We live in the age of working-class discontent, which, if it wasn’t obvious before, has been made plain by the passions roiling 2016 presidential politics.
The media’s preferred description of the average Republican voter has often been “the angry white male.” This was crudely simplistic and meant to be pejorative. If the press wants to update the descriptor, it should refer to “the despairing white male.” Or more accurately, the despairing white working class.
Two of the most illuminating and alarming books of the past few years — “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray and “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam — described the struggles of working-class America. This is the year that the facts and figures in the pages of those books have made themselves palpably felt in our politics, both left and right.
White working-class life in America has been in a slow-motion disintegration for decades, and it shows. The white working class is an archipelago of hopelessness. It is in a funk about the economy (almost 80 percent think we are still in a recession) and, more fundamentally, the American future.
According to the American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, only about 40 percent of the white working class say the country’s best days are ahead. This is not only lower than college-educated whites (53 percent), but much lower than blacks (60 percent) and Hispanics (56 percent). It is astonishing to think that the white working class has a dimmer view of the nation’s future than blacks, who have been historically discriminated against and still lag badly on almost every socio-economic indicator.
As noted by the National Journal’s acute analyst Ronald Brownstein, a survey for The Pew Charitable Trusts picked up the same finding a few years ago. It asked people whether they expected to be better off in 10 years. Whereas two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics said “yes,” only 44 percent of whites without a college degree said the same.
We are conditioned by the media to be obsessed with race, when class is an increasingly important divider. (No one ever earnestly says on a cable-TV show that we need to have “a conversation about class in America.”) The class divide among whites shows up again and again on questions about the fairness of the country.
The American Values Survey finds that white working-class Americans distrust institutions like the government and business more than college-educated whites do; they are more likely to think that their vote doesn’t matter because of the influence of wealthy interests; they are more likely to think that hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success.
There is a sense among working-class whites that America has gone off the rails, and has been that way for a long time. Sixty-two percent of them say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s, whereas only 49 percent of college-educated whites agree. (Similarly, the working class has a much more jaded view of immigration, which has been a defining feature of American life in recent decades.)
If our politics has a coloration of anger and despair, it is only the dismaying trends written about by social scientists Charles Murray, Robert Putnam and Bradford Wilcox coming home to roost. Besides the economic battering that lower-skilled workers have taken in recent decades, the working class is increasingly disconnected from the institutions that lend meaning and hope to people’s lives: marriage, the workforce, churches and other institutions of civil society.
They believe that the long-standing American promise of a country where children are better off than their parents has been betrayed, and they sense that their time is past — a sense reinforced by a pop culture that tends to consider them afterthoughts, or fitting subjects for mockery.
Although smaller than it once was, the white working class remains about 40 percent of the electorate. Its travails can’t — and won’t — be ignored.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.