Addressing the Cultural Anxiety of the White Working Class

It’s a cliche but a time-honored one. The poor working class parents who make extra sacrifices for their children so that they can become the first in the family’s history to go off to college and make a better life for themselves. It’s as familiar when the protagonists are immigrants from Haiti as it is when they are a factory or farming family from the heartland. It seems natural that one way to win political support in among these types of folks is to offer them free college. Why not fulfill their dreams for their children without requiring all the back-breaking effort on their part?

But, while the cliche may be pleasant and accurate in many cases, these families are not a majority when you look at things from a cultural point of view. Overall, if you enter into a community where people have gotten by without college educations for a long as any they’ve lived there, it’s a safe bet that they’ve found a way to justify the level of education they typically attain. At a minimum, they don’t seek their sense of self-worth in higher education, and more likely they’ve built up defenses that minimize the value of what an education can bring you. Perhaps it’s simple as corrupting your morals. Or, in today’s environment of exploding tuition costs, maybe it’s just a needlessly risky investment that does not guarantee a more comfortable life.

Polling conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic bears out that this view is pervasive.

Finally, 54 percent of white working-class Americans said investing in college education is a risky gamble, including 61 percent of white working-class men. White working-class voters who held this belief were almost twice as likely as their peers to support Trump. “The enduring narrative of the American dream is that if you study and get a college education and work hard, you can get ahead,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI. “The survey shows that many white working-class Americans, especially men, no longer see that path available to them. … It is this sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters.”

On the one hand, if you take the financial risk out of college, these folks should not only benefit but they ought to recalculate the cost benefit ratio of sending their kids away to pursue a degree. But the political benefits of enacting such a policy may never materialize, or may take a very long time to overcome the existing cultural suspicion and bias against higher education. As I’ve said, they’ve gotten by one way or the other without college degrees and their values reflect this. To suggest that you need a college education to be worthy is to indict them, their communities, and their common history. In other words, it’s a form of attack on them and it causes not only defensiveness but cultural anxiety.

And cultural anxiety is the real driver of their voting behavior. Here’s more from the PRRI survey data:

Evidence suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class actually preferred Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.

This data adds to the public’s mosaic-like understanding of the 2016 election. It suggests Trump’s most powerful message, at least among some Americans, was about defending the country’s putative culture.

Obviously, you can’t disentangle race from this mix. But when you see their mood as a broader anxiety about their status and place in America that includes the loss of their traditional vocations and their resistance to the idea that college is the answer for everything, it becomes clearer why talking to them about retraining or free college is met with such hostility.

Of course, it goes deeper. If college isn’t something you think your children should need or, especially, if you don’t think it is something they will ever pursue regardless of cost, then free college becomes one more example of the government spending money on other people. The people who can afford it don’t need the help even if they can benefit from it, and the rest are people from other communities with different values and, perhaps, a different religion, language or pigmentation.

This doesn’t mean that free college is bad policy nor that it wouldn’t help countless folks in these communities lift themselves up and out of their economic doldrums, but it does mean that it isn’t a magic elixir that will win over their political support in the short to medium term.

What they actually want is for their kids to have the economic opportunities they can remember from their childhoods. If that opportunity was a job in a coal mine or an assembly line, it may be that there isn’t a whole lot that a political party can do to restore that, but if we’re talking about entrepreneurial opportunity, like operating a private car repair shop or a local grocery or hardware shop or restaurant or pharmacy or bank, then those are things that can be addressed by a renewed commitment to anti-monopoly and antitrust enforcement. Breaking up the giant retailers (online and off) that have so much market share and purchasing power that they have crushed all competition is way to fight for their old way of life without making compromises or allowances for their cultural conservatism.

Industry consolidation is so pervasive that it effects people from all regions, from dairy farmers to Korean grocers to Pakistani hoteliers. But it has particularly destroyed entrepreneurial opportunity in the heartland by turning the small-town bourgeoisie and aspiring proletariat into wage-slaves whose kids need to leave town to escape the downward mobility.

The trade-off, which has been lower consumer prices without too much loss in quality and choice is certainly attractive. But it hasn’t worked overall. Quite the opposite, actually. And the sooner the left figures out what is really ailing these communities and comes up with a better solution for them than attacking their values, the sooner it can begin winning back their allegiance.

No one needs to be sold out in this scenario. And it isn’t a massive plan for income distribution. It’s a plan for restoring the American Dream and self-respect, and that’s both what is desired and what is needed.

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