The Australian June 17, 2017
Want to know the real difference between the elites and the working class? And no, it’s not the money, although the huge gap in income between the two groups has many serious flow-on effects, both financial and cultural.
The differences are far more complex than cash, as US academic and author Joan Williams details in a new book called White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
Here’s one. “I was just living in The Netherlands,” says Williams on the phone from San Francisco. “And I show up in a room of people like me and they say, ‘What do you do?’ It’s the first question, and I say, ‘I’m a law professor.’ Well, immediately I have social honour. I’m a person they want to know.
“I tell the story in my book of going to my husband’s high school reunion in a blue-collar neighbourhood and he asked one of the classmates, ‘What do you do?’ The guy was extremely insulted and told him, ‘I sell toilets!’
“If you sell toilets you don’t want to be judged on your job. You want to stick around a group of people who know you well, who know that you’re more than your job and you’re a person to be reckoned with. And so while elites tend to pride themselves on merit, non-elites tend to pride themselves on morality. Each group choses a metric. We all chose baskets we can sell, that’s just human, but it means that elites are really different from non-elites.”
For Williams, a distinguished professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law who has written extensively on gender, race and class over decades, these class differences deserve to be at the heart of any analysis of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.
“Class is not the only thing that was going on,” she says. “Gender dynamics were very important and if Hillary Clinton had been a man, she would have won. But class was very important.”
Indeed, it was Clinton’s failure to speak to the white working class that saw Williams hitting her keyboard on election night. As the “most boring conventional progressive in the world” she has always voted Democrat and worked to get out the vote for Clinton. Desperate to explain what went wrong, she published an essay in the Harvard Business Review that quickly became the journal’s most-read article online. It has been viewed by 3.5 million people. About 800 people posted comments, and pretty soon Williams had a book contract.
Her attack is “quite transgressive of the accepted wisdom in my crowd — that white working-class people are ignorant because they voted against their self-interest, that they are racist and sexist. I’m making a very different argument.
“What the white working class sees is the hollowing out of the middle class in the United States … They think neither Democrats nor Republicans have delivered for them, and their perception is absolutely correct.
“This talk they are voting against their own interests is a contemporary example of the stereotype, the idea they are dimwitted; it’s highly inappropriate.”
Americans have a “convenient deafness” about class and prefer to see everyone as middle class. Williams splits class three ways — the top 20 per cent are the elites, the middle 53 per cent with a median income of $US75,144 in 2015 are the working class, and the remaining are poor. She is unapologetic about focusing on whites rather than people of colour, arguing that their often different cultural attitudes and needs have been ignored for too long.
Lack of awareness around class is a fairly new phenomenon, according to Williams.
“In the 1940s, 50s and 60s we were not so clueless about class,” she says.
“At least liberal intellectuals were very clued in to class, and we had a language for talking about class, it was called ‘don’t be snobbish’. But starting in the 70s, the attention shifted away from class to race and gender and LGBTQ, and we tended to forget about class. And when elites forget to run things through their heads, you have assumptions …”
She cites the emergence since the 70s of television sitcoms, such as All in the Family, where the patriarch (in this case, Archie Bunker) is depicted as overweight and sexist. This demonising is “a consequence of forgetting”, which led ultimately to Trump’s victory.
The forgetting means many people in service jobs — janitors, receptionists, taxi drivers — are invisible to elites, despite the constant cross-class interactions of every day. It’s time, says Williams, for the PMEs — the professionals, managers and executives — to “talk to people without the assumption that because they have a modest white or blue-collar job, they’re dimwitted.”
In her book, a readable volume of just 180 pages (50 of which are indexes and references), she tackles issues from working-class resentment of the poor and professionals, and apparently contradictory support of the rich, to how elites gain self-worth from merit while the working class gains self-worth from morality.
Both groups value hard work but they see it differently: “To working-class members of all races, valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and rein yourself in so that you don’t ‘have an attitude’ (ie, so that you can submit to authority). Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualisation: ‘disruption’ means founding a successful start-up. Disruption in working-class jobs just gets you fired.”
Williams explains how food and religion and even the value placed on talk divide the classes. She identifies stark differences in parenting styles. Elites focus on “concerted cultivation” of children with intense schedules; non-elites are likelier to follow “the ideology of natural growth”. The first is a “rehearsal for a life of work devotion: the time pressure, the intense competition, the exhaustion with it all, and the ethic of putting work before family”.
For the white working class, parenting tends to focus on “clear boundaries” between children and parents, with prompt obedience expected, because this is crucial training for the working class.
Poor and working-class people tend to be more rooted in their communities than the elites — something elites forget when they urge people to move where the work is. PMEs tend to have national or global social networks and a “very broad range of acquaintances to help us out both professionally and personally”, says Williams. “The working class tend to have smaller networks, very local … They have to depend on family and close friends for a lot of things like good childcare or care for grandma. And so one of the things that elites don’t often understand is that they (the white working class) don’t want to move because not only do they have to find a job but they have to find a job that’s so much better than what they have now because they have to pay for childcare.”
Elites who dismiss working-class whites as racist or sexist are truly clueless.
“Racial bias (on the part of elite whites) even against very elite African-Americans is very strong” — she argues Sasha and Malia Obama will be disadvantaged by race despite being advantaged by class — “which is one of the reasons I find it so ironic that some (of those elites) say they couldn’t possibly listen to the white working class because they’re racist. My reaction is, compared to whom?”
Equally, white-collar professionals talk the talk on gender equality but often don’t walk the walk. Blue-collar men may not talk the talk and may have more traditional views on family, but they’re also likelier than professional men to participate in childcare, says Williams.
And because of different family dynamics, gender does not necessarily bind women — some of whom have very limited opportunities and different obligations for their families — across social class. Says Williams: “If working-class white women had just split 50-50 for Hillary Clinton, she would’ve won. High school educated women voted for Trump by a 28 per cent margin. The message for feminists here is that the ideal of equal parenting and both parents in the labour force often looks really different to the elites than it does to the working class and the poor.
“People who are non-elite often look back to the breadwinner-homemaker family with a great deal of nostalgia because of what’s replaced it.
“What’s replaced it, is that the men have often lost their blue-collar jobs and the family is trying to survive on the wife’s ‘pink-collar job’ (such as cleaning or supermarket jobs) and perhaps intermittent work by the husband or else a pink-collar and a blue-collar job or, god forbid, two pink-collar jobs, which means the family has quite a low income.
“They can’t pay for childcare so they’re typically tag-teaming, where mom works one shift and dad works another shift. The families are completely exhausted and the parents rarely see each other. Tag-team families have three to six times the divorce rate of other families.” What’s the solution? Elites should stop arguing that globalisation and automation mean that all jobs are going to be knowledge jobs.
“That is so untrue,” says Williams. “I mean, 75 per cent of the US economy consists of physical jobs and the only question is: are we as elite going to sit by and see the middle class disappear? That’s what we’ve done. We sat by and watched it disappear as we smugly talk about knowledge jobs and how globalisation and automation mean we can’t do anything about it. Excuse me.
We can do something about it. It’s called industrial policy. Germany has done it. We could be keeping high-quality, middle-skilled jobs if we actually cared, which we evidently don’t, and so I think that’s why in some ways we get what we deserve. “
What’s next for the Democrats? “It’s important to mobilise the base and make sure that young people vote next time,” says Williams. “I think it’s important to continue to reach out to communities of colour and Latinos, but we are not going to be able to govern effectively without the white working class.
“There’s a lot of happy talk about how the Democrats can wipe off the white working class and depend on people of colour and young people and college-educated voters. You may be able to squeak by the electoral college but, even if you do, you can’t govern. Because you won’t have the House (of Representatives).”
Impeaching Trump would be a mixed blessing: “If we got Trump out we would be less likely to have a war with North Korea, that’s a good thing, and then we would have a competent Republican administration, and then we would have a clean sweep. So I think they’re equally chilling options.”
She sees a bigger challenge for Americans. “When you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss ‘the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America’ this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites … We need to begin the process of healing the rift between white elites and white workers so that class conflict no longer dominates and distorts our politics … These people feel forgotten for a very simple reason. We forgot them.”
Original article here