Home / General / The Politics of Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class

The Politics of Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class



Above: Not the middle class

The state of mainstream country music is, to say the least, a mixed bag. The Nashville radio formula that has dominated the art form for over twenty years creates same-sounding singers who try to best each other in paeans to fun with the boys down by the creek with their wholesome girlfriends or wives alongside. Of course, a lot of alternative country, whatever that means in 2015, is great, but most of that does not tap into a mainstream audience.

Yet even if much of what comes out of Nashville is bad, perhaps no cultural form provides a better window into the state of the white working and middle classes than country music. For all the music’s current cheesiness, the genre has long represented the yearnings and politics of the everyday whites who listen to it. The demographics may have changed from the rural South in the 1930s to the suburbanites who make its listenership today, but the lyrical content has always intended to appeal to a large swathe of workaday whites, whether Tennessee farmers in 1932, southern migrants to Detroit factory jobs in 1956, or Charlotte suburban residents in 2015.

Most on the left usually ignores country music, seeing it as a mire of right-wing resentment best avoided, shunned, and ridiculed. This attitude betrays snobbishness toward working class people to the sound of the banjos in Deliverance. There’s no question that country music, like the southern white working class where it originated, has a deep conservatism. The banjo player Earl Scruggs was called the only man in country music who voted for George McGovern in 1972; his old partner Lester Flatt was more typically writing songs about hippies with lines such as “I can’t tell the boys from the girls.” From the string band pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson playing a role in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank to the cheap jingoism of Toby Keith and his bro knockoffs, the left has rarely had reason to take country music seriously as an art form that expressed the potential for solidarity.

That doesn’t mean country music hasn’t had its left-populist streaks. Going back at least to Roy Acuff’s “Old Age Pension Check,” a celebration of Social Security that venerates Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the music has occasionally reflected a politics of universal improvement that suggests a bit of class-consciousness. But more often, the politics of resentment has taken over. For all that people have attempted to explain away Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” by saying it tells his father’s side of the hippie story (especially since Haggard was definitely smoking marijuana in Muskogee), “Fighting Side of Me,” his follow-up hit that attacked Vietnam protestors, is just ugly and awful. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the nastiness of the country music response to the protests of the 1960s, which created a whole subgenre of songs dedicated to hating hippies, perhaps personified in Autry Inman’s “The Ballad of Two Brothers,” contrasting an older brother fighting in Vietnam to his worthless hippie brother protesting in the streets, who only learns how he has betrayed American values after the brother dies in Vietnam. During these years, popular country music became a vehicle for expressing white working class contempt for anti-war protestors and hippies, even as hippies such as Gram Parsons broadened its horizons and sympathetic figures such as Johnny Cash complicated its mainstream message.

On a rare occasion, something good both comes out of mainstream Nashville and has an interesting political message. Angaleena Presley’s excellent 2014 album American Middle Class suggests the complexity of how country music politics represent the limits of white political consciousness. How often do we see an album of any genre dedicated to dissecting class in any conscious way? Very rarely. So from a political perspective, this is already interesting. Songs like “Pain Pills,” “Grocery Store,” and “Knocked Up” tell well-crafted stories about the white working class that show great sympathy and sensitivity for everyday people.

But that her album is titled American Middle Class and not “American Working Class” says a great deal, for not even Presley can escape the divisive politics that undermine class solidarity in the United States. The album’s title track opens with Presley’s father, a Kentucky coal miner for thirty years, talking about life in the mines. He explains the hard work, how the companies “make thousands and thousands of dollars” while the workers get almost nothing. He closes by saying “It ain’t no life really.”

How on earth is a poor Kentucky coal miner middle class? The answer is that in this song, as in much of America, middle class actually means “white.” See how Presley frames her father’s words in the song:

Now daddy can’t get his pension or Social Security
worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families
struggle hard and hide it well, you sure ain’t rich and you sure as hell ain’t poor enough to get one little break
’cause everything would collapse
without the hardworking God-loving members of the American middle class

“Worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families.” This line says so much about the problems of class and racial solidarity in the United States. Of course Presley doesn’t mention race directly. No mainstream singer would in 2014. The politics of overt racial resentment are too toxic today. But the lightly obscured politics of race are as powerful as ever. “Welfare” mostly means “black people cashing their welfare checks while rolling up to the store in their Cadillac and then ordering a t-bone steak” has a decades-long history by now. It is worth noting of course that in much of the South there is also a white underclass that also receives the welfare stigma from society and she may well mean those people too, but there’s no way to define coal mining as a middle class job.

Presley is also mostly wrong about what her father’s money funded. That tax money went to a military buildup, the nation’s oversized and racist prison system, servicing the nation’s debt, and replacing the high tax rates once paid by the rich. In 2012, the 1 percent became the richest in recorded history earning 19.3 percent of American income, surpassing the previous record of 18.7 percent, set in 1927, just before this income inequality contributed to the Great Depression. Between 1979 and 2007, the one percent captured 53.9 percent of the increase in U.S. income while average income for our elites grew by 200.5 percent versus just 18.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent. Between 1978 and 2011, CEO pay rose 726.5 percent versus 5.7 percent for workers.

This doesn’t mean the song is wrong or bad. Presley may well be presenting her and her father’s point of view, one typical of much of the white working class. Presley grew up in Beauty, Kentucky. That is in Martin County, on the West Virginia border, deep in Appalachia. Martin County is over 99 percent white. Thirty-seven percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. Despite this, Martin County gave Mitt Romney 83 percent of its vote in 2012, compared to 15 percent for Barack Obama. This was one of the highest votes for Romney in the state, with more than 89 percent of nearby Leslie County voting for Romney being his highest. If these people vote, it’s overwhelmingly for a political party with the open agenda of destroying the social safety net they benefit from at higher rates than most of the country. Even when some of the mine jobs were union, these were not middle class folks; coal mining was always dangerous and not well-paid. But the mythology of the middle class can exist when you see people who are below you in social class. In Martin County and evidently for Presley, that’s largely black people, people who do not live there, who are in Louisville, Cincinnati, New York City. These are the others taking money from the hard working taxpayers of Martin County, even as social services flow into that impoverished place.

This nation has a toxic relationship with class and race. The politics of middle class mythology reinforce the corporate powers that increasingly control our lives. If all whites are middle class–or all whites who include lifelong coal miners left with nothing–then politics that actually promote the interests of the poor are undermined. If the poor consider themselves “middle class,” how do we create institutions that effectively demand a more robust welfare state and worker power? I’m not sure we can until we disconnect popular ideas of class from race. And given the upsurge in racism over the past seven years, we are far from accomplishing that goal.

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  • matt w

    How did Martin County vote in 2000 and 2004?

    • It doesn’t list percentages, but here are raw totals. Big votes for Bush, but not nearly as big as for Romney.

      It went for McCain 76-21.

      But if you really want to know that this about race, in the 2008 Democratic Primary, Martin County went Clinton 90-7.

      • Jackov

        45/650 voters in the Democratic primary and Obama receive 800 votes in the general an increase of 1675%

        Democratic primary voters in Martin County may all be racists but they still pull the lever for their party’s candidate in the general election.

        • Brien Jackson

          Given the national patterns of Democratic primary voters, they might not even be that racist per se.

    • sibusisodan

      This site – bit fiddly – gives the following:

      Martin Country Republican %
      2008: 76.5%
      2004: 66.0%
      2000: 59.9%

      I _think_ they went for Clinton in 1996 and HW in 1992, but the vote % is not available.

  • Malaclypse

    If we’re going to speak of country songs that transcend right-wing resentment, I’m rather partial to this.

    • Nick056

      Well, I like Emmylou, but Hard Times isn’t exactly a country song.

  • Gregor Sansa

    you sure as hell ain’t poor enough to get one little break

    Saying “middle” instead of “working” is just words. But this “poors have it easy” shit is toxic.

    • SgtGymBunny

      But this “poors have it easy” shit is toxic.

      Yep. Anybody who thinks this generally has no clue how little income people must have in order to qualify for certain welfare programs. Nor do they appreciate how miserable life is at that those poverty income level. If life on welfare is that wonderful, I recommend that they switch places and see how high on that hog they could live.

      I look at the poverty level qualifications (granted, I’m probably misinterpreting the administrative minutiae that may be involved), and think “Oh, HELL NO!!!”. There’s nothing alluring about making less than 12K in a year just so I could qualify for certain welfare programs. I’m no spendthrift, but I’d have to give up a lot of really nice shit in order to qualify for welfare: my own apartment, my car, my gym membership, my internet/cell phone plans, my taste for fine cheeses, the occasional outing to the movies/restaurant, my independence, my certainty that when I pay for food at the grocer’s, the yahoo in line behind me isn’t evaluating whatever’s in my shopping basket and thinking that someone should have pee-tested me before letting me in the store…

      • DAS

        I don’t think people who think this have “no clue how little income people must have”. I think they know very well that “if I were lazy and didn’t work at all, I’d have no income so I’d qualify for all that good government money, but since I work, I don’t qualify for all those benefits”. Politically, the problem is that Democrats are seen as (only) supporting those programs that benefit the very poor (while Republicans are seen as only benefiting the rich, so both sides are equally bad, yadda, yadda, yadda) as well as “those people” (darker hued folks, folks who have alternate lifestyles, etc.). Of course, liberal economists are at the forefront of saying that government programs need to do more to benefit working-class folks, etc. … but how many people read Krugman op-eds vs. get their news from the TeeVee?

        • SgtGymBunny

          “if I were lazy and didn’t work at all, I’d have no income so I’d qualify for all that good government money, but since I work, I don’t qualify for all those benefits”.

          The weird thing about this is that people who receive benefits do work. They’re the minimum-wage, part-time working poor. To my understanding, barring disability, most recipients of welfare are required to have some form of employment. I’m sure the folks who espouse this belief are a little behind the curve, but whaddya expect.

          It’s really just a simple lack of empathy and compassion. Also, I think it’s more that they take for granted all the benefits that go along with already having sufficient income. They don’t seem to make the connection that $12,000 annually, even with additional welfare benefits, is really a shitty amount of money to have to house, clothe, feed and transport oneself to, probably, a minimum-wage, part-time job. Ergo, the “lucky duckies who got it easy” schtick.

          And I say this as someone who is “working class“. I cannot look at anybody making a fourth of my income and think they’ve got it “easy“. Though I’m fortunate enough, I wouldn’t even characterize my own fare as easy. I honestly cannot fathom living off of 12K (the max, btw) and welfare. People do, and they make it work. But “easy” it is not…

      • Davis X. Machina

        …that’s because you were raised right.

        They are different. They don’t have the same feelings we do. They‘re used to it.

        And so forth…

        • Yankee


          • jamesepowell

            Total lack of empathy

  • Nobdy

    Presley is also mostly wrong about what her father’s money funded. That tax money went to a military buildup, the nation’s oversized and racist prison system, servicing the nation’s debt, and replacing the high tax rates once paid by the rich.

    That’s assuming that her father paid federal income tax, which he probably didn’t if he was as poor as you suggest. That means his taxes went towards A) Funding the social security that he apparently can’t get for unspecified reasons (I assume the suggestion is the old right wing canard that the system is broke and current retirees won’t get payments for long) and B) State boondoggles, like sports stadiums and big corporate tax breaks.

    Some probably did go to prisons though. Wherever you pay taxes you’re paying to lock people, disproportionately minorities, up.

    It’s worth noting that keeping someone in prison is ridiculously more expensive than providing the extremely limited welfare payments that this country provides.

    • CaptainBringdown

      That means his taxes went towards A) Funding the social security that he apparently can’t get for unspecified reasons …

      My guess would be that he started working in the mines when he was young, say 20, so thirty years later he isn’t old enough to collect.

      • Nobdy

        And he probably can’t get disability for his black lung, I guess thanks to that doctor at Johns Hopkins. LIBRULS!

        But it says that he “can’t get his pension or social security” which I did not interpret as “there is a gap between the end of his working life and when his benefits kick in.” Because the answer to that is to lower the social security retirement age, which LIBRUL Paul Krugman has called for, precisely for this reason. Most people can work in an office until they’re 65 or even 70, but many fewer are going to be able to last that long in a coal mine.

        • CaptainBringdown

          The other answer, I suppose, is for him to haul himself and his oxygen tank down to the local WalMart and get a minimum wage job stocking shelves for a decade plus and hope he lives long enough to see SS benefits kick in.

          Good times.

          • Nobdy

            That NPR report about disability a few years back was very eye opening to me. When the woman said that the job she’d be best qualified for was Social Security Disability examiner just because it was the only seated job she could think of…

      • Rob in CT

        It’s hard to say, given that it’s just one line in a song. He “can’t get” his pension or social security. That could mean that the company screwed him out of his pension and he’s too young for SS. Or it could mean that, due to Sooper Seekrit Welfare, his SS was given to “welfare families” or somesuch. Maybe the same mysterious process is what took away his pension. Who’s to know? It’s not clear, but the audience for this sort of music is likely to draw the latter conclusion. It doesn’t even have to be that direct. And it does not have to make sense.

        The overall, toxic as hell, message boils down to:

        You work hard. They (libruls) take your money and give it to undeserving people. The rich have it made, the poor have it made, and it’s YOU that gets screwed. So hey, yeah, that rich politician is probably a jerk but at least he’ll lower taxes and cut off those leaches, so vote for him…

        • Davis X. Machina

          Maybe the same mysterious process is what took away his pension. Who’s to know?

          If you told him where his pension went, he wouldn’t believe you.

          He’s impervious to the fact that money disappears up as well as down.

          • DrS

            Romney broke companies to get at their pension funds and yet…

  • Kurzleg

    Most on the left usually ignores country music, seeing it as a mire of right-wing resentment best avoided, shunned, and ridiculed. This attitude betrays snobbishness toward working class people to the sound of the banjos in Deliverance.

    And yet Presley’s music appears to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s of right-wing resentment. Plus, it doesn’t seem like Presley is expressing any things politically that aren’t already well-known features of right-wing politics. Certainly the bridges of race and class that we’ve yet to cross are no secret.

    If there’s one reason to take heed of musical expression such as Presley’s, it’s that music is a far more effective means of reinforcing right-wing ideology than FOX News ever has or will be. When criticism of “welfare” is a regular feature of the entertainment enjoy, then you’ve got passive reinforcement the further ingrains these notions. Even this phenomena isn’t exactly a secret.

    So I guess I don’t feel so bad about being a snob when it comes to “country” music. As you admit, the music itself isn’t especially good, and it’s chock full of well-worn political/social commentary that’s neither a surprise nor interesting. YMMV, I guess.

    • “And yet Presley’s music appears to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s of right-wing resentment”

      But it doesn’t! Even this song is just confused. Most of the album is a really well focused understanding the hard lives of working class people.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Confused is no excuse for passing on the usual shit about how taxes go to welfare bum in her lyrics about the hard lives of middle-class Americans.

        • Kurzleg

          Right. The more I think about it, the “welfare” line is just boilerplate and lazy writing. I suppose I should listen to the entire record to see if there’s anything that rises above that level, but frankly, I’m not particularly motivated to do so.

      • Kurzleg

        Ok, well I’m basing my response on the lyric you quote. Maybe it’s not representative, but it doesn’t really pique my curiosity.

  • Aimai

    Thank you for this brilliant post. I’m a long time lover of country music though I basically gave up on its modern iterations after the war with Iraq. As a friend said–its one of the few musical traditions that is all about narrative, and I love stories. Lots to chew over in this post.

    • I tried to get it published in a couple of places but couldn’t get a response. No one cares about country music.

      • Thom

        No Depression?

        • I was going to go that route, but decided to just publish here instead. Part of it was being too busy/lazy to keep pitching it.

          • JMF_MN

            Seriously? It’s a terrific article that by no means dismisses the artistry of country-music performers. Kinda surprised some venues didn’t think country music is important (has been for decades, still is.) Bizarre.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        they’ve kind of written the listeners off as people who are either too stupid to understand that the way they vote screws themselves over or too racist to care, haven’t they

      • Karen24

        I am an actual East Texas hillbilly, and I grew up on this music. If I have any class resentment left from my childhood it’s that popular music marketed to everyone else gets respect but country music, the lineal descendent of medieval ballads, doesn’t, mostly because of snobbery against lower class white people. Yeah, the current corporate dreck is appalling, but is it really that much worse than Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Celine Dion, et cetera et cetera? Popular music has always had a few great artists and a lot of crap. Marketing and advertising consultants like crap much better than quality in every area to which they direct their malevolent gazes and music is no exception.

        I loved country music as a kid and still listen to those old songs because they told stories. They used the ballad form because they were ballads in the classic literary sense.

        • Kurzleg

          I think you’ll find the same level of disdain for “popular” music heard on the radio as you do for “country” music.

          Being from the Upper Midwest, I never cared much for country music in my youth. It’s grown on me since, but I’m pretty selective in terms of what I own: Junior Brown, Dwight Yoakam, Drivin ‘n Cryin (not strictly country, but…), some Hank Williams, John Prine (more folk than country perhaps), some Merle Haggard. May be others I’d enjoy, but…

        • busker type

          I agree with you on this, but it’s incomplete:

          I think the “I like all music… except country” and the “I like all music… except rap” communities are pretty much equally large and equally vapid.

          Incidentally rap is also (and today much more so, I think) the heir to ancient musical/literary traditions. Same could be said of a lot of Mexican popular music today.

          I guess my point is that all music that is identified with working class people is looked down at to some degree, regardless of its artistic merit. Polka anyone?

          • Karen24

            Good point about polka music. Interestingly there are a lot of country and Mexican polkas out there. (I adore Flaco Jiminez.).

            I’ve never made the effort to learn about rap, mainly because I worked with an Eminem fan and if I never hear his voice again it will be to soon. I do have a shameful love of “Baby Got Back,” though.

          • John Selmer Dix

            Wait, I don’t think disliking all rap and all country are equivalent.

            I’ve become pretty partial to country music now that I’m a little older, but I hated it when I was younger, because it was such an accommodating home for racists and reactionaries. I went to high school in rural Florida, and this was the music of the people who hated me and my friends because we weren’t white or American, so fuck them and their redneck music. So hatred of country music can come from upper-class snootiness, but it can also come from non-white people who understand that country music is often the battle flag of reactionary white people.

            But saying you like all music “except rap” is, in almost all cases, a racist dogwhistle. It’s the phrasing: I know plenty of people who don’t like rap and aren’t racist, but they tend to speak positively rather than negatively, like “I’m more into classical music/R&B/etc.”

            • Origami Isopod

              Even bigger dogwhistle: “Rap isn’t music.”

            • busker type

              you make a good point.

          • Matty

            There’s a surprising amount of overlap between the two, in the early Facebook era (ca. 2005, when it was still very tied to specific college networks) you’d see a lot of people with “Everything except rap and country” in their favorite music section, which is basically a cute way of saying that they were good middle class whites from Hinsdale or somewhere like that.

            • Brien Jackson

              Middle class white college kids love them some rap.

            • busker type

              In light of all this I think I’ll start telling people “I don’t like any music except rap and country.”

              which is actually not that far from the truth if you define country broadly.

        • SgtGymBunny

          I, for one, have never really understood the “I listen to all types of music except country” qualification that I always hear from people. I honestly just never got it.

          Granted I grew up in eastern NC where it was ubiquitous. I found some of it obnoxious, but I never hated it. I’m pretty sure I have a really good reason for why I’ve always considered country music a close relation to rhythm and blues.

          • busker type

            Yeah, there’s a good reason for that…

            Basically the history of country music, from the Carter Family to Florida Georgia Line, is a history of white performers borrowing black music and making it white.

            And I say this as a white person who plays country music for a living.

            Have you read Tressie Macmillan Cottom’s essay on the sociology of Hick-Hop? It’s brilliant.

            • matt w

              Not to take away from your point, but it seems like you could say the same thing about rock and roll, and electronic dance music, and basically any form of American popular music played by white people.

              • Ronan

                Not really, I don’t think. They built on, influenced and borrowed from each other (and obviously whites were more likely to provide “the respectable face” of the music) but I don’t think stealing, or a one way borrowing, is the right way of looking at it

                • Ronan

                  Ps cottoms essay , mentioned above, is worth looking up

                • Karen24

                  Yeah, this. Black musicians used Celtic melodies syncopation, white musicians used black harmonies, melodies and the call and response form.

                • SgtGymBunny

                  Yes, Karen24, especially in a lot of the old-timey gospel songs. I understand that churches were often launching points from non-gospel singing careers for both country and blues artist.

                • Karen24

                  Exactly SgtBunny, and if you want to feel the icy burn of contempt for your taste, admit to liking gospel music. I love old gospel, from The Soul Stirrers through Mahalia Jackson, the Gaithers and the Blackwood Brothers.

                • Origami Isopod
                • SgtGymBunny

                  Yes, when the 2004 version of The Ladykillers came out, I was rather obsessed with the original gospel songs on the soundtrack. I don’t think I will ever stop loving “Come, Let Us Go Back to God”. Soul stirring, indeed…

                • matt w

                  People show contempt for you when you admit to liking gospel music? Forget those clowns.

                  Really, I’d have thought that gospel was pretty hipster-acceptable. Even shape-note singing has gotten some points with the NPR set (or maybe was about ten years or so or whenever Cold Mountain came out–I was, of course, into it before it was mainstream, thanks to the Anthology of American Folk Music reissue, which was mainstream before I was into it).

              • busker type

                yeah for sure. The difference is that none of those styles are so strongly identified with whiteness.

                I mean, rock music is pretty white these days, but everybody knows it was once black, and then Elvis.

                But people have this notion that the Carter Family and Bill Monroe sang some sort of pure unadulterated white mountain music handed down through the generations of Scots-Irish settlers… but both of those artists were heavily influenced by black singers. As were Jimmy Rogers, Bob Wills, Merle Travis, etc. etc.

                • Thom

                  everybody knows it was once black, and then Elvis

                  Where everybody=those over 70 and those deeply interested in the history of rock music.

                • drkrick

                  Bill Monroe and his uncle Pen Vandiver used to back up a local AA bluesman named Arnold Schulz at dances around Rosine, KY before he moved to Chicago. He was always open about the influence that music had when he was putting together to very consciously commercial synthesis that became bluegrass.

                • Origami Isopod

                  I mean, rock music is pretty white these days, but everybody knows it was once black, and then Elvis.

                  I agree with Thom. The information is out there if you look for it, but how many white people do?

          • Linnaeus

            I, for one, have never really understood the “I listen to all types of music except country” qualification that I always hear from people. I honestly just never got it.

            Granted I grew up in eastern NC where it was ubiquitous….

            There you have it, methinks. I grew up in the upper Midwest where country music really doesn’t have a strong presence until you get into the rural areas of the region, and even then it’s probably not as much as you’ll find in other parts of the country.

            I just didn’t grow up listening to it. Neither of my parents liked it (at all), and you didn’t hear a whole lot of it on the radio (and where I lived was a rather significant radio market). I’m still not an avid listener of country music. I recognize its legitimacy as an art form and as entertainment and I don’t disdain people who like it, but it’s not a genre of music I listen to very much.

        • Mike G

          popular music marketed to everyone else gets respect

          Yes, Republicans give so much respect to rap music. Fox News expresses their admiration for rap culture and the people who sing it and listen to it all the time.

          • Linnaeus

            A friend of mine used to play in a cover band and they’d do gigs at various pubs and bars and whatnot in the area. The owner of one of the establishments that hired them said to my friend and his bandmates, “Remember what ZIP code you’re in”.

            Hm. I wonder what he could have meant?

      • dn

        Really? That sucks. It’s a great piece and the kind of thing I wish you would do more of (along with all the stuff you already do; I’m greedy that way).

    • SgtGymBunny

      The post-9/11 era was so weird. Every morning in my high school drafting class, the radio was always on the country station (I grew up in NC), and I can still remember how abruptly they stopped playing the Dixie Chicks after the Bush-comment kerfuffle.

      • Lee Rudolph

        I am so glad to hear of someone else who took drafting in secondary school (albeit my own drafting class—under the name of “Mechanical Drawing”—was in junior high, not high school). It was undoubtedly the most useful class I had in junior high, and I long (and selfishly) harbored a wish that it be required as a prerequisite for calculus.

        I don’t exactly recall what you’re working at now, but it doesn’t seem to me you’re actively using drafting. Have you at least benefited from learning to letter legibly (if you didn’t know how going in)? (I suspect that it’s all CAD-CAM now, so probably you didn’t letter at all. Oh well.)

        • Davis X. Machina

          Drafting-as-a-profession is in real trouble for the same reason a lot of other jobs are. BLS 10-year estimate for growth is 1%

          Our vocational center went from having a competition-winning drafting sequence to nothing at all in 10 years.

          The learning curve on CAD software kept getting steeper and steeper, which drove students away, while the industries that employed the graduates either closed, or moved away, or outsourced, or in-sourced their drafting.

          Word processors made every executive his own (bad) typist, CAD made every architect his own (often bad) draftsman.

          • Porlock Junior

            In the early days, often very reluctant typists and draftsmen. In the early 80s, when personal computers were seriously catching on, it was common for executives not to use computers to do their own typing, and to advertise the fact as a matter of status. (My view of those years was not inside a bank, but a growing technology startup.)

            And architects, believe it or not, were a hard CAD market to develop at first. We certainly had a hard time learning this. But many architects were proud of their drawing skills and had a rather Luddite attitude to soulless machines that produced drawings that looked as if a machine had made them, whereas an architect’s work had human warmth in it. So they told us, repeatedly. That started changing rapidly after 1990 or so.

            But speaking of technological fads that no one could love — remember ransom-note typography?

        • SgtGymBunny

          I sometimes even forget myself that I had 3 years of drafting in high school, was even President of the School VICA club for two years, and one an award or two at regional and state drafting competitions! Ha! No, I’m not actively drafting (archictecture school drop-out, I admit it), but I still have a lot of my drafting supplies for some reason. I actually thought about this after yesterday’s carpentry piece.

          My teacher, was pretty good with both paper and CAD. A real hard ass about smudge-free cleanliness and using straight edges to letter. So, yes, even to this day I still have egregiously obvious all-caps, block letter handwriting.

          • Matty

            I genuinely miss drafting (I also had it as a class in High School for a couple years, and did the drafting parts of our state math and science competition). Paper drafting is one of the most enjoyable experiences I can think of.

            • SgtGymBunny

              Ahhh, man… I loved perspective drawing… Now I’m getting the urge to price a small drafting table… I am mad as hell that I managed to “lose” my drafting board that I had in college.

          • Porlock Junior

            Never took drafting, myself. Wound up, instead, in an early CAD startup at age 40.

        • Linnaeus

          I took a drafting class in junior high as well. I was awful at it and it was strong confirmation of my view that anything drawing related was not something I should do for a living.

  • nocomment

    If these people vote, it’s overwhelmingly for a political party with the open agenda of destroying the social safety net they benefit from…

    The late Joe Bageant discusses this phenomenon in “Deer Hunting with Jesus”.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The simple, and complete, identification of ‘self-interest’ with economic self-interest is a leftist Achilles heel that goes all the way back to the earliest days of socialism, and the general strikes that didn’t happen in July and August of 1914.

      The late Stuart Hall on the origins of Thatcherism among working-class Tories suggests it’s a widespread phenomenon.

      • nocomment

        Never thought of the two as separate; good point.

        • Origami Isopod

          See also Corey Robin‘s commentary on what he calls democratic feudalism.

          “In other words, give more than a small group of individuals, more than a small circle of aristocrats the opportunity to have a flavor of the kind of the kind of power that feudal aristocrats had back in the day.” Male privilege in everyday life, and the power that bosses have over subordinates—common factors in workplace sexual harassment—are typical examples of this. So are imperialist foreign policies. Any practice raising one group above all others fits this pattern.

      • Mike G

        Imagine you’re a working-class white person in Appalachia.
        One party promises the abstract concept of economic improvement. Maybe it hurts your pride to face the fact that you need economic improvement.
        The other party doesn’t bother offering anything economically but gives you the false pride of telling you you’re better than that other outgroup.
        Which one wins?

    • nocomment

      Now that I think about it, Bageant’s narrative of Appalachias’ participation (through elections, among other things) in it’s economic withering is the thematic basis for his book.

  • Thom

    Given the funny spelling of her name, she must be black, right?

    Ok. I think you are right, mostly, about “middle class” suggesting whiteness. But I think it also is a term that references respectable, hard-working, church-going. And so people writing or enjoying such a song could allow for black or brown people who were also middle class in this sense. And I do think it’s important that the steady-job working class people like miners could well be resentful of poor whites perceived as lazy “takers.” Thanks for this post, Erik.

    • Aimai

      I think it has an ambiguity which amounts to plausible deniability for the reasons you’ve pointed out, Thom. You can’t know because you can’t know what images come to mind for a given listener, based on their own symbology, belief system, and personal history. But I wouldn’t bet against racism being the dominant interpretive schema.

      • Kurzleg

        I wouldn’t either. As noted upthread, Martin County voted for Bush in 2000 and 2008 but in nowhere near the numbers they voted for Romney/against Obama in 2012. There’s a limit to what conclusions one can draw from the disparity, but it certainly hints that race ranks fairly high on the list.

      • dn

        I wonder when, exactly, the meaning of “middle class” began to take on its present meaning or lack thereof? Reagan era?

    • Karen24

      Judging from the attitudes of my family, there is probably more resentment directed toward what we called “sorry” white people, for the paradoxical reason that white people were supposed to be better than black people. I have been reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the descriptions of the Ewells, and the attitude of the town toward them, contains a level of contempt far beyond any directed toward the black characters. The same thing is apparent in all of Faulkner and even “Gone With The Wind.” Margaret Mitchell wrote Mammy as the sympathetic moral center of her deeply flawed moral universe but portrayed the Slatterys as despicable. the source of this attitude is certainly racism, but the effects are harsh on lower class whites.

      There is also the fact that the behaviors encapsulated in the phrase “trailer trash”. — laziness, filth, addiction, ignorance — are mostly indefensible if the person exhibiting them has any option at all. There is a lot of merit in the ideal of respectability; a respectable person makes the effort to improve herself. In fact, a lot of the resentment directed toward hippies and the rich comes from the same place. Even I can get steamed at the Kardashians, who with every advantage of wealth and position squander their blessings on ugly clothes and floor seats to the Lakers. For those of us who never had the chances they’ve had, to see them use those chances on such trivia is offensive. Rejecting the idea of respectability outright is a mistake on our part.

      • matt w

        …what’s wrong with floor seats to the Lakers?

        • Origami Isopod

          Good question.

        • Karen24

          If someone has, and always has had, access to the finest education possible, if the ONLY thing they use it for is to get access to stupid pop culture, well, I think that’s despicable. The Kardashians could have been anything — diplomats, translators, scientists, museum curators — and they consciously chose to waste all their advantages showing the world just how dimwitted and crass they are.

          • JR in WV

            Karen, it takes intelligence and taste to become “diplomats, translators, scientists, museum curators”. You have to be intellectual at some level above just watching TV for entertainment.

            The Kardashians could have been shop-keepers, small business operators, restauranteurs, etc. But I think assuming that most (or even any) of them could have become scientists is a long reach from reality.

            I know scientists, I went to college with many fellow students who now travel the whole planet running clinical trials, or who build databases for genetic information about their proprietary plant species. That’s hard to learn, very hard. I don’t think the K family has what it takes.

            Floor tix for the Lakers, that’s more their speed.

      • Davis X. Machina

        I have been reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the descriptions of the Ewells, and the attitude of the town toward them, contains a level of contempt far beyond any directed toward the black characters.

        Would the town have lynched a Ewell?

        • Karen24

          No, and that’s what makes this so frustrating. We hurl justified contempt on people who do t make the effort to be respectable while simultaneously punishing people from disfavored groups with darker skin color who try to achieve respectability.

          • brettvk

            An excellent summation.

            • Karen24


              There have been a few politicians who got this, Bill Clinton being the most recent one. Obama has made some nods in that direction and gotten exactly zero credit for it, which is the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written.

          • tribble

            Those are two sides of the same coin. Both actions serve to defend the “respectable” white middle class identity.

            • Origami Isopod

              Yep, this.

            • Linnaeus


          • Origami Isopod

            No, it is not “justified.” Why the hell should anyone have to aspire to prim middle-class standards in order to be taken seriously? Especially when middle-class people and those of higher socioeconomic status have plenty of dysfunctions themselves but have the money and standing to have them hushed up?

            Respectability politics sucks. The end.

          • punishing people from disfavored groups with darker skin color who try to achieve respectability.

            Ha ha ha. That joke always makes me laugh because we know there’s no level of “respectability” that non-whites can achieve that will appease the ultimate arbiters of who gets punished for not being “respectable.” (And if they do get too respectable you can punch ’em for being uppity.)

          • Brien Jackson

            They have such contempt for them that they convicted Tom Robinson of rape anyway.

      • Origami Isopod

        I have been reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the descriptions of the Ewells, and the attitude of the town toward them, contains a level of contempt far beyond any directed toward the black characters.

        Because the black characters aren’t considered as even the potential equals of the white ones. Atticus Finch is pretty damned paternalistic toward them.

        As for “trailer trash,” the far more widespread phrase is “white trash,” which implies that it’s unusual for “trash” to be white.

  • Nobdy

    I’d also like to add that I think a lot of current racism and other issues relates to status, and specifically fear of being the lowest person on the totem pole. This study is imperfect but revealing in that it shows how people react to status threat by perceived outsiders.

    It’s economically irrational to vote Republican when you’re a poor white, but if you care more about maintaining your status as second lowest then racism (and its creation of a lower status category) may be more important than some economic gain. It also helps explain why people earning $14 an hour don’t support a minimum wage of $15 an hour even if they’d benefit economically. They would rather maintain their status advantage even if objectively they lose out.

    Is there any good way to counter this? The truth is that being the lowest in status sucks. Liberals want to help all struggling people, but they want to help the poorest the most. That IS going to mean status compression at the bottom. That IS a legitimate fear and a likely outcome of liberal policy. Other than telling people “You need to be compassionate and stop claiming unearned privilege to artificially create a status gap” how do we make a legitimate argument here?

    And it’s also true that liberal policy makers and thinkers never have to fear being lowest status themselves. Once you have a college degree you have a big advantage that the sort of status compression caused by liberal social programs won’t take away.

    • Rob in CT

      Well, the obvious point is that liberals attempt to help the poor by taxing rich people, not working class/lower-middle class people.

      Conservatives have been very successful in making people who pay little or no federal income tax fear upper-end increases to that tax, as if they do pay it. I don’t know how to counter this any better than I already do (pointing out that Conservatives are lying).

      Also, I’m mostly convinced that the best programs are ones that everyone gets, rather than means-tested ones that phase out the moment you have any money. Of course, those programs are more expensive, and thus harder to sell.

      • Nobdy

        I agree with your first point, but my point is that even getting beyond the weird idea that liberals want to tax the poor-but-not-destitute, there is truth that liberal policies are likely to lead to status compression.

        Let’s take minimum wage as an example.

        You’ve got someone earning $12 an hour at Home Depot and someone earning $8 an hour at Wendy’s. There’s a big gap in income and status between them. Now raise the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour. The Wendy’s worker gets the full benefit and now her income is close to the Home Depot worker. Maybe the Home Depot worker gets a small raise as the corporation has to pay more to keep good workers now that there are alternatives, but that’s only going to bump him to $12.50. Whereas before he was earning %50 more than the Wendy’s worker, now he’s only earning %20 more, even though he’s objectively better off than he was before.

        Many people fear this kind of compression and loss of comparative status. And liberal policies are likely to make it happen, especially realistic liberal policies (maybe ideal liberal policies would lift all poor people and force the compression much higher up the food chain.)

        • Rob in CT

          If resentment is just baked into the cake (and it probably is), I guess the only path to take is to do our damndest to keep that resentment focused on those at the top, rather than those just below.

          Cowering back from “class warfare” looks to me, in hindsight, like unilateral disarmament.

          • Kurzleg

            Yes, and it’ll take a sustained effort to accomplish this. An aunt recently shared a graphic on Facebook showing CEO pay in relation to average worker pay in a number of countries, with the USA being a far outlier in comparison. I’d like to think that hammering this point about the disparity (plus other related stats) would bring people around or at least to reframe our economic debates.

      • FlipYrWhig

        Conservatives have been very successful in making people who pay little or no federal income tax fear upper-end increases to that tax, as if they do pay it.

        Most people have no comprehension of how taxes work. And not just the whole graduated rates thing. I think most people experience taxation as “all that money that’s been yanked out of every damn paycheck” and give their tax preparer credit for using some kind of nerd wizardry to get them a big check. They don’t understand withholding. millions of people who pay zero net income tax have zero idea.

        • Rob in CT

          I know, and it’s depressing. That ignorance makes them easy marks.

          • FlipYrWhig

            My pet technocratic solution: add a line on the tax return form that shows the effective income tax rate your household paid. Tax owed / gross income should be a viable approximation for most people, right?

    • Origami Isopod

      This study is imperfect but revealing in that it shows how people react to status threat by perceived outsiders.

      Smells like evo-psych crap to me, honestly. Plenty of “high-status” men bully or otherwise abuse women: Ted Bundy, Hugo Schwyzer, Richard Dawkins, Mel Gibson, etc. etc.

  • Aimai

    So “working class” is an insult to the “hard working white people” of the south? I’m not surprised, they have a very confused ideology which at one and the same time is populist and anti-rich people and, at the same time, fears communist/outside agitator/abolitionst contamination and falling from respectability into the class of poor white trash, mixed race, outsiders, etc… There’s a tiny sliver of a place where respectability, poverty, and whiteness intersect and it gets labled the middle class. People are ashamed of poverty and taught to fear and despise the various outside ideologies which promise change based on allegiances with outsiders or other races. So there’s nothing left for them.

    Bone deep suspicion of outsiders is ingrained in Southern Culture, partially as an artifact of the hard work put into xenophobia w/r/t abolitionists and partially as an artifact of the natural xenophobia of the borderers who settled the poorest parts of the south.

  • Bruce Vail

    I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that Loretta Lynn (‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’) began performing an anti-Vietnam war song about a young wife losing her serviceman husband during the height of the Second Gulf War.

    • matt w

      Seems interesting to compare Coal Miner’s Daughter to Presley’s song. Lynn makes absolutely no bones about being poor, and though there’s a fair amount of cultural conservatism in the Bible references, there doesn’t seem to be any kicking down or resentment at all.

      One difference is that Presley probably has a lot more claim to be middle class–looking around, her mother was a schoolteacher and her parents insisted on her going to college.

      Don’t know what conclusions can be drawn from this.

  • FlipYrWhig

    “Welfare families” might not be entirely racist here — doesn’t Kentucky have a huge problem with meth-heads? My hunch would be that “middle class” in this song means “holding down a steady job” more than it means “white.” The “poor” who get all the breaks in the lyric evoke to me the proverbial “trailer trash.” But you can never be sure.

    • Well, that’s why I qualified it by saying mostly. It’s entirely possible that in this context, she is also thinking about white welfare recipients. But given the racial characteristics and voting patterns of that county, she’s not only thinking of those people. And even when she is, the lack of any sort of class solidarity, or even understanding what taxes actually fund, is striking.

      • FlipYrWhig

        The class solidarity is among the dutiful and hardworking, against the too-lazy below them and the too-fancy above them. But, yeah, thinking that your payroll taxes are funding someone else’s idleness is both a serious misunderstanding of what taxes pay for, and whose taxes pay for anything, AND the whole reason Republicans exist in 2015 in numbers big enough to win elections.

        • Jackov


          Preseley mentions her father’s class solidarity

          daddy never crossed the picket line, it was hard but we made it through

          and continually situates herself/her tribe in the middle
          of the two “favored” classes

          i got my education at a school they could afford
          scholarships went to the rich and the grants went to the poor

          but her resentment is directed toward the poor

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      I get into these things now and again where I have to point out to someone that there are plenty of “worthless” white people too, and all I can get back is a grudging “well,yeah” but it isn’t soaking in. It isn’t how they *want* to think about it

      • Nobdy

        there are plenty of “worthless” white people too

        Heck it ain’t hard to find these kinds of folks. Just check the boards and the c-suites of most major American corporations!

      • FlipYrWhig

        That’s surprising. I’d think that conservatives would leap at the chance to say that they’re just as offended by worthless white people on welfare as they are by worthless black people on welfare.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          what I think they think: we wouldn’t have white trash if we hadn’t set a bad example by creating the welfare state for the blacks

          kind of goes back to the idea we don’t have much understanding of how our ancestors lived before we had things like social security, etc

        • Aimai

          I have to agree with FlipYrWhig. Many, many, white conservatives are happy to argue that they are just as opposed to welfare for white people, or that white people who receive benefits are lazy slackers. There’s no such thing as conscious and verbalized white unity except among the stormfront crowd. You can signal white unity with lots of symbols, winks, and nods (like the confederate flag, of course, but also with certain in jokes or shibboleths) but you will not find any top line Conservatives actively invoking whiteness as somethign that they are protecting or valorizing–certainly not over class. Poverty, shiftlessness, atheism, addiction, –all of these things are despised when displayed by the white working class–because American conservativism, especially when crossed with evangelicalism, is very bourgeouis in orientation.

          • jim, some guy in iowa

            the people I talk with are offended by white people using the safety net, no doubt about that. But in their minds the net only existed in the first place to prop up a bunch of shiftless blacks. They judge on a kind of sliding scale that gets worse the darker the other people get

          • Jackov

            While “white trash” appears to have originated in the African American slave community, its adoption and continued use, is in a way about protecting whiteness – by branding a group of poor and often dysfunctional people as outside of whiteness. It is a powerful deceit when you are constantly focusing on ‘the pathologies of the black community.’

            White trash is a classist slur and a racial epithet that marks out certain whites as a breed apart, a dysgenic race unto themselves. – Wray/Newitz

  • MPAVictoria

    Great post Erik.

  • DAS

    As a liberal who likes country music, might I suggest that it’s more a matter of whom you listen to? Not only Johnny “dove with claws” Cash, but I would hardly call Willie Nelson right wing. DU has a list, although I don’t know how accurate it is: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=105×6197129

    • Davis X. Machina

      You can go all day on a country station — and I am doing that today because the guys working next door on the addition have a boombox going — and not hear any of those people.

      So far this morning it’s bro-er than you think. It’s bro-er than you can possibly imagine.

      “Drunk on a Plane” in this context is Cole Porter-esque

      • brettvk

        I recently saw an item somewhere arguing that the bro culture of country music radio was an artifact of its predominantly female audience — i. e., women country music artists don’t get played because the good ol’ gals want male voices, and numbers go down if more women singers are aired. The lyrics/lazy arrangements of pop country are so obnoxious to me that I find this hard to believe, but obviously I’m way outside the audience. I have a “team leader” that plays the local station incessantly (I suspect maliciously, because I’m a dirty hippie) and I wish she’d go deaf.

  • furikawari

    One point: the phaseout of tax credits and transfers at the 20k-30k income range makes the marginal tax rate (when looking at disposable income) appear highly confiscatory. See here: https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43722-Supplemental_Material-MarginalTaxRates.pdf

    That’s a bit old and subject to some valid criticism. And it doesn’t mean the music isn’t coding racial resentment , or that the answer is to slash the transfers. But I still find it shocking that someone making 20k could have a higher marginal tax than someone making 200k.

    • Davis X. Machina

      But I still find it shocking that someone making 20k could have a higher marginal tax than someone making 200k.

      I’m guessing you wouldn’t do well in the Iowa caucuses, then..

    • DAS

      The high effective marginal tax rate among people in the 20-30K income range is exactly why GOP rhetoric about high taxation has so much traction amongst people who don’t actually benefit from GOP tax policies. One of the most important things Democrats can do is to do something about that high effective marginal tax rate. Unfortunately, whatever the Democrats do can be spun by “even the liberal media” as fiscally irresponsible.

  • Greybeard

    To the extent that membership in the middle class is a function of wages, coal miners are solidly middle class: http://www.nma.org/pdf/c_wages_state_industries.pdf

    The average wage for a Kentucky coal miner is $72,779, well above the average wage for workers in the state as a whole ($40,584).

    The national average for coal miners is higher: $82,058, compared to $49,700 for all workers.

    The link I posted to above is to a PDF published by the mining industry, but it’s based on info published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Here’s a quote from an ABC news story http://abcnews.go.com/US/Mine/west-virginia-coal-miners-allure-dangerous-profession/story?id=10305839

    “Working in a mine is one of the few careers here that can yield a decent salary — especially for young adults in this economically-struggling region who may lack even a high school diploma.

    “Nine out of 10 Appalachian men do not receive college degrees; some don’t even finish high school. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000.”

    Both my grandfather and the pastor of the church I grew up attending were former coal miners. They both told horror stories about the working conditions in the mines, and my grandfather was disabled by emphysema by the time he was 50. But both of them told me that the wages were high.

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  • starbuckle

    It was all said very plainly 45 years ago…

    Welfare Cadillac by Guy Drake in 1970

    I never worked much,
    In fact I’ve been poor all my life…
    But I always managed somehow to drive me a brand new Cadillac.

    Now there’s a country tune that really found its audience.

  • Brien Jackson

    This doesn’t mean the song is wrong or bad. Presley may well be presenting her and her father’s point of view, one typical of much of the white working class.

    Um…yes, yes it does. It means that the songer and singer/songwriter are ignorant and racist and perpetuating the same ignorant racism that keeps the white working class voting for the Republicans who create the problems they’re bitching about. Just because you like the genre of music doesn’t mean the content isn’t terrible.

  • jamesepowell

    We have reached a point in our nation’s history that people who use the word “welfare” in this way should not longer be given any benefit of the doubt. “Welfare” and related terms like “food stamps” are used almost exclusively to express racist resentment.

    It’s not even a dog-whistle anymore. To those who use it, it’s metonymy.

    Think of the lady at the pool party fiasco, shouting go back to your Section 8. That’s just her way of saying N!

  • wengler

    There’s a big country festival near my house every year. Let’s just say the behavior of the people that attend it leaves a lot to be desired.

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