Joan C. Williams is a law professor, progressive, feminist and someone who supports and understands white working-class Americans. If Hillary Clinton ever gets tired of blaming Russian agents, Netflix and Americans of all stripes for her loss in last November’s presidential election, she could find a lot of answers in Williams’ new book.
Her book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America answers the question: Why did the white working class abandon Clinton and vote for a billionaire?
Williams has told me she was born into a wealthy family and traveled in elite circles until she met a working-class guy from Waterbury, Conn., who earned a spot at Harvard Law School. She uses her experience with him and his family to document what she told me is a broken relationship between elite whites and working-class whites.
Her starting premise is that the elites must stop dismissing the white working class as “an outdated class of fat, stupid, sexist racists, doomed for the dustbin of history.” The book explores the complaints that elites have made in recent years and answers each one.
First, Williams defines the working class as those families with incomes ranging from $41,005 to $131,962. The first criticism she answers is why does this group resent the poor? She makes the case that the working class sees itself as “settled families” who are making it by rigorous thrift and self-discipline. They often see the poor as hard-living families who are irresponsible and cause most of their own problems and then rely on government programs to clean them up.
This insight leads Williams to conclude that white working-class Americans often resent professionals who are condescending to them but champion the poor. However, they don’t resent the rich, particularly those who have kept their roots. She says, “Brashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich with none of your working-class cred. (President) Trump epitomizes this – after all, his original fortune was made in garish casinos that sold a working-class brand of luxury…” This insight helps to underline some of Trump’s appeal.
Williams then pivots toward answering some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the white working class, many of whom are in Pennsylvania. We know about Pennsylvania factory towns that have lost their base of jobs, which provokes the question: Why don’t the residents just move to where the jobs are?
One of the answers is economic. She claims they rely on family and friends for many things that more elite people purchase, from child and elder care to home improvement. At a deeper level, she says asking them to move is “… throwing away the only relationships that give you the prospect of social honor, the only social life you know how to create, and the social safety net that has seen you through.”
Williams and I sparred most about why more white working-class people don’t consider college as an alternative? She made the point that two-thirds of Americans don’t have college degrees, and she listed all the financial and cultural hurdles that these kids face in getting a degree. I’m from South Philly; my dad was a cop and my mom was a secretary, but college was not a foreign entity to us. I still have trouble understanding the mindset that doesn’t consider college.
Finally, Williams and I discussed what Democrats could do to win back these voters. She devotes chapters to explaining that the starting point is to stop dismissing them as racist and sexist. She also says pointing out to them that they sometimes benefit from the government and that they shouldn’t be critical of other groups that also benefit is a very tricky deal.
Her best advice is to listen to people such as Bill Clinton. It’s clear he was sounding the alarm inside the Clinton camp before the 2016 presidential election. She told me that the white working class didn’t care about Hillary Clinton breaking the glass ceiling. They didn’t care about working at McDonald’s for $15 an hour versus $9.50. They want a job that paves the way to a modest middle-class standard of living. Trump was the first politician in a long time to promise that.
Will Democrats learn that or repeat 2016?
Teacher-turned-talk show host Dom Giordano is heard 9 a.m. to noon weekdays on WPHT (1210-AM). Contact him at www.domgiordano.com