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Labor Historians, the White Working Class, and Trump Voters

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Jefferson Cowie has an excellent essay on how labor historians totally missed Trump. And he’s right–it’s that way too many labor historians have huge ideological blinders that romanticize working class activism and dissent while refusing to recognize that often those very same people are racist Trump voters.

The new labor history splintered in dozens of fruitful directions, but the ceaseless decline of working-class power pushed those engaged in the central mission of the field from panic to despair. Labor scholars seemed to fall into an ideological trap: When workers managed to win, it was because of their drive and capacity. When they lost, which was more often the story, it was capital’s dark machinations at fault. Rarely did anyone want to probe the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.

Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call “backlash” is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

My generation’s historiographical compass is left spinning. North is gone. But the white working class is out there. And we still really need to understand it.

And understanding the white working class doesn’t mean apologizing for it. It doesn’t mean defending those voters’ racism. It means understanding and analyzing them, for they are a hugely important bloc of voters, simply because there are so many of them. The entire debate over the white working class after the election actually reflects the overall problem that scholars, labor writers, and, for that matter, blog readers often start at the point of being sympathetic to the people they write about and assumed to be cheering for them. And thus, you saw people who tried to talk about the white working class being told that they were excusing racism, etc. No, but you have to talk about these things, understand them, and act upon them. The flip side of that is on the left, where not only did you have some writers see the election as an opportunity to shun identity politics in favor of an old left vision that subtlety places whites and men at the forefront of the people who matter, but open cheering for “dissent,” as Cowie discusses. Nowhere do you see this more than in the field of labor history and of labor journalism, where, as I mentioned earlier today, really smart people are often putting ideology before analysis, projecting their own grievances and desires onto the past and the present, and perhaps most importantly, sometimes playing a game of leftier than thou, where cliques develop around who is the most hardcore.

Yes, it’s like high school. Yet it’s also pretty important because we aren’t going to understand our politics if we keep writing more and more books on 1930s communists, for example. Sure, we might like to see a big dash of communism in our politics, but by and large, those stories have been told and told again and just saying that “union leaders suck because they aren’t radical” is not exactly moving our understanding forward. Meanwhile, there are huge gaps in our understanding of the working past, largely because historians aren’t interested enough in these issues to work on them. Thus you have probably more labor histories on the IWW than on the entire history of public sector unionism. Yet which has had greater impact on more people? The latter, obviously. Certainly there’s been a great move in the literature toward deep dives on the public sector in the last decade, but the point I am trying to make is that there’s a much greater interest in telling stories of radicalism than of the day to day lives of average workers. And that helps us not understand those average workers, especially when they vote for someone like Donald Trump.

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