Op-Ed: Even on July 4, the working class and the elites don’t see eye to eye
Is the Fourth of July just a day off work or a day of patriotism? Chances are your answer will vary depending on what your parents did for a living.
A yawning class divide is driving American politics, a chasm between the top 20% of American households and those in the middle. For one thing, Middle America tends to be more patriotic than the top 20% — the college-educated elite. J.D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy” writes that his grandmother “always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”
Flag waving went out of fashion in the 1970s among the college-educated, particularly progressives, not least because of their objections to the Vietnam War. But overt love of country remains robust in the group called the white working class. (Actually they’re the middle 53% of Americans, median income $75,144; most are among the two-thirds of Americans who are not college graduates.) Their patriotism reflects the way we all stress the high-status categories we belong to. For them, being American helps assuage the hidden injuries of class.
Closely intertwined with working-class patriotism is respect for the military. This makes sense in a country where military service yields instant honor to a group whose blue- or pink-collar jobs often don’t. Joining up also entitles them to free college tuition, training for blue-collar jobs, good healthcare and quality child care. Elite families can pay for all this; for non-elites, the military offers Nordic-style socialism.
Working-class people typically place a higher value on family and community, and may interpret career drive as narcissism.
Respect for the military also reflects working-class whites’ focus on self-discipline and personal responsibility. Alfred Lubrano, a journalist whose father was a bricklayer, described his dad’s “well-developed work ethic, the kind that gets you up early and keeps you locked in until the job is done, regardless of how odious or personally distasteful to task” in “Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams.” In “The Dignity of Working Men,” a printer tells sociologist Michele Lamont, “Sometimes I wish I could be more carefree. And then I say no. I like people who are responsible.” If these men were free spirits, their families might soon be homeless.
In addition to the military, non-elites of all races tend to value religion, another institution that aids self-discipline. The Southerners Arlie Hochschild interviewed for her book “Strangers in Their Own Land” were proud of their Christian morality and wounded when it was depicted as homophobic ignorance. “We try to be right living, clean living people,” a former pipe fitter told her. For non-elites, religion often provides the mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, impulse control and social safety net that elites get from their therapists, jobs and bank accounts.
If self-discipline defines the white working-class, self-development defines the elite. Success in professional jobs requires a life that revolves around career, ambition and individual achievement. Working-class people typically place a higher value on family and community and may interpret career drive as narcissism. In a Stanford/UC Santa Barbara psychology experiment, subjects were told the car they wanted to buy also had been chosen by a friend. People from elite backgrounds were disappointed; the lack of individual distinction felt like a loss. People from non-elite backgrounds were happy; they saw the overlap as a sign of connection with others.
The different values represented by self-discipline and self-development deeply shape American politics. Take abortion rights: For elites, abortion is fundamental to a woman’s ability to pursue a rewarding career and create a family of high-human-capital children born when the parents can pour time and resources into them. When family comes first and your job is primarily what you do to support your spouse and children, abortion rights may seem part and parcel of the elite’s strange and unhealthy tendency to place career ahead of more important things.
The way past the class divide on abortion and many other issues is to see how each viewpoint reflects the specific inner logic of lives lived. Neither represents dark ignorance. Had establishment Democrats held this view in 2016 they wouldn’t have condescended to “deplorable” non-elites.
For the Democratic Party to re-connect with blue-collar whites, it must return to economic justice as the cement binding the traditional progressive-working class coalition. Americans without college degrees have borne the brunt of the hollowing out of the middle class. What those in the white working class want is what college grads already have: a job that yields their vision of a middle-class life. That’s what poor and working-class communities of color want, too.
Donald Trump’s powerful appeal as a candidate stemmed in large part from his promise of decent work for, as he put it, the “poorly educated.” But the proposal his administration is most excited about so far looks to be a massive tax cut for the rich. That won’t fund a trillion-dollar job-creating infrastructure program, nor will it set up the kind of education-to-employment system that could retrain Americans for millions of good, middle-skill positions available now.
Nonetheless, a lot of blue-collar and pink-collar voters think Trump is not just listening to them, but doing something about their plight. If the elites in the Democratic Party don’t get off their high horse, show the working class some respect and provide a clear alternative to Trump, we’ll all be reading bizarre and inappropriate tweets for seven more very long years.
Joan C. Williams is a professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. She is the author of “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.”
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