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Disappearing the non-white working class

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George Packer has a long article on what he calls the the Four Americas. It’s an interesting historical analysis of how the major partisan divides in contemporary America came about, although naturally there are a lot of definitions and details that could be contested.

Packer divides the current nation into what he calls Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. Free America is the Goldwater-Reagan New Right coalition, i.e., religious traditionalists, anti-communists, and Randroids, all of these people overwhelmingly white; Smart America is the urban-suburban highly educated professional class that believes in the educational “meritocracy” (Packer performs a useful service by reminding people that this term was coined by someone who was appropriately horrified at the prospect of an actual meritocracy — something that’s been almost completely forgotten); Real America is Trumpism in full bloom; and Just America is the woke recent college graduate generation that has purportedly been radicalized by imbibing the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Judith Butler, etc. at our universities, if only indirectly or atmospherically. (This last typology might run into some empirical difficulties if someone were to measure what percentage of 30-year-old Americans could identify any of those avatars of Cancel Culture).

It’s a long essay which is part of a forthcoming book, and there’s some good stuff in it — I particularly enjoyed the analysis of how the now almost-forgotten farcical figure of Sarah Palin played Joan the Baptist to our rapey reality TV Christ figure. I do think Packer seriously underestimates the essential continuity between Reagan’s Free America and Trump’s Real America: it’s critical to his can’t we all get along liberal centrism that Reagan be presented as at least a semi-admirable if problematic figure, in comparison to the demonic Trump (as I pointed out six years ago , when Trump was still a ludicrous clown that nobody needed to worry about, the reason to be worried about Trump was precisely because he represented an extension of Reaganism, not a repudiation of it). And his characterization of American universities — or maybe just elite ones, this is unclear — as ideological factories for generating wokeness via critical theory is really just a reproduction of the absurd right wing caricature of these institutions rather than anything like an accurate description.

But what I want to note here is that Packer’s typology pretty much completely disappears the entire American non-white working class: the 75 million or so people who make the wheels go round in this country, and whose opinions are never sampled by journalists who have traveled to a diner in this still highly segregated part of (insert any major American city). Free America and Real America are just different manifestations of white ethno-nationalist fervor — the latter in large part consists of the endlessly aggrieved white working class — as Packer acknowledges if somewhat reluctantly (again he wants to say nice things about Reagan and Bill Buckley as compared to Trump and Sean Hannity). Smart America excludes the entire working class by definition. As for Just America:

But another way to understand Just America is in terms of class. Why does so much of its work take place in human-resources departments, reading lists, and awards ceremonies? In the summer of 2020, the protesters in the American streets were disproportionately Millennials with advanced degrees making more than $100,000 a year. Just America is a narrative of the young and well educated, which is why it continually misreads or ignores the Black and Latino working classes. The fate of this generation of young professionals has been cursed by economic stagnation and technological upheaval. The jobs their parents took for granted have become much harder to get, which makes the meritocratic rat race even more crushing. Law, medicine, academia, media—the most desirable professions—have all contracted. The result is a large population of overeducated, underemployed young people living in metropolitan areas.

Note that Packer explicitly references here the existence of the Black and Latino working classes — a quarter of the nation! — while still apparently failing to notice that his typology of contemporary America doesn’t include them anywhere within it.

I think that’s pretty interesting in and of itself.

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