Monday, November 08, 2010

The Truth of the Bitter White Elite Class

In the 2008 primaries, I wrote an article The Myth of the Bitter White Working Class that, using the work of Paul Krugman and Larry Bartels, poked holes in the moronic claims by Stevensonian elites that the white working class in America, Bubbas and Bunkers, are collectively responsible for perpetuating Republican rule because they are such knuckle-dragging, low-life, racist, anti-intellectual rubes, clinging to guns and God, as Obama (in)famously put it. I pointed out, way back in April 2008, this was little more than projection:
The basic problem is that two similar reactions to frustration - anger and bitterness - are getting conflated and transposed in an attempt to explain away Obama's failure at the polls.  ... What we are seeing is the way in which Obamacan bitterness over not getting what they want (and a pony) results in them crudely projecting their biases and fears onto people who are simply voting their interests. Bitterness is a reaction to having been stymied or betrayed, and is not an automatic reaction to having to work hard. I suspect a lot of working class people, regardless of color or gender, look at the shit life throws them pretty much the way I do, which is to sigh, daydream a bit about winning the lottery, and then just getting on with the business of making do with what life has handed you. It's only if you feel entitled to something you haven't received or burdened by things you do not deserve that you become bitter. Anger can be empowering. I have never encountered bitterness that is not corrosive and destructive.

Bob Somerby's merciless flaying of the liberal intelligentsia over the false accusations of racism against ordinary working class voters (an effort that is if anything worse than it was two years ago), continues today with one of his more stark and unembellished statements:
White voters made up 78 percent of the vote last week—and we liberals spent the bulk of the past two years calling everyone who isn’t just like us “racists.” Meanwhile, 79 percent of the electorate said they were Protestant or Catholic. To read Steve Benen’s latest post about “The God Machine,” you can just click here.

Snark is fun—when you’re in high school. If you care about outcomes, snark forms a very shaky basis for building a winning politics. This is especially true if you decide to aim your snark at the largest groups of voters.

Final point from the exit polls: Republicans won among two major groups —women voters, and men (click here). Someone should probably try to explain that. Democrats won both groups in 2006 (click this).
Well, let's see. If most men vote Republican and most women vote Republican, just where are the voters to give Democrats a victory? I think men and women pretty much have the electorate covered. The problem is not just that the Democrats have failed miserably in delivering something that resembles even the watered down version of liberalism that was promised two years ago. The Republicans delivered less on their campaign promises and created greater pain for ordinary people in their regimes since 2000 than the Democrats have managed to do, so why are the Dems floundering so badly?

A percentage can be ascribed to the backlash against any party in power. Except for FDR, the majority party always loses a little in the midterms. A big percentage of the backlash vote, but an even greater amount of the voter attrition - failing to vote at all, should be laid at the feet of the pitiful performance of the White House and Congress to get Main Street economics back on track. The Merry Banksters, of course, are flush. Not everyone is suffering in the Great Recession. Frankly, on both of these counts, the Republicans can't claim any high ground. They lose when they are the majority party, and they would have been shoveling even bigger buckets of cash to their Wall Street base.

The rest of the rejection needs to be chalked up to the unrelenting assault on the cultural and ethical integrity of the white working class voters, something the Republicans do not do. Oh, they hold that class in as deep contempt as the Obamacans do, and they actually do engage in comparable attacks on those same people. The difference is they go after "unions", which is a voluntary association, not after their color or their cultural expressions. The attack on unions allows them to treat the working class with contempt as well as to undermine an institution that provides upward mobility for women as well as men, and for anyone regardless of color.

But the Stevensonians have reified the concept of racism into a demographic - the bitter white working class - and have identified that group as the traitors to the good and the just, the filthy apes who once were true to the party but followed the siren call of Reagan racism and now delight in their infamy. The proof of this betrayal is that they voted for another Bubba when given a chance, someone all the Very Serious People know was trying to rise out of his place. The wretched, bitter Bunkers, clinging to guns and God, they are doing The Precious in.  Never mind, as per Bartel and Krugman, that the working class whites were the least likely to defect from the Democratic party and were the first to return when offered something material.

So, what the hell is going on in the benighted heads of the elitist fools? The truth lies somewhere in the projection of bitterness onto the working class. As I said in Class Act:
From a political theory perspective, Obama offered a singularly sophomoric Marxist argument about the voters of Pennsylvania (and by extension the entire working class) as suffering from false consciousness.They are simply bitter about not having jobs and thus they are clinging to the markers of Bubba/Bunker-hood - God, guns, racism (oops, guess that slipped back in), xenophobia, and anti-economic growth (free trade). Gee, what would that look like if we drew a picture? Of course, they had a lot more jobs under Clinton than under any of the Republicans bracketing his administration, but lets not let facts get in the way of a good myth. How does he know they suffer from false consciousness? They fail to vote for him. If they could just rise above their bitter and narrow particularity, then they would see the light and vote for The Precious.


They have guns because they like shooting stuff. They hold to their religion because it provides them with something they value. I may be a secular humanist myself, but as the child of a very devout father, this dismissal of faith went down sideways with me. (It also makes me want to ask, so what the fuck keeps your skinny ass in the pew of your church, given how you characterize the faith of those who do not support you?) Their identities are every bit as complex as Obama's, and as grounded in the dense fabric of their lives as what he claims for himself. It is not epiphenomenal, something to be shed when the scales fall from their eyes and they understand their role in his march to greatness.

It feels weird to have to state that there is dignity and worth in a life of labor. These allegedly bitter, backwards people have no interest in leaving their way of life so they can join Obamacans at the Starbucks in some hip urban enclave. They need not apologize for the choices they've made in their lives, no matter how much people like Obama and Delong try to shame them into voting against their interests. The poor bitter rubes of Pennsylvania actually want universal health care, which you aren't delivering. They want Social Security, which your adviser Goolsby wants to privatize. They want an orderly and honorable end to the Iraq occupation, which you are now waffling on. They want decent education for their kids, a relief from predatory lenders, some privacy, and an end to the assumption that they should be ashamed of themselves because they don't aspire to be upper class.
Perhaps the real problem here, which Somerby points at by poking fun at Rachel Maddow's Rhodes Scholar status, is that the elites are angry that the working middle class is perfectly happy to be that - contentedly average and of middling prospects. They don't see the point of wanting to be a straight A student, and this lack of ambition stands as a rebuke to the graduate school striving of the elite. The Stevensonian elite is angry that the middle class isn't ashamed of being middle class and seems determined to try to instill that shame in them through mockery, insult and condescension.

Perhaps it's easier to rob people blind if you don't think of them as quite human in the first place.



Anonymous said...

The Stevensonian elites don't grok that even when the Jacksonians get fancy degrees and financial success they still aren't ashamed of their roots.

Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

Best explanation of the "Bitter Clinging Class" I have yet to read.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

We certainly do see the point of wanting to be a straight-A student. I have never heard ANY parents push their bright kids to get educated harder than a working-class parent of a bright kid.

The problem is that, when we DO get As and outperform all those elites and get multiple terrifying degrees (BS in physics ans astronomy, MS physics, Phi Beta Kappa, Teas Scholar), we insist on still admiring our lunchbucket parents instead of being embarrassed of them.

Just because I'm smarter than almost every gentry elite I've ever known, and just because I'm better educated than most of them, I still don't want to wake up one day and be one of them. They don't get that. They think that my drive and ambition is an apology for being born working-class, and an outward expression of my thirst to be Just Like Them. It's not. It's a reflection of what I am, a massive thirst for mathematics right alongside a deep love of old cars and stadium rock.

Anglachel said...

Hi Janice,

I stand corrected and am guilty as charged. I was trying to capture the elite perspective of what they believe the working class wants and ended up falling into the very thinking I was trying to criticize.

A little anecdote. When I decided to stop trying to be a professional political thinker, mostly due to severe lack of money and foul job prospects in my field, I had an exit interview at my university. The professor doing the interview looked at me and said in a very patronizing way, "I see. So, you're not up to a *career*. You just want a *job.*" To which I replied, "No, I need an income."

That's the moment of condescension and projection I was trying (and failed) to capture. If I reject his life choices by choosing another path, then there is something wrong with me. I'm "not up to" the rigors of a "career" and will settle for a mere "job". The shocking thing was the resentment manifested in his dismissal of me, almost like a curse that I should fail.

It gives me no small satisfaction that I've ended up in, yes, A JOB that pays me well, gives me intellectual challenges, and where I am actively doing good things for the public's benefit. Unlike Mr. Snotnose.

To refuse to assimilate and to beat them at their own game - that is intolerable to any elite.


Anonymous said...

"To refuse to assimilate and to beat them at their own game - that is intolerable to any elite."

YES. It's an attack against their identity as the origin of all that is wonderful and smart in the world. THEY own smartness. Not YOU people. YOU own incest and cleaning your ears with a car key.

They can't see how getting the living hell educated out of you is not a rejection of being working-class, but a REFLECTION of it.

That idiot you talked to didn't even realize that some people actually need money. To him, people work for status or self-actualization or some other self-help book catchphrase, but not to eat. Most of that type aren't really educated anyway ... expensively educated, but not extensively. They don't have to actually DO all the work or treat their classes as anything more than an fascinating intellectual bagatelle -- they don't have to use their brains to live.

The world looks very different when you are expected to earn every single penny you will ever spend on yourself.

Stray Yellar Dawg? said...

Janis and Anglachel,

Your conversation here interests me. And reflects my experience.

I remember when my children were young and I was working my a** off to send them to a private pre-school. One of the schools benefactors there said something like "we really think parents should be home when children are so young."

And I wondered, after that.... if she realized that I would not be able to pay tuition if I did not work?? (Or for food and clothes.)

It's a strange world that elite live in. They believe we can choose NOT to be educated and hold jobs. They truly assume that we are living off of interest, as they do.

Which also explains why they think this "jobless recovery" is a recovery. Their risky accounts have been bailed out and are stabilizing a bit. What do they care if those who need jobs are doing better?