When I hear some segment of white voters being maligned as clueless, my first thought runs to backers of Donald Trump, those people who actually believed he intended to help the working class.
Author Joan C. Williams sees the opposite: It is college-educated white liberals who are the clueless ones. Her new book calls them the “professional managerial elite,” or PMEs for short, which in her view would include many, perhaps most, garden-variety Madison liberals.
She lambastes PMEs as smug and condescending toward whites without college degrees, which she says drives the latter to politicians like Trump and in turn does great harm to women, people of color and immigrants.
Looking beyond this week’s euphoria over Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, it is clear the white working class will continue to be crucial. A new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, says whites without a college education constituted 45 percent of voters a year ago and favored Trump to Hillary Clinton by a 31-percentage-point margin.
The title of Williams’ book is “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.” She is a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law and is a self-described San Francisco liberal.
“During an era when wealthy white Americans have learned to sympathetically imagine the lives of the poor, people of color, and LGBTQ people,” she writes, “the white working class has been insulted or ignored.”
Intrigued, I read her book and then interviewed her to, in part, ask how she thinks this has played out in Wisconsin. Her short answer: It has, big time.
She began our conversation with a national overview: “I wasn’t surprised when (President) Trump won because I think that Democrats in general and Hillary Clinton in particular are really clueless about social class, and the Democrats inadvertently send very old-fashioned, snobbish messages about people of a different class.
“That has created this poisonous dynamic in the country where you have the middle class, which has been stereotyped as kind of Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson — clueless, fat, stupid — getting a lot of cultural disrespect at the same time its economic fortunes have absolutely tanked.
“This combination of cultural disrespect and a lack of interest in the economic prospects of people without college degrees has created a really poisonous political dynamic in this country, for which all of the groups that Democrats and progressives are supposed to care about pay the price.”
She added: “There’s a relatively simple, straightforward solution which is, number one, stop insulting and stereotyping white working class people and recognize that class exists, and number two, start caring about the economic prospects of Americans without college degrees. If progressives would do just those two things, we would be in a very different situation.”
Each of her chapter titles poses a question, such as: “Why does the white working class resent professionals but admire the rich?”
Her answer is that working class whites tend to build their lives around friends, family and their religion, but not their occupations. They generally disdain “folkways” of the college-educated class such as asking “What do you do?” of any new acquaintance.
“Their dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable, just with more money. Brashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working class cred.”
My reflex is to push back with a less sympathetic interpretation, to point out the frequent propensity toward racism and sexism among ardent Trump supporters.
Williams will have none of that. Her answer: How is that wrath working out for you and the people you say you care about?
I described how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans have for years practiced the dark art of dividing our state along lines of class and race.
Williams describes to me why teachers in particular aggravate the white working class: “They’re college grads and they generally have good benefit packages,” she says. “And they culturally are part of this professional managerial elite.
“So they are very much resented by white working class people who feel that teachers look down on their kids, assume their kids aren’t smart. Now whether or not all this is fair, I think it’s often not fair. I have a brother who’s a teacher.
“On the other hand, the kind of anger that the teachers have gotten is an expression of economic anxiety. If we don’t want it to be expressed by gutting teachers’ jobs, we’ve got to make sure that other people have a decent standard of living.
She adds: “This is the first generation that has lost touch with the American dream. That is an explosive and dangerous political force.
“The alternative is to say all Americans are entitled to a job that — if they work hard — should yield a middle-class standard of living and health insurance and dignity when they retire.
“This is what we should be giving everybody and that’s one of the ways to avoid fueling the Scott Walker phenomenon.”
Williams breaks it down into practical terms.
“I talk about four beads on the necklace of the groups Democrats need in a coalition in order to win,” she says. “One is the progressive professional managerial elite, next are the communities of color, the third is the white working class and the fourth is the millennials.
“The last three groups share a waning of the American dream and a sharp increase in economic anxiety, so if you want to appeal to those groups … you have to understand that that’s what they care about.”
Says Williams: “Wisconsin was so emblematic. When you have the American dream withering before people’s eyes, one way this can go is seeing working people turn on other working people.”
This is not exactly breaking news in Wisconsin. The story of white working class disdain for the liberal elite was told years ago by Kathy Cramer, the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist, in her book “The Politics of Resentment.”
This week’s Democratic victories were widely credited to suburbanites — women especially — who flooded the polls after a year of being repulsed by Trumpism.
With that momentum, Williams would argue there’s opportunity to acknowledge the white cultural divide and focus heavily on the economic prospects of the working class, white or otherwise.
Hard to argue with that.
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