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Working class heroes


Law professor Joan Williams thinks that the reason Donald Trump got elected is because elite white people are contemptuous of their non-elite white fellow voters, and they therefore dismiss the legitimate economic concerns that led a lot of non-elite whites to vote for Donald Trump as mere expressions of racism. These leads her to recommend that Democrats focus more on class politics, rather than elite pet issues such as environmentalism.  (This is of course similar to Mark Lilla’s schtick, although to be fair Williams avoids Lilla’s absurd conflation of the term “identity politics” with progressive critiques of racism, sexism, etc.)

Williams’s analysis is based on a definition of the “white working class” that makes no sense to me at all:

All told, I’ve spent a good deal of the past two years talking with progressives about the broken relationship between elite white people and the white working class. (I use the term working class to refer to Americans with household incomes between the 30th and 80th percentiles. This group, which has median earnings of about $75,000 [ed: actually $70,000], is also commonly referred to as the “middle class.”)

Note that the upper third of this range in 2017 consisted of households with incomes of between $85,000 and $127,000.  While income is of course merely one proxy for social class, a definition of “working class” in which a large minority of its members have household incomes near or above $100,000 per year doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with traditional concepts of what it means to be working class. This definition of “working class” also excludes everybody with incomes below $35,500, which also seems a very peculiar way of defining the working class.  (Not to mention that if you’re using a definition of working class that is identical to what other people mean by “middle class,” you’ve got a definitional problem).

Williams goes on to argue that Democrats shouldn’t give up on the Rust Belt and rural America (no argument there), but her argument for exactly how they should go about reaching marginal Trump voters in this area consists of constructing straw man arguments about what Democrats do and don’t support:

Part of this strategy involves driving elite liberals toward advocacy of open borders while at the same time convincing working-class whites that immigrants are to blame for the loss of good jobs. . . To counter the far right’s story line, Democrats must acknowledge the persistence of racism while shifting attention to the American dream of social mobility. The first step is to acknowledge that immigration sometimes hurts American workers, primarily those without high-school degrees. Immigration may have a positive effect on the economy overall, but people don’t live averages: They live where they live, and see what they see, which is that some employers use immigrant workers to drive down wages and undermine unions. Why not admit this and insist that everyone, immigrants included, deserves the dignity of a paycheck that lasts the week (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.)

I find it rather perplexing why a progressive like Williams is so willing to buy into obviously false right wing framing strategies.  No Democratic politician I’m aware of, let alone any nationally important figure, advocates an open border immigration policy, or anything even remotely close to one.  Every Democratic politician of any prominence is focusing on the problem of wage stagnation and increasing economic inequality.  Compared to the Hillary Clinton of 1996, the Hillary Clinton of 2016 might as well have been Eugene Debs, as the right wing scream machine never tired of pointing out.

Williams ends by pointing out that upper class white people are racist too, and like to deny that fact (again, no argument there), and that such people need to pay more attention to economic injustice rather than, say, climate change:

With each trump-fueled outrage, people on Twitter ask whether I’m finally ready to admit that the white working class is simply racist. What my Twitter friends don’t seem to recognize is their own privilege. If elites cling to the idea that working-class whites are perpetrators of inequality, rather than both perpetrators and victims, perhaps it’s because they want to believe that they are where they are because they’ve worked hard and they’re the smartest people around. Once you start a conversation about class, elite white people have to admit they have not only racial privilege but class privilege, too.

Acknowledging this also requires elites to cede yet another advantage: the extent to which they have controlled Democrats’ priorities. Political scientists have documented the party’s shift over the past 50 years from a coalition focused on blue-collar issues to one dominated by environmentalism and other issues elites cherish.

I’m one of those activists; environmentalism and concerns related to gender, race, and sexuality define my scholarship and my identity. But the working class has been asked to endure a lot of economic pain while Democrats focus on other problems. It’s time to listen up. The only effective antidote to a populism interlaced with racism is a populism that isn’t.

Again, this auto da fe of various straw men is straight out of the right wing propaganda playbook.  (Remarkably, Williams simply passes over in silence the epochal change in the Democratic coalition that took place 50 years ago: one that had nothing whatsoever to do with “blue collar issues,” and everything to do with sending tens of millions of white supremacists over to the Republicans.) The present Democratic coalition runs from Joe Manchin on one end to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other. As for the present Republican coalition, it’s a big tent that includes everybody from people who are OK with racism if it produces upper class tax cuts, and racists who are OK with upper class tax cuts if they get enough racist public policy thrown in.

And who, in regard to economic justice, is keeping the Republican party from sending the country straight back to 1925 if not 1885?  It ain’t Chapo Trap House, Jill Stein, or self-loathing San Francisco progressives who confuse themselves with the modal Democratic politician.

In short, I don’t get it.



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