Like many of you, I have been wondering why so many people voted for Trump. My search for answers led me to the award-winning bestseller Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. It was written by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a retired sociology professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who immersed herself in the conservative political culture of Louisiana, which went strongly for Trump.
Hochschild found that the people she came to know were good and caring with strong loyalty to family, community, and church. They had a deep respect for physical labor, including under harsh and dangerous conditions. They honored the corporations on which they depended for jobs, even in the face of environmental harm and unjust treatment that in many instances destroyed their own lives. They resented governmental aid as a demeaning and limiting intrusion.
Hochschild found that there is a deep “feels as if” story, beyond fact and judgment, that fuels the political passions of the people she came to know. In a New York Times review of Hochschild’s book, Jason DeParle summarized the story as follows:
“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”
Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy, and welfare—“checks for the listless and idle.” The government wants you to feel sorry for them.
Let us be clear on the real story. We have become a society of extreme inequality where the line to the American Dream has not only stalled but is moving backward for most people, regardless of identity, as an unjust system concentrates wealth among a tiny minority at the top. This creates a situation where everyone—women, people of color, and white males—can only progress by competing for ever-scarcer jobs.
The shrinking of the middle class has displaced many who once enjoyed the benefits.
The shrinking of the middle class has displaced many who once enjoyed the benefits of the middle-class membership they believed to be the natural right of anyone willing to work hard and follow the rules. It is a great triumph of the ruling class that it managed to shift the blame for the shrinking middle class to the women, people of color, and immigrants who themselves rightfully strive to realize the promise of the dream. When the displaced white males aimed their misplaced anger at women and people of color, they were dismissed as racist and misogynist—further fueling their anger.
They found affirmation in the line-cutting story. Trump’s promise of a great wall acknowledged and legitimated and fueled their rage at progressives they felt were throwing them under the bus to accommodate immigrants and refugees.
Reading Hochschild drew me back to the privileged innocence of my youth. Born in 1937, I came of age in the 1950s in a white, middle-class mill town in the Pacific Northwest. We all knew that America had a few wealthy families, like the Rockefellers, and pockets of poverty in Appalachia, and the Jim Crow South. But the United States I knew was a middle-class democracy, the envy of the world, and the product of strong and intentional government policies.
The New Deal policies and social programs of the Roosevelt administration were still robust. Unions were strong. Taxes were sharply progressive. In 1944, the top rate was 94 percent on taxable income over $200,000 ($2.5 million in today’s dollars).
Our infrastructure was state of the art. Social safety nets were robust. And most corporations were national entities, managed and regulated as mini welfare states that provided lifetime employment and accepted responsibility for the well-being of their employees.
In a truly egalitarian nation, there is no need or reason to displace one person to make room for another.
This was my country as I experienced it as a white male shielded from oppression based on race and gender. Though my innocence was long ago stripped away, I believe that the dream of a world that works for all represents a possibility to which we properly aspire. And it defines a crucial choice.
We can make it our goal to create a world free of demographically defined glass ceilings, where everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, has an equal chance at becoming a billionaire in a ruthlessly unequal and competitive world. Or we can make it our goal to create a world in which everyone is assured a chance at a fulfilling and materially secure life in a world free of extremes of excess and deprivation.
As President Obama noted last night in his farewell address to the nation: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
In a truly egalitarian nation, there is no need or reason to displace one person to make room for another—regardless of demographics. The way forward depends on our ability to make a reality of the vision of a world free from extremes of wealth and poverty in which all people of every demographic have the opportunity for a secure and fulfilling life within their own country and community. A world in which no one need flee their home or stand in line for a chance at a secure and fulfilling life.