The White Working Class, Trump & “the least of these”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell Uncategorized 16 Comments

Jon Witt is a sociologist who teaches at Central College in Pella, Iowa. He is the author of Soc, one the most popular introductory sociology textbooks worldwide, as well as The Big Picture: A Sociology Primer. He is also a member of the board of Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought, an Elder in the church where I pastor, and a good friend.

I asked Jon several questions about the “white working class” and their apparent support for President Trump. The conversation is longer than a usual blog, but I think you will find it worthwhile. Thanks, Jon.

In the days right after Trump’s election, lots of us were saying things like, “I need to understand this. These people can’t be that different than we are. If we just reach out, they are our neighbors.” That lasted about two weeks for me. What I found seemed so nasty, atrocious, and hateful. What was I doing wrong? How should I have done it better?

I think the assumption you made—that it would be easy to understand the perspective of people with a different experience—was not a good assumption. One of the things we’re doing in the United States right now is underestimating the degrees of difference that exist between categories of people. We hear such differences talked about in simple political terms—red versus blue. But that split is symbolic of deeper cultural divides.

Plus, you’re an upper-middle class professional with a Ph.D. You have certain sense, probably, that your perspective on the world is informed and enlightened. When you look at other people it is hard to give them the credit that they deserve. It would be helpful to consider the possibility that, just maybe, their perspective is also informed and enlightened but by different kinds of experiences.

Take, for example, what I call the Pocahontas Principle. It comes from the Disney movie song “Colors of the Wind”: You think I’m an ignorant savage, and you’ve been so many places I guess it must be so. But still I cannot see, if the savage one is me, how can there be so much you do not know? People like us like to think that line applies to others who are less informed then ourselves, but what if we are the judgmental ones? We have been taught to be open and curious about other cultures and peoples, but people like us find it almost impossible to be open and curious with Trump voters.

If you’re being honest, don’t you look down on people like this? Wouldn’t you say this is typical of people like you and like me? You go to Wal-Mart. That’s all you’ve got to do. You see someone you know is white working class and you just feel superior. I am totally guilty of that! I am a snob, even though I don’t want to be. It’s not something we like to admit about ourselves.

In her book, Strangers in their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild discloses that she was having a difficult time understanding why rural, white, non-college educated people thought and acted in ways that she thought did not make sense. She decided to travel to Louisiana and, over the course of five years, spend time with people there so as to better understand them. As an urban, politically-liberal, college professor, she realized that doing so meant she had to climb over something she calls the “empathy wall” which she defines “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent to those who hold different beliefs.” One of my take-aways from her work was her realization that, when looking at such folks, especially as presented in the media during the Trump campaign, “We see the anger, but we don’t see the mourning. I think these people are mourning for a lost way of life, a lost identity.”

A little over a year ago, here on The Twelve, I wondered if there was any way that we should understand “alienated Muslims, white working class Americans, or the leavers in the Brexit vote” as “the least of these,” our sisters and brothers? Maybe my question is itself the very sort of condescension that Trump supporters despise.

It is ridiculously condescending. But I don’t know that there is a whole lot of choice in that. If we look at the relative structural positions that such people versus people like you and I are in, it is almost inevitably going to be condescending. Even the effort itself to say, “I want to try to understand you” is problematic, as if they owe something to you, as if they should open themselves up to you.

On the question of are they are the “least of these.” I’m not a theologian—but on some level aren’t we all the least of these? To say that someone is the “least of these” is to imply that you’re the “best of these.” That’s an inherent problem in notion itself of “the least of these.”

If we just take the issue of relative power in society, yes, they are among the least of these. They don’t have access to the instruments of power. They don’t have access to the opportunity to be able to say “This is important! Hear me! Listen to me! See me!” They justifiably feel left out. Even though they may not be the “poor”—because a lot of these so-called Trump white-working-class voters are doing pretty well, above average median income–they feel disempowered, and in many ways they are disempowered.

If you look at the economy over the last fifty years, as a group, they are worse off now than they used to be. I don’t think most of us really understand or appreciate the challenge the working class has faced, especially men, since around 1972. Their income is flat or negative. They still believe in the American Dream, but it isn’t working for them. They saw their parents and grandparents do relatively well in the post-World War II economy—buy a boat or a a cabin on the lake. And they’re thinking “Where’s my boat? I can’t even afford to send my kids to college.” I don’t think we get how desperate they feel.

They’ve bought into some version of the meritocracy principle in which our outcomes are supposed to be based on ability and hard work. But they are beginning to doubt that hard work matters anymore. And in our larger national discourse, meritocracy has become problematic. In principle, who could have a problem with the notion that ability and effort should determine outcomes? In practice, however, people use success as a sign of their innate, superior qualities, failing to recognize advantages they had and assistance they’ve received. On the right we hear echoes of that in the embrace of Ayn Rand’s work.

But there is also a liberal side where those who succeed also believe in their inherent superiority—liberal elitism. This is the whole hoity-toity thing—eating organic food, correcting people’s grammar (even if only inside their own minds), sending their kid to enrichment camps in the summer—and a total cluelessness to how that looks to somebody not in that world. “Who wouldn’t want to live like me?” Because, you know, obviously—kale! It is the liberal sin of self-absorption and condescension.

If in some ways, the Trump voter is the “least of these,” how do we recognize them, listen to them, and yet at that same time disagree with them and challenge their views that are dangerous? Can you say, “You may be the least of these, but you’re also a fascist”?

Most of them aren’t. They are good people trying to make their way through the world just like us. Are there elements that are fascist? Sure. Are there elements that walked the streets of Charlottesville with Nazi flags? Yes. But those are outliers.

It is easy to assume that an anti-immigration stance is fundamentally rooted in racism. I think that is a mistake. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have racist characteristics or consequences, but the assumption that all these white working class voters hate black people is just not accurate. There is a racial subtext. Some are overt racists, but most aren’t.

The people Hochschild spent time with don’t have a serious problem with inequality but they fear that the opportunity to succeed, which is implicit in the American Dream, has been sabotaged. They feel they are doing things the right way but other people are cutting in line, such as poor people who receive government assistance, African Americans who benefit from affirmative action, immigrants from Mexico, professionals from India and China, refugees from Syria, and others. For them, such people aren’t playing by the rules. Then to make matters worse, the government assists these people in breaking the rules. Finally, adding insult to injury, liberal elites dismiss them as nothing but a bunch of redneck racists.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were told that “angry, white men” were a dying breed, soon to disappear. Was that misinformation, “fake news”?

One of my biggest realizations right around last year’s election was just our demographic reality. Only about one-third of people in the US have a college education, which means that two-thirds don’t. I know that, but every time I hear it, it hits me like a ton of bricks! It tells me how isolated my world is. And of course, there is an association between college education and political preference. It isn’t absolute by any means, but there is a pattern there.

The other thing is that whites haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since—what is it?—1964? Put those two together, and if there is some sort of white working class trends, it doesn’t take much to have a really significant effect on an election. Just a slight shift can bring about huge consequences. That’s what happened in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Rather seeing this divide it as red versus blue, “populist” may be a more helpful term. White working class voters supported Trump more than they support the Republican Party. They saw him as a champion, someone who said, “the system is rigged…the system is broke”— Bernie Sanders did this too—“but I am going to do something to make it work for you again.”

Jon, to the degree you’re willing, would you share a bit about your own story, your own background, and how that might inform your perspectives on all this?

I grew up in a working class family. My mom stayed home to raise us kids and my dad worked as a printer. My parents got divorced when I was seven, and that threw my mom, my siblings, and me into poverty. We received government assistance. The lights would get shut off. The gas got shut off.

I remember one Christmas—I see now in retrospect—that we didn’t have any money for Christmas presents. My mom bought felt and made dolls and ornaments from it so she’d have something to give at Christmas. To fill the little dolls she used pinto beans from the government surplus food we received, because who wants to eat pinto beans? I remember the canned chicken. It was horrible. The worst, the absolute worst, was powdered milk. But it was the milk we had.

The rest of the story is that when my mom remarried, she returned to college, got her degree, and became a public school teacher. I remember being a young kid and helping her with Spanish flashcards for her degree. The lesson I learned was “education is important.” At some point, I got a report card that was just average. My step-dad said, “You’re smarter than this. You can do better than this.” I thought, “Oh yeah. I guess I could.” And I did.

Then in seventh grade I got involved with Bible-quizzing. So I had to study the Bible. It was part of the Evangelical Free Church, and in eighth grade our Bible quiz team made it all the way to the national Free Church Youth Fellowship Bible Quizzing championship at Princeton University. That was another critical moment in my life. I was exposed to a whole other world I never knew existed. Leaded glass windows. Slate roofs. My world expanded in a dramatic way.

When I look back, I could just say “I’m great! I achieved the American dream!” but I know that’s not true. Did others have ability equal to mine? Absolutely, but they may not have had just the right people at just the right time encourage them to more fully realize their ability. Did I work hard? Sure, whatever.

JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has received a lot of attention as a helpful tool to understand all this. I know you’re not a huge fan of the book. Can you explain why? Your take on it, your critiques of it?

First, I think it is successful because it is possible to take away the message that you like. If you’re conservative, he clearly tells a story that the people in his Appalachian area are lazy and making bad choices. If you tend to think that about poor people, you can walk away believing that. If you’re liberal, you can walk away thinking that persistent structural inequality prevents these people from getting ahead.

Vance, who is conservative, tends toward the “bad choices” side, using the phrase “lack of agency.” My question is how are you going to explain the lack of agency, the lack of ability to choose what you like? As a sociologist, I would have liked to have seen a little more attention paid to the structural elements involving lack of access to material, social, and cultural resources.

In many ways, he’s me. I am that guy. Vance’s story and my own have similarities. I could look back at my people and say, “You people are lazy. You need to get to work.” But how do you reach that conclusion about your own people when you know the difficulties they face, the challenges, the efforts that they’ve made, the times they’ve tried and it’s not gone well, and the conclusion they sometimes reach at some point that “I just can’t try anymore because it feels like the whole world is up against me.” So I don’t know how you can just then say, “They’re just making bad decisions and are lazy.”

I am firm believer in the American Dream. I don’t disagree that we have a responsibility to make good choices in order to maximize our possible outcomes. That’s how I raised my daughters. It’s what I tell my students. We can explain lack of success in structural ways, but, at the individual level, it doesn’t matter if the challenges you face are structural because you can’t control that stuff. You can only control the choices you make. So make good choices. That’s not a bad message to send.

Yet, the rest of us who have the luxury of sitting back and analyzing things, should also be saying let’s try to create structures where more opportunity exists. You can’t say “Make good choices” and be done. We need to focus attention on greater equality of opportunity. If opportunity doesn’t exist, good choices won’t matter. The commitment to public education was a critical event in opening up opportunity. The GI Bill was another. This is where the “least of these” might really apply. How do we build a society with more opportunities, with fewer overlooked people?

Are there recent works that you believe are insightful and helpful in understanding the phenomenon of Trump supporters and the wider cultural trends?

I’ve mentioned Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. There is also Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. These are among the best. Hochschild went to Louisiana. Cramer did something similar in rural Wisconsin. Both are surprised by what they found—that the people they studied are just people. One of Cramer’s especially good insights that politics is more about identity than policies or facts. We all interpret fact through our lens of identity. So to dismiss people as irrational or duped is really just not to understand their identity.

Other good works include Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story, about a town in Wisconsin where the GM auto plant closes down; David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America emphasizes the value of family networks and uncovers what he calls the interlocking deficits of poverty; Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City uncovers the extent to which housing insecurity disrupts everything.

It’s also important to note that the dimension of race often falls off the table in these discussions when it comes to figuring out Trump. There is lots of talk about white working class, but what about all the African-American working class, who are working just as hard, suffering the same sorts of challenges, if not more? But they’re not turning to Trump. One book here is Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. We tend to think white equals “working class” and black equals “poor.” But there is a huge African-American working class. We need to pay attention to the issue of race and how it plays a part, and be alert to the ways we privilege the white working class perspective.

Any final thoughts, Jon?

I fear that our insufficiently explored cultural divides, which are exacerbated by the social media-fed cultural bubbles within which we reside, make deep understanding problematic. I believe that those of us with access to greater social, cultural, and material resources bear a greater responsibility to acknowledge our ignorance and climb over that empathy wall.

Comments 16

  1. This is really well done – bold, humble, nuanced, and a necessary and welcome addition to the many voices all trying to discern what is going on in our times. Thank you for for your humble wisdom! And, again, boldness – this is an empathy straining towards that of Christ’s.

  2. Thoughtful article… I sometimes wonder if our issue is far deeper than empathy for other groups however? Have we replaced an imagination for the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in the heavens’ for the American Dream?

    The later calls us to monetary success, a lifestyle that pillages God’s creation, and power that steps on people for our own gain. The ways of Jesus are something entirely different — and I sense our churches are largely incapable of speaking kingdom language, discipleship language, into the spaces into which we speak?

    thoughts?

  3. Pingback: The White Working Class, Trump & “the least of these” | Buffalo Doug

  4. Thanks to both of you for this conversation. It is bracing and on many points strikes me as being probably correct. But it also leaves me with a feeling of paralysis. It seems that even if I can somehow get across the “empathy wall”–and on the Strengthfinders analysis “Empathy” is my #1 strength–once I land on the other side, there is almost nothing I can say that will not be seen as condescending, elitist, vandalistic of the ostensibly wholly valid perspectives of others. If I suggest that their yearning for an America that used to be is to desire for something that either did not ever really exist or that–to the extent it did exist–it was bad for blacks, women, and Hispanics, I will be tossed out as condescending, as not actually being willing to be empathetic after all. If I express shock that morally upright Christians could look past Trump’s amorality and crudeness, I am told again that I just don’t get it, that Trump stands for enough good things that a world of bad things matters not a whit. If I stay silent and say I just want genuinely to listen–but if after listening I find points I would like to explore critically–I will once again be bounced out as a fake, as someone who has pre-settled conclusions on everything and so I am right back on the other side of that empathy wall after all. I would not expect a Trump voter to rubber stamp with approval my every perspective but I feel like if I lean even 15 degrees in the direction of not rubber stamping most every perspective of these neglected white folks, this only proves my elitism and makes me once more the enemy. Stalemate is the word that comes to mind. But maybe I am being way too “glass half empty” on this one . . .

    1. Scott, I think you’re right that you would have problems if you tried to jump the wall to understand why those people who voted for Trump, did so out of enthusiastic support, or as the lesser of two evils.

      If I may explain by pointing out two rejoinders to your comments, first you state that going back to sometime in the past is but a mythical idea, that in truth it would be bad for certain groups.

      Prior to the Great Society the percentage of two parent black households was higher than white. The unemployment rate amongst black teenagers was lower than white unemployment. Now the percentage of black children born to unwed mothers is over 70% and the unemployment rate of black teenagers is in the 40-50% range. (Statistics from Drs. Williams and Sowell) Both Williams and Sowell talk about growing up in inner cities were persons lived in harmony, doors were rarely locked and people looked out for each other. Now the inner-city intra-racial crime rate is staggering with doors and windows barricaded and people huddling in fear in their homes.

      After the Civil War, the first Black federal congressman and senators all came from the slave states, not the northern states and, as a side note, were all Republicans. Starting in the early part of the 20th century, the rise of Jim Crow laws and segregation was driven by Democratic politicians. The 1964 Civil Rights Act would not have passed but for Republican support.

      Have we/they really made progress since then?

      Second, the lesser of two evils, which is worse: voting for someone who claimed to be able to grab someone by the crotch? Or someone who pushed legislation to allow late term abortion; and in the case of the baby being born during the process, continue with killing that baby without fear of criminal reprisals? (Barack Obama, Illinois Senator)

      Which is worse: voting for someone who used the laws of bankruptcy to restructure his business? Or someone who lied about the events that led to the death of Americans in a foreign country? (Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State)

      So no, you don’t get it, but then neither do I, as I look at persons you support, but I would encourage you to try! Conversation with the goal of understanding certainly doesn’t occur when either side stays on one side or the other of the wall. Nor does it occur when landing on the other side with views intact about the moral high ground and only mouth shut to hear what each has to say.

      It’s past time to tear down the wall and I applaud the author for writing this piece and The Twelve for posting it. Let’s talk!

      1. Thanks for your reply, Mark. We both have known for a long time that we see the world through different lenses, and that’s fine. In my post I generally did not talk in terms of Republicans vs. Democrats from past history, though you generally did and tried to lay the blame for most racial and economic difficulties–particularly among blacks–at the feet of Democrats. That just doesn’t work. But yes, the Republican party is originally the party of Lincoln. And yes, rabid racists like George Wallace were Democrats. But in the Jim Crow era, there were not too many Southern politicians of either stripe that were super admirable. Though I will point out that due to a combination of factors–not all noble–it was the Texan Democrat Lyndon Johnson who accomplished so very much in Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act, and other matters. But if we want to go all partisan, then I will point out that it was the Republicans under Richard Nixon who embraced the Southern Strategy that exploited for political gain the rampant racism in the South, and the Republican record on race has not much improved since then. But as with most important matters, I don’t doubt that historically there is blame enough to go around. Finally, I cannot crack through to anyone who tends to believe every falsehood ever advanced on Hillary Clinton. But since you referenced Benghazi, I will remind you that the Republicans held seven investigations, untold hours of hearings, spent many, many millions of dollars and in the end . . . came up with a giant goose egg. Well, we both have work to return to so . . .

        1. Hello Mr. “‘Empathy’ is my #1 strength”. I would suggest to you that neither of your comments in this thread provide very good support for that assertion. But, carry on, because you seem very convinced of your own rightness…which was sort of addressed in the article, but who’s paying attention.

  5. I appreciate this discussion. Perhaps because I am not a regular reader of this blog, and certainly because of my own experience, when the discussion began I assumed it was begun by a Trump supporter: “In the days right after Trump’s election, lots of us were saying things like, “I need to understand this. These people can’t be that different than we are. If we just reach out, they are our neighbors.” That lasted about two weeks for me. What I found seemed so nasty, atrocious, and hateful.” That was my experience when greeting Clinton voters. For example, I told a friend I took no joy in her sadness. She responded that she wasn’t sad, she was angry. Since the election, anti-Trumpers have displayed a great deal of anger, nastiness, and hate. Yes, such displays appear on all sides.

    I would say the issue is tribalism, which seems to have exacerbated in recent years. True, I now see that it existed when I was young and was leaving the Vance-described environment: what’s wrong with where you are, I was asked. And a colleague had been asked the same thing when he left Brooklyn. So tribalism is not new. But it’s more pronounced now, driven by — well, the people of institutions which drive such divisions.

    Understanding “others” is a cop-out. Connecting is key, as was mentioned in the other post I read on this blog. Can’t you find commonalities with “others” that allow you to connect without getting hung up on differences?

  6. I, too, appreciate this addition to our need for better understanding.
    But I still face the fact that many Trump voters I know personally don’t fit the profile so well described in this blog.
    They’re economically successful, educated, people of faith, but driven by a vision I’m still trying to understand better.
    And there is quite clearly a wide divide among the various Trump voters as well.

  7. Reverend,

    Allow me to construct two hypothetical situations that will allow you to have empathy for deplorable Trump voters without an ensuing case of (liberal) condescension:

    1. Suppose that the US would experience a huge influx of illegal immigrants that gravitated towards jobs in seminaries and the social science departments of colleges and universities across the country. Suppose these workers were hired by these colleges at a much lower wage that the native born professors. After 30 years, the native born professors either were forced out of their field of work or were working for the same wage rate as 30 years ago.

    That’s what many tradesmen in your community have experienced.

    2. Suppose the higher education bubble in this country, fueled by federal government dollars, burst. Many small private colleges (like, ahem, Calvin) that do not have a solid financial position no longer were able to survive, or at least would be forced to lay off many of their employees. Many middle-aged white guys would find themselves with a skill set nobody demands.

    That’s also what many people in your community experienced in 2008.

    Would that help you have empathy?

    Beyond the poor, rural folk that voted for Trump, there are many people who voted for Trump for reasons that may be above the reasoning abilities of people who spend their lives cocooned in academic environments: Trump was by far the better choice to roll back the Regulatory and Welfare State that has been so detrimental to human flourishing both in this country and especially in other countries that embrace big government more enthusiastically. I don’t mean to condescend, but you people simply do not have experiential intelligence that others do.

    Oh, yeah, and abortion. God bless Neil Gorsuch. And whomever replaces Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kennedy.

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