Why do lib­er­als pre­tend to care about the white work­ing class?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

It was only a mat­ter of time un­til lib­eral elites’ ob­ses­sion with Amer­ica’s white work­ing class would burn through ev­ery pos­si­ble an­a­lyt­i­cal frame­work — racial at­ti­tudes, eco­nomic mis­for­tunes, health con­di­tions, po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences — and end up on a sub­ject they find even more irresistible: them­selves.

“White Work­ing Class” by law pro­fes­sor Joan C. Wil­liams is more an ef­fort to punc­ture the foibles and mis­per­cep­tions of up­per-class lib­er­als than an at­tempt to get to know the peo­ple her book ti­tle com­prises. It’s just as well. The au­thor’s per­sonal knowl­edge of the white work­ing class ap­pears mainly sec­ond­hand: Wil­liams cites her eighth-grad­e­dropout fa­ther-in-law, pores over polls and stud­ies, and can quote on de­mand from “Hill­billy El­egy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land,” but that’s about it. By con­trast, she has a vise grip on the at­ti­tudes of her fel­low lib­eral pro­fes­sion­als — Wil­liams teaches at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s Hast­ings Col­lege of Law (yes, in San Fran­cisco) — and she struc­tures the book around those nasty lit­tle ques­tions they mut­ter about work­ing-class Trump vot­ers at din­ner par­ties or, I’ve heard, in gourmet sand­wich shops.

Why don’t they push their kids harder to suc­ceed and go to col­lege? Shouldn’t they move for bet­ter jobs? Why do they re­sent govern­ment ben­e­fits? Aren’t they just racist? Sex­ist? And why do they dis­like us so much, even while ad­mir­ing gauche plu­to­crats such as Pres­i­dent Trump?

Those ques­tions are of re­cent vin­tage, Wil­liams notes, be­cause for a long time left­lean­ing elites were con­cerned with just about ev­ery­one ex­cept the white work­ing class. “Dur­ing an era when wealthy white Amer­i­cans have learned to sym­pa­thet­i­cally imag­ine the lives of the poor, peo­ple of color, and LGBTQ peo­ple,” she writes, “the white work­ing class has been insulted or ig­nored.” She ac­cuses her tribe of “class clue­less­ness — and in some cases, even class cal­lous­ness.”

One of the strengths of Wil­liams’s book is the au­thor’s will­ing­ness to call out such cal­lous­ness and hypocrisy among her fel­low trav­el­ers. One of its weak­nesses is her re­luc­tance to call out Trump vot­ers for much of any­thing.

Wil­liams be­gins with some def­i­ni­tional clar­ity — or con­fu­sion, de­pend­ing on the or­der in which you typ­i­cally peck. Even though, in some cir­cles, “work­ing class” has be­come a eu­phemism for “poor,” Wil­liams uses the term “work­ing class” for those liv­ing a few rungs higher, Amer­i­cans with earn­ings above the low­est 30 per­cent and be­low the top 20 per­cent, with a me­dian house­hold in­come of about $75,000. Some might con­sider this range to over­lap with the mid­dle class, but since al­most all Amer­i­cans con­sider them­selves mid­dle class, Wil­liams de­cided that the lat­ter term is too vague to be use­ful.

Wil­liams’s work­ing-class Amer­ica, then, ex­cludes the poor. In fact, the white work­ing class, thus de­lin­eated, of­ten be­grudges govern­ment ef­forts to help the poor, Wil­liams writes. When such pro­grams “are lim­ited to those be­low a cer­tain in­come level [and] . . . ex­clude those just a notch above,” she con­tends, “this is a recipe for class con­flict.” So if you’ve ever won­dered what’s the mat­ter with Kansas, Wil­liams has an an­swer. “Be­cause the white work­ing class re­sents pro­grams for the poor, to the ex­tent that ben­e­fit cuts tar­get the poor, that’s at­trac­tive. To the ex­tent that tax cuts for the rich hold the prom­ise of jobs, that’s at­trac­tive, too.”

The work­ing class’s si­mul­ta­ne­ous fas­ci­na­tion with the ul­tra-wealthy and dis­dain for the pro­fes­sional class is not only about trickle-down fan­tasies — it’s about prox­im­ity. “Most work­ing-class peo­ple have lit­tle con­tact with the truly rich,” Wil­liams ex­plains, “but they suf­fer class af­fronts from pro­fes­sion­als ev­ery day: the doc­tor who un­think­ingly pa­tron­izes the med­i­cal tech­ni­cian, the har­ried of­fice worker who treats the se­cu­rity guard as in­vis­i­ble, the over­booked busi­ness trav­eler who snaps at the TSA agent.”

Wil­liams chas­tises the pro­fes­sion­al­man­age­rial elite, or PME, for the sort of thought­less and con­de­scend­ing be­hav­ior that breeds an­i­mos­ity among the white work­ing class, or WWC, as she dubbed it in the post­elec­tion Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view es­say that in­spired this book (ap­par­ently you’re not an of­fi­cial so­cioe­co­nomic seg­ment with­out an acro­nym). The pres­i­dent, for one, knows bet­ter. “Brashly wealthy celebri­ties epit­o­mize the fan­tasy of be­ing wildly rich while los­ing none of your work­ing-class cred,” Wil­liams writes. “Trump epit­o­mizes this.”

When pass­ing judg­ment on the white work­ing class, elites re­gard their own values about home life (he­li­copter par­ent­ing, con­stant up­root­ing) and work life (cre­ativ­ity, in­no­va­tion) as the norm, obliv­i­ous to the fact that oth­ers may hold dif­fer­ent ones, Wil­liams ar­gues. Work­ing-class fam­i­lies may not choose to re­lo­cate for a job be­cause they care more about their com­mu­nity ties. They may worry about tu­ition debt and see col­lege as a risky in­vest­ment. They may pri­or­i­tize sta­bil­ity and de­pend­abil­ity over “dis­rup­tion” be­cause in work­ing-class jobs, dis­rup­tion “just gets you fired,” Wil­liams writes. And they may cling to re­li­gion be­cause “for many in the work­ing class, churches pro­vide the kind of men­tal ex­er­cise, sta­bil­ity, hope­ful­ness, fu­ture ori­en­ta­tion, im­pulse con­trol, and so­cial safety net many in the pro­fes­sional elite get from their fam­i­lies, their ca­reer po­ten­tial, their ther­a­pists, and their bank ac­counts.”

Wil­liams thinks she un­der­stands why Hil­lary Clin­ton lost in 2016. (Don’t we all.) Rather than fo­cus­ing so much on the can­di­date’s ré­sumé and on the his­tory-mak­ing as­pect of a fe­male pres­i­dency, for in­stance, her cam­paign should have em­pha­sized how Trump rou­tinely “stiffed” the blue-col­lar guys work­ing on his build­ings. “Gen­der does not nec­es­sar­ily bind women to­gether across so­cial class,” Wil­liams writes, not­ing that for many work­ing-class women, there is lit­tle to be gained by “giv­ing priv­i­leged women ac­cess to the high-level jobs now held al­most ex­clu­sively by priv­i­leged men.” Con­stantly in­vok­ing that high­est and hard­est glass ceil­ing was, Wil­liams con­cludes, a “class­clue­less metaphor.”

When dis­cussing racial at­ti­tudes, Wil­liams is quick to stress that those lofty lib­er­als are as bad as any­one else. “Among the pro­fes­sional elite, where the coin of the realm is merit, peo­ple of color are con­structed as lack­ing in merit,” she writes. “Among the white work­ing class, where the coin of the realm is moral­ity, peo­ple of color are con­structed as lack­ing in that qual­ity.” And on the sex­ism so ev­i­dent in the 2016 race — when “trump that b----” be­came a slo­gan and chant — Wil­liams is skep­ti­cal of straight­for­ward con­clu­sions. “Does Trump’s vic­tory sig­nal that work­ing­class men are sex­ist?” she asks. “It’s not as sim­ple as that.” Work­ing-class men, she notes, spend more time with their kids than their up­per-class coun­ter­parts. More­over, “elite men can talk the talk of gen­der equal­ity be­cause they know in their bones that their ca­reers will de­liver them dig­nity,” Wil­liams writes. “Eco­nomic power, both in­side the fam­ily and in the so­ci­ety at large, is their trump card.” (We see what you did there.)

Wil­liams chas­tises white elites for al­ways seek­ing out “struc­tural fac­tors” to ex­plain the con­di­tions of the poor while deny­ing the work­ing class sim­i­lar gen­eros­ity. “When it comes to work­ing-class whites,” she com­plains, “so­cial struc­ture evap­o­rates.” This is a com­pelling point, but to make it, Wil­liams seems will­ing to com­mit the op­po­site of­fense, de­ploy­ing cul­tural values or equiv­a­lences to ex­plain away so very much.

The au­thor calls for a “re­fram­ing” of Amer­i­can lib­eral pol­i­tics, a grand state­ment that feels less grand as it gets spe­cific. Wil­liams wants vo­ca­tional train­ing for com­mu­ni­ties un­der­cut by trade and tech­nol­ogy, more civics education in schools, and a cli­mate-change de­bate that stops scream­ing about set­tled sci­ence and in­stead en­lists farm­ers to dis­cuss chang­ing con­di­tions on the ground. She wants to boost work­ing­class trust in govern­ment with a pub­lic­ity cam­paign fea­tur­ing videos of Amer­i­cans thank­ing the feds for high­ways, sewer sys­tems, schools and the In­ter­net. (“Thank you, Un­cle Sam!” they would say at the end.) At the same time, though, she wants to heighten work­ing-class mis­trust in govern­ment to boost con­cern about civil lib­er­ties. I won­der how those videos would end.

Wil­liams’s book is a quick read and a good­faith ef­fort at cul­tural and class in­tro­spec­tion. I wish it ranged more widely be­yond the themes the au­thor raised in her ini­tial es­say last year, rather than cov­er­ing much the same ground with more words. In par­tic­u­lar, I’d want to know how zeal­ously we need to fo­cus on that first “W” in the WWC. At times, the au­thor cites the ex­pe­ri­ences of work­ing-class Latino fam­i­lies to but­tress her points, and she notes that work­ing-class black Amer­i­cans hold many at­ti­tudes in com­mon with bluecol­lar white Amer­i­cans re­gard­ing work, per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and in­tegrity. Class, more than race, is Wil­liams’s cru­cial di­vide.

Whether it is the coun­try’s as well is a mat­ter not set­tled in this book. Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Joan C. Wil­liams tries to set up­per-class lib­er­als straight about Trump sup­port­ers and oth­ers in the work­ing class.

By Joan C. Wil­liams. Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view Press. 180 pp. $22.99

WHITE WORK­ING CLASS Over­com­ing Class Clue­less­ness in Amer­ica

Car­los Lozada

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