Barbara Ehrenreich’s “What Happened to the White Working Class? Downward mobility plus racial resentment is a potent combination with disastrous consequences.” at The Nation provides one of the more instructive subtitles in recent literature about the political psychology of this huge demographic group.
Ehrenreich delves into the reasons for the downtick in white working class longevity. But her insights into the political attitudes of white workers ought to be of particular interest to Democrats who want to build an enduring progressive majority. Addressing this concern, Ehrenreich notes:
But something more profound is going on here, too. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman puts it, the “diseases” leading to excess white working-class deaths are those of “despair,” and some of the obvious causes are economic. In the last few decades, things have not been going well for working-class people of any color.
I grew up in an America where a man with a strong back–and better yet, a strong union–could reasonably expect to support a family on his own without a college degree. In 2015, those jobs are long gone, leaving only the kind of work once relegated to women and people of color available in areas like retail, landscaping, and delivery-truck driving. This means that those in the bottom 20% of white income distribution face material circumstances like those long familiar to poor blacks, including erratic employment and crowded, hazardous living spaces.
Ehrenreich adds that “the public and psychological wage” benefit white workers enjoyed under segregation, which W.E.B. Dubois cited 80 years ago, has shrunk considerably as a result of African American advancement. As she explains,
Today, there are few public spaces that are not open, at least legally speaking, to blacks, while the “best” schools are reserved for the affluent–mostly white and Asian American along with a sprinkling of other people of color to provide the fairy dust of “diversity.” While whites have lost ground economically, blacks have made gains, at least in the de jure sense. As a result, the “psychological wage” awarded to white people has been shrinking.
…The culture, too, has been inching bit by bit toward racial equality, if not, in some limited areas, black ascendency. If the stock image of the early twentieth century “Negro” was the minstrel, the role of rural simpleton in popular culture has been taken over in this century by the characters in Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. At least in the entertainment world, working-class whites are now regularly portrayed as moronic, while blacks are often hyper-articulate, street-smart, and sometimes as wealthy as Kanye West. It’s not easy to maintain the usual sense of white superiority when parts of the media are squeezing laughs from the contrast between savvy blacks and rural white bumpkins, as in the Tina Fey comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. White, presumably upper-middle class people generally conceive of these characters and plot lines, which, to a child of white working-class parents like myself, sting with condescension.
Ehrenreich continues, “Poor whites always had the comfort of knowing that someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their own situation was deteriorating.”
If ‘comfort’ is too strong a word for the way most white workers feel about racial advantage, the belief that your social group, once proudly middle class, is becoming an economically-depressed demographic can move political attitudes rightward. And when media stereotypes and political propaganda feed memes that people of color are benefitting disproportionately from the taxes of white workers, it feeds the resentment. Certainly the GOP has made President Obama the lightning rod for crystallizing this meme.
It’s a message built on endlessly repeated lies, and one which Democrats have thus far failed to adequately challenge and correct. While some white workers undoubtedly crave the sense of superiority their parents experienced during the segregation era, most white workers today are likely more focused on preventing their families from sinking into economic hardship. For Republicans, the task is to convert this fear into racial resentment, and they have done so on a grand scale.
Democrats are going to have to do a better job of demythologizing the GOP memes and stereotypes. It will also require a more energetic “branding” of the Republican party as the party of the wealthy, which squanders trillions of taxpayer dollars on war and corporate privileges. But there is also the even more formidable challenge of branding the Democratic party as the party of working people and their unions, the party of making the minimum wage a living wage, of full employment, comprehensive health care for all citizens and affordable higher education. That’s a political brand that could win enough white workers to insure a stable majority for many years to come.