I grew up in Arkansas during a time in which Bill Clinton — a Democrat — was Governor for 12 out of 14 years, and in which Democrats held most elected offices. Republicans began to take over Arkansas around the time that both Bill Clinton and I left the state, and while I am very familiar with the GOP’s Southern strategy, what happened in places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Clinton was problematic in a lot of ways where it concerns race, but he not only succeeded with Black voters, but he dominated in our state where it concerned blue-collar white voters. During those Clinton years, it wasn’t about Black vs. White. It was about poor versus wealthy, and working-class voters — both black and white — voted together to elect Democrats.
But while Clinton was in the White House, it was like a switch was flipped. Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America had a lot to do with it, but it was amazing to see how quickly the South transformed. If Al Gore had won in his home state — where he had been a Senator for years — there wouldn’t have been a need for a Florida recount. The whole entire world would be different today.
But Gore lost Tennessee. Hillary lost Arkansas. Bill Clinton would lose Arkansas today. It’s one of the most transformational eras in the history of electoral politics. A hugely popular Southern governor was elected to the White House. He left eight years later relatively popular nationally, but he probably couldn’t have won Arkansas if he’d ran for Governor again.
Obviously, it had a lot to do with guns, and it had a lot to do with race, but the trap that we have fallen in — and by “we” I mean both the media and social progressives — is to treat white, working-class voters in places like Arkansas and Louisianna and Mississippi as a white hegemony, to dismiss them all as a monolith of gun nuts, evangelicals, and racists. And look: I’m as guilty as anyone, and I should know better.
Because there are a lot of white, working-class voters in the South who aren’t racist, who are reasonable about gun-control, and who go to church but still vote for liberal candidates. And we are absolutely ignoring those people, and while ignoring them doesn’t necessarily push them into voting for a guy like Trump, it certainly discourages them from voting.
That’s the gist of the NYTimes piece, “Liberal Blind Spots Are Hiding the Truth About ‘Trump Country’ which is one of the best pieces about what is happening in flyover states. The problem is, when we treat all working-class whites the same, we do “a great service to white supremacy.”
It ignores workers of color, along with humane, even progressive white workers. It allows college-educated white liberals to signal superior virtue while denying the sins of their own place and class. And it conceals well-informed, formally educated white conservatives — from middle-class suburbia to the highest ranks of influence — who voted for Donald Trump in legions.
The trouble begins with language: Elite pundits regularly misuse “working class” as shorthand for right-wing white guys wearing tool belts. My father, a white man and lifelong construction worker who labors alongside immigrants and people of color on job sites across the Midwest and South working for a Kansas-based general contractor owned by a woman, would never make such an error.
Most struggling whites I know live lives of quiet desperation mad at their white bosses, not resentment of their co-workers or neighbors of color. My dad’s previous three bosses were all white men he loathed for abuses of privilege and people.
It’s just as unfair, of course, to lump all white progressives together as “elites,” too. I mean, I’m a hick from Arkansas who lives in a farm house in Maine; Kristy is from bumfuck Pennsyltucky; Seth comes from working-class Philly; Jodi is from Shit, Ohio; and Tori is from … well, whatever. She’s from hippie Vermont, where everyone lives in the country, owns a gun, and yet … isn’t that weird? There’s not a lot of difference between white people in Vermont and white people in Arkansas, except for their politics.
But what everyone seems to ignore is that the white working-class has a common enemy — in Arkansas or Vermont — and that’s corporations, and that’s what a guy like Bernie Sanders has been able to tap into.
Back to that Times piece:
Yes, my father is angry at someone. But it is not his co-worker Gem, a Filipino immigrant with whom he has split a room to pocket some of the per diem from their employer, or Francisco, a Hispanic crew member with whom he recently built a Wendy’s north of Memphis. His anger, rather, is directed at bosses who exploit labor and governments that punish the working poor — two sides of a capitalist democracy that bleeds people like him dry.
“Corporations,” Dad said. “That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.”
Among white workers, this negative energy has been manipulated to great political effect by a conservative trifecta in media, private interest and celebrity that we might call Fox, Koch and Trump.
As my dad told me, “There’s jackasses on every level of the food chain — but those jackasses are the ones that play all these other jackasses.”
Still, millions of white working-class people have refused to be played. They have resisted the traps of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and nationalism and voted the other way — or, in too many cases, not voted at all. I am far less interested in calls for empathy toward struggling white Americans who spout or abide hatred than I am in tapping into the political power of those who don’t.
There’s a ton of political power in stoking resentment toward corporations. And that’s exactly why someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Jason Kander could play well in “Trump Country.” Instead of writing them all off as racists, we need to engage with that untapped power. Instead of running to the middle and trying to carve out a platform that is palatable to enough to attract a few independents while alienating the base, we need to run to the left, and reclaim what this party once was: A welcome mat for the working poor, a party that rejects rich fuckers like Donald Trump and Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, and embraces universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, and favors small, independent businesses (LIKE PAJIBA!).
Source: Sarah Smarsh, the NYTimes