly listening to members of the WWC as they went about their lives, approached problems, and interpreted their experiences over the course of five years.

The area Hochschild investigated suffers from major environmental problems: the presence of toxic chemicals dumped in the bayou that kill wildlife, for example. And a giant sinkhole caused when a drilling company, relatively unfettered by regulation, punctured an underground geological formation. Why, then, did these WWC people—particularly harmed by, and vulnerable to, ecological disaster—so resist government environmental protections? The area also needs, and benefits from, federal programs to mitigate unemployment, poverty, and illness; why do its residents hold these very programs in such low esteem?


Trump Syllabus 3.0

By Nyron Crawford et al.

After hearing many of her subjects talk about the successes and failures of government—often in direct contradiction to their own previous claims—Hochschild synthesized their ideas into what she called the “Deep Story.” According to that story, folks feel like they are in line for something. What that is seems unclear even to the people Hochschild talks to: Jobs? Education? Benefits? Money? Hochschild names it simply “the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.”

As they wait, they feel that others are invited to jump in front of them: “You’re following the rules. They aren’t,” as she summarizes the attitude. These others are, of course, African Americans, immigrants, women: all those whom they believe the government favors over them. Once she’d developed this story, Hochschild returned to her WWC sources to see if it reflected their views. It did; many of them saw themselves as trapped in a line for something better, waiting patiently as others were allowed to get ahead.

Strangers offers a contemporary vision of WWC people and voters learning from, and reacting to, current events, challenges, and media. But, paradoxically, it relates a story from nowhere. The identification of this story as “deep” (it is, of course, from the deep that things “well up”) underscores its timelessness. But where did this story come from? What alternative stories were jettisoned in favor of this one? How does it distort the world (as all stories must)? How does believing in it, thinking with it, come to shape the taken-for-granted worldview of the WWC? What, in other words, is the jargon these WWC Americans adopt to claim authenticity, and where did it come from?

Hochschild scrupulously avoids addressing these questions. That’s because for Hochschild (as for Williams and Vance), this is just how members of the WWC are. Becoming a temporary class migrant by scaling the empathy wall requires that we not ask uncomfortable questions about, for example, media, education, race, or wealth. The empathy Hochschild so admirably demonstrates (and that is a hallmark of her sociology more generally) backfires here because it obscures the tendentious political history of the deep story.

Political scientist Katherine J. Cramer also adopted temporary class-migrant status for her book, The Politics of Resentment. A professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Cramer noticed a divide among her students, between those from the state’s urban and suburban centers and those from its vast, sparsely populated farmland. Like Hochschild, she ventured out to listen to WWC people talk about their lives and their relationships to government and politics.

What she discovered was “rural consciousness”: the repeated idea that life is different—and more genuine, more authentic, more real—in rural areas. Cities like Madison and Milwaukee (her respondents call these the “M&Ms”) are foreign: “We totally live differently than the city people live,” says one subject. They imagine residents of the M&Ms as the line jumpers of Hochschild’s deep story, people getting more attention and support from government than the pure, simple rural folks. We’re tempted to ask, again, where these stories come from, but Cramer doesn’t investigate further.

In fact, as Cramer points out, Wisconsin’s rural areas receive disproportionately more state funding than urban areas, but so what? Rural folks are convinced the opposite is true, or at least (echoing Hillbilly) that this money is tainted by its association with the outside world. But her sources don’t find that point convincing; rural consciousness, it seems, comes first, and political analysis follows from it. “Support for small government,” Cramer argues, “is more about identity than principle.”

Cramer names this feature “place identity,” but as with Hochschild’s Louisiana WWC, there’s a strong temporal dimension as well. Rural consciousness depends on a wistful nostalgia for times past: a nostalgia short on specifics, but one that is substituted for a real consideration of how rural consciousness and the WWC came to be as they are. Again, where is the source?

To fill that hole, we turn to historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, billed as a “history of class in America.” White Trash sets out to retell American history through the lens of social class. Isenberg’s entirely historical treatment is a step in the right direction: the category of white trash was constructed through repeated social, political, and cultural decisions that made the wall of social class seem impenetrable. The WWC as it existed in 2016, then, was fixed in time and culture by its own historical development.

The implication is that historians’ recounting of inequality through the lens of race has obscured how social class formed and has driven American politics and culture since the founding of the republic. In that sense, the book is quite successful, demonstrating the ways in which wealth and income have structured not just life chances but also cultural identity and belonging.

As the book progresses into the 20th century, it deals more and more with cultural representations of class—movies, television, etc.—and less with political and material inequalities. Class becomes, by the late 20th century, mostly a matter of style, as Isenberg’s discussion of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy (relying on Us Weekly and the reality TV show Sarah Palin’s Alaska) illustrates. This methodological shift implies that class has become culture and style: a misunderstanding that helps reinforce WWC authenticity.

The hard-and-fast distinction between class and race breaks down here at times, largely because the two have been so intertwined in practice. To understand “white trash” (and its many regional variations) as being mostly about the “trash” and not so much about the “white” is an odd choice for a book with such sweeping ambition. A new preface, added after the 2016 election, lays bare that choice: in it, Isenberg claims Trump’s victory as the next step in the class-as-culture narrative, explicitly attaching the victory to the repressed reality of class in America.

By stressing this continuity, White Trash also contributes to the message of Hochschild, Vance, et al.: that WWC character exists as an independent phenomenon and that these authors offer a definitive portrayal of what the WWC character is like. Whether that character occurs because of Scots-Irish ethnicity in Hillbilly, the history of social class in White Trash, or just … because, as in Strangers and Resentment, these volumes are all invested in bolstering the WWC’s authentic character.


The Big Picture: Unholy Alliances

By Shamus Khan

What all these books—disparate as they are—share is their implication that WWC culture is fixed, static, and authentic: at once a cultural backwater cut off from urban and coastal progress and the noble expression of real America prior to the corrupting influence of, well, the 20th century. A book that notably avoids that implication is the older, irreverent Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bageant.

A class migrant himself, Bageant returns to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, to understand what has led to its residents’ political conservatism and economic stagnation. He finds a town that has been left behind: manufacturing jobs are gone, national fast-food chains define the local diet, nationalized media provides the language the WWC uses to describe the world. Bageant offers a very sympathetic view of a proud people, duped into a comfortable stupor that is at once the product of corporate manipulation and of willing complicity on the part of the people themselves. Deer Hunting effectively, even sensitively, conveys the sense of despair and loss of dignity in this community and locates the cause of these in patterns of national and global capital.

Bageant’s Winchester is not so different from Vance’s Jackson, Kentucky. Both authors grew up in poor, simple, honest, depressed towns. But in Bageant’s hands it is a confluence of outside forces—economic fatalism, educational failure, cheap, unhealthy food, manipulative media—that have combined to make Winchester the miserable place it has become. This contrasts with Vance, for whom governmental programs at most exacerbate preexisting cultural dispositions.

Most importantly, that misery is not static but malleable. Take the case of Dot, a 59-year-old woman with many health problems. “Doctors tell us [Winchester residents] that we have blood in our cholesterol, and the cops tell us there is alcohol in that blood. True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken.”

Dot’s neighbor, Buck, like most of their WWC compatriots, blames welfare bums, social programs for minorities, tax-and-spend liberals, and big government—but when Bageant asks Dot “if she would vote for a candidate who wanted a national health care program,” she responds, “Vote for him? I’d go down on him!” “Voter approval does not get much stronger than that,” Bageant opines. A Winchester resident like Dot lays blame on the government not so much because of her ideology as in response to “who she thought would actually help her.”

Unlike the portrayals of the rest of these books, Bageant’s WWC is dynamic and responsive to the world, even if those responses are disappointing. Driven by lack of educational opportunities, he writes, “my people … [have] an intellectual life consisting of things that sound right, a blend of modern folk wisdom, cliché, talk radio, and Christian radio babble.” The other books ask readers to understand the WWC as essentially unchanging: authentically American, timeless, genuine, and static. That understanding plays directly into the populist move of elevating the WWC to be the authentic voice of real America, substituting its own Americanness for that of the rest of the country.

Bageant—writing over a decade ago!—offers a bleak picture, to be sure, but one based on television, petroleum, education, and economic opportunity. It is, therefore, susceptible to change. And that, in turn, means that the Trump project of elevating the WWC to privileged authenticity is a farce: a political maneuver resting on an empirical fiction.

The White Working Class was made, not found; deployed, not discovered.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with Acela corridor residents climbing the empathy wall, trying to understand better their flyover compatriots. It is revealing, though, that each of these books aims to provide liberals with a sympathetic portrait of conservatives. In the context of a deeply polarized electorate, it is certainly helpful to cross political boundaries in the service of mutual understanding. But the traffic here is one-way; to my knowledge, there are no books offering earnest portraits of the Acela corridor to the residents of flyover country. Why not? Perhaps it’s that liberals are more curious in general, more prone to guilt over not understanding their compatriots, or just bigger readers. But I think part of the explanation lies in the jargon of authenticity. To imagine red America as authentic is to label blue America inauthentic: fake, affected, an impostor. What would be the point of a class migrant explaining such people to the wholesome WWC?

The distinction between Deer Hunting and the books reviewed above throws into relief the danger of assigning authenticity or populist nobility to the WWC. That presumed WWC authenticity originated from somewhere—it’s not actually fixed or static. Having voted, in the past, for Bill Clinton and for Barack Obama, the WWC’s members were primed by the forces Bageant identifies, weaponized by economic desperation and media manipulation, and deployed by an opportunistic Trump campaign happy to trumpet their authenticity for its own electoral ends. The WWC was made, not found; deployed, not discovered.

Most people—members of the WWC and Acela liberals alike—hold contradictory views and ideas: fragments of experience, knowledge, and understanding they can use to interpret and respond to new situations as they come down the pike. Which of these fragments they piece together into an expression, an idea, a vote is not about static authenticity. It’s about context, politics, threat, emotion, opportunity, connection, education. Grasping the WWC’s role in American politics doesn’t mean fetishizing their inner character; it means understanding what fragments are available to them and how new contexts, new campaigns, new environments lead them to piece them together into new, varied, and different stories.

This difference has huge implications. If the WWC is fixed and authentic, educated elites need to learn at least to compromise with its members. That could mean giving up some of the commitments to equality, diversity, and opportunity that these books imply alienate the flyover tribe. But if indeed it is dynamic, flexible, and responsive, that task is not compromise but engagement. icon

  1. The idea of a unified, meaningful “Appalachian culture,” whether based on Scots-Irish ancestry or another origin, is an old saw. It’s been repeatedly asserted and popularized by writers, filmmakers, and others since at least the 19th century. The academic literature shows that no such thing exists; the idea has been deployed, though, to describe, vilify, praise, and manipulate “Appalachia.”
Featured image: Independence Day, Terra Alta, West Virginia, 1935. Photograph by Walker Evans / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USF3301-009001-M1