What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class

What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class, by Joan Williams. At last, someone who points out the obvious: what drove Trump’s election was the class culture gap. A similar situation is developing in Australia.

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job” …

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. … Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal. …

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.

Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm” …

Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. …

Manly dignity is a big deal for most men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession. …

The Democrats’ solution? Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. [A pink-collar worker performs jobs in the service industry. Blue-collar workers perform manual labor, and white-collar workers typically perform professional, managerial, or administrative work in an office environment.] Talk about insensitivity. Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for WWC men just fuels class anger. …

Understand That Working Class Means Middle Class, Not Poor … When progressives talk about the working class, typically they mean the poor. But the poor, in the bottom 30% of American families, are very different from Americans who are literally in the middle: the middle 50% of families whose median income was $64,000 in 2008. … WWC men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree.

If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center … Both parties have supported free-trade deals because of the net positive GDP gains, overlooking the blue-collar workers who lost work as jobs left for Mexico or Vietnam. These are precisely the voters in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania … Trade deals are far more expensive than we’ve treated them, because sustained job development and training programs need to be counted as part of their costs.

Democrats … remain obsessed with cultural issues. I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.

Avoid the Temptation to Write Off Blue-Collar Resentment as Racism … Police get solid wages, great benefits, and a respected place in their communities. For elites to write them off as racists is a telling example of how, although race- and sex-based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class-based insults still are.

Understand Working-Class Resentment of the Poor:  … Progressives have lavished attention on the poor for over a century. … Means-tested programs that help the poor but exclude the middle may keep costs and tax rates lower, but they are a recipe for class conflict. …

While the hard-living succumb to despair, drugs, or alcohol, settled families keep to the straight and narrow, like my parents-in-law, who owned their home and sent both sons to college. To accomplish that, they lived a life of rigorous thrift and self-discipline. Vance’s book passes harsh judgment on his hard-living relatives, which is not uncommon among settled families who kept their nose clean through sheer force of will. This is a second source of resentment against the poor. …

Rod Dreher comments:

That resonates so deeply with me. As you may recall, I grew up in a WWC home. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, but he was working class to the bone. He had nothing but charity for poor people who tried to better themselves. When he was a kid, everybody he knew was poor, including his family.

But poor people who, in his view, weren’t trying, but were living off the government — man, the class contempt was strong. He also couldn’t stand rich people who got their fortune by inheriting it. He admired self-made men.

The people Joan Williams describes are my people, for better or for worse. This helps me understand something my folks told me about why my sister resented me: she could not understand why I made more money than she did by writing. To her, that wasn’t real work. I was in some sense cheating.

It is hard to express to people outside the white working class how much dignity matters to them — and that there is no more reliable measure of dignity than the ability to support yourself and your family on your own, without government handouts. Fair or not, this is deeply interwoven into the culture, and if you don’t understand that, you will never understand the WWC.

hat-tip Stephen Neil