Over the past few years, a troubling narrative has emerged about the living conditions of the so-called white working class. Ever since the release of a landmark study detailing higher mortality rates among middle-aged whites without a college degree, the problems facing rural working-class whites have filled the airwaves. From chronic joblessness and poverty to family instability and the opioid epidemic, the language used to describe blue-collar whites is the language of despair.
In many ways, the moral panic surrounding white working class culture mirrors that associated with the crack epidemic that affected urban black communities in the 1970s and 80s. Despite their shared struggles, there is a clear political and cultural divide between the two communities. For Middle America, no group better personifies the sinful vices of the inner city than the so-called black thugs. Plagued by crime, unemployment, family instability and ghetto rap, inner-city life represents all that is supposedly self-destructive in black culture. Conversely, poor whites in rural areas bring to mind the cross-burning bigots who haunt the political consciousness of the black community. Culturally conservative and hopelessly ignorant, the poor whites of Middle America are often derided as white trash. Perhaps the only thing uniting rural white and urban black communities—other than their shared social and economic plight—is the condescension the political elites display toward their voting preferences.
This plantation theory of politics is an old canard in American history. In contemporary discussion, it usually revolves around the troubled relationship the Democratic Party has with the white working-class voters who once formed the party’s electoral base. But there is a similar sentiment pervading Republican circles, particularly among conservative intellectuals who don’t understand why the Party of Lincoln has so much trouble attracting black voters. Despite decades of subtle shifts in messaging and the occasional parading of black conservative politicians and intellectuals, black voters have largely remained a solid Democratic constituency since the New Deal era. Much has been said about the mutual animosity that exists between these communities, but their perceived inability to recognize their true interests is the more salient point for modern political analysis.
The Tailspin of White Culture
For the past three decades, Democratic politicians and policymakers have struggled to figure out why working-class whites have stopped voting for them. In the 1948 presidential election, 66% of working class whites supported the Democrats; by 1980, it had dropped to 35%. The close election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was a harbinger of things to come, as Nixon cynically used the backdrop of racial riots and widespread social unrest to cultivate his silent majority supporters. Bill Clinton temporarily ended a long losing streak for the Democrats at the presidential level, using his Southern charm and triangulating politics to win back some rural whites who’d thought the Democratic Party no longer represented them. Their working class base having deserted them, the Democratic Party now largely consisted of a jerry-rigged coalition between minority voters and a growing socially liberal cadre of what John and Barbara Ehrenreich called the “professional managerial class.”
There are many longstanding reasons why working-class whites left the Democratic Party. But the social and economic shocks of the early 2000s—most notably the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt—represent a key moment in the existential crisis facing this beleaguered community. Between 2001 and 2010, the manufacturing sector lost nearly 6 million jobs, mainly in the rural factory towns that once constituted the foundation of the Rust Belt’s industrial economy. American industry continues to suffer from chronic issues, such as underutilized capacity and increased use of casual laborers instead of full-time workers, a trend which only exacerbates the social and economic calamities affecting rural communities all across the country. While economists still argue over whether the cause was outsourcing or automation, this one fact helps put the modern narrative about dysfunctional rural communities into perspective.
Democratic Party politicians and apparatchiks are puzzled as to why so many working-class whites have switched sides and joined the so-called rich man’s party. The 2016 election of Donald Trump exacerbated these concerns as rural whites flocked in droves to support the candidacy of a glorified rich kid with a penchant for corruption and racist pandering. Despite Trump’s rhetorical nods toward economic protectionism, the Republican Party largely remains the party of big business: the same Reaganite formula of tax cuts and deregulation continues to dominate conservative policy-making decisions, with the occasional window-dressing about wily Chinese tricksters and “bad hombres” sneaking across the border. This is largely the product of institutional inertia, however, and a rising generation of conservative scholars and intellectuals are working to turn Trumpism into a coherent party identity. Whether they will succeed is anyone’s guess, but it appears unlikely that the Democrats can offer much in the way of competition.
Nevertheless, the Democrats should take a much greater portion of the blame, if only for abusing and abandoning their position as the working man’s party. The loss of the party’s blue-collar base, while accelerated by globalization and outsourcing, is largely rooted in the cultural disdain that elite liberals feel toward rural white voters. The popular liberal narrative of dumb reactionary rednecks clinging to their guns and their religion is the foundation of this prejudiced view of working-class whites, many of whom are neither religious nor particularly bigoted. Elite liberals, many of them white and affluent, openly delight in mocking poor whites as ignorant rednecks, and, even in serious policy discussions, the dialogue usually reverts to convincing poor whites to recognize what’s good for them, as if they were too ignorant to understand their own interests.
The paternalistic condescension of affluent white liberals toward their working class counterparts sharply contrasts with their professed empathy toward racial and sexual minorities. It is worth noting that working-class whites are the last group in society that can be parodied and stereotyped without social disapproval. Liberal sensitivity on race has done much to cleanse American culture of its racist undertones and provide opportunities for upwardly-mobile minorities—but it has come at a price. The rising fortunes of minority voters and the white upper-middle class have almost exactly coincided with the collapsing prospects of rural white voters. Deindustrialization, foreign wars and rapid social change have done much to ravage rural white communities, and so it’s understandable that many would see the growing prosperity of minorities and the white liberal elite as the source of their misfortune. Affluent liberals would do well to extend the same empathy and compassion to poor whites and nonwhites alike, but, given their inherent class biases as well as their geographical remoteness from the struggling white communities of the heartland, such a reconciliation is unlikely to be in the cards.
Black Voters on the Plantation
Republicans may snicker at how the working man’s party now struggles to attract actual workers to its banner, but their own party legacy leaves much to be desired. At the turn of the twentieth century, the GOP was widely seen as the party of Lincoln and abolitionism, despite its growing indifference to the miserable plight of black citizens in the Jim Crow South. For many black voters and intellectuals, the Republican Party remained heavily tied to the abolitionist mythology that survived the end of Reconstruction and the return of white supremacy, a mythology that helped keep the dream of civil rights alive during what many historians consider to be the nadir of American relations. Prior to the New Deal, black voters overwhelmingly sided with Republican candidates, and, even though blacks prospered immensely from the material gains of the New Deal era, one in three black voters continued to support the GOP throughout the 1940s and 1950s. But the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the Nixon campaigns of 1968 and 1972 changed all that: particularly Goldwater’s ill-advised opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the thinly veiled racism of Nixon’s invocations of law and order in response to Black Power. Ronald Reagan’s own insensitivity to racial issues—epitomized by his campaign rally near the unmarked graves of murdered civil rights activists—only compounded the bad feelings between Republicans and the black community.
This animosity between black voters and the GOP is largely mutual. Largely kept behind closed doors for fear of being called the R-word, the GOP’s subtle bigotry towards urban black voters has been channelled into a number of useful stereotypes. From the promiscuous welfare queen churning out crack-addled babies for that extra benefit cheque to the strapping young buck on the unemployment line and the tailspin of black culture in the inner cities, conservative hostility towards urban black communities is drenched with racist bigotry toward the black community in general and urban blacks in particular. Partly the result of their party’s newfound popularity in the former Jim Crow South, the bad blood between the Republican party apparatus and the black community rivals the collapse of the New Deal coalition as the primary component of post-civil rights politics in America.
But no peddled narrative is more pernicious and vile than the so-called plantation theory of black politics, a mirror image of the what’s wrong with Kansas narrative that white liberals periodically obsess over. According to this theory, usually articulated in private meetings among rich donors or on populist conservative forums, urban black voters are stuck on the Democrat plantation, unwilling and unable to express independent thought or views separate from those of the Democrats. Through a combination of race-baiting, welfare-bribing and conformist peer pressure, black voters are prevented from realizing the failure of urban Democratic governance and siding with the GOP and its presumably color-blind belief in free enterprise and personal responsibility. This regurgitated Sambo archetype is perhaps the most blatant illustration of the GOP’s lack of empathy for black voters and the black community as a whole. In one of his rare moments of clarity, poverty critic Kevin Williamson offers a thorough rebuttal of this plantation mentality that supposedly befuddles the collective black consciousness. The complicity of black Republicans—as opposed to black conservatives—in perpetuating this cliché is no excuse for white conservatives to do the same. It may be too much to ask of American conservatism to refrain from engaging in such racially provocative rhetoric, but surely it wouldn’t help to at least try.
This recurring narrative of people voting against their best interests, otherwise known as false consciousness, is an old concept in political thought. Popularized by Karl Marx in his writings on the imperialist tendencies of the British working class, the concept of false consciousness has become problematic in modern academic discourse for its patently condescending view of its subjects. The presumption that someone else is capable of—let alone justified in—correcting our beliefs offends both our sense of individualism and the value we place on subjective opinions. From the marketplace to the voting booth, Americans are united in their shared contempt for anyone who would dare presume to know what is in their best interests. The modernist belief in an objective interest or identity (economic, racial or religious) sits uncomfortably with our atomistic faith in the individual and her subjective preferences.
The subjectivist critique of false consciousness, however, obscures the very real impact that group identities have on politics and society. American politics is undeniably polarized along racial, regional and socioeconomic lines. Racial minorities—particularly African Americans—disproportionately favor Democratic candidates and policies, while white Americans generally favor Republicans. This is largely the product of aligning policies with objective interests, as well as strategic messaging and representation. And it would be naïve to suggest that each party perfectly aligns with their constituents on every single issue. The best way to reconcile our individualist sensibilities with the realities of objective political interests is to recognize that people—both individually and within whatever group identities they are associated with—have multiple interests that often clash and overlap. No one interest is objectively superior to another, and political parties ought to choose which interest—as opposed to which group identity—best aligns with their principles and policy recommendations.
The Plight of the Dissenters
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the conflation between group identity and partisan or ideological affiliation is the marginalization of dissenters and the gradual homogenization of each group’s intellectual history. For prominent black conservatives, such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele and Clarence Thomas, the conflation of black identity with the political liberalism of the Democratic Party has deprived them of influence both within the black community and in the country as a whole. Scorned as Uncle Toms by their progressive counterparts and tokenized by conservatives desperate to show their anti-bigoted bona fides without actually doing anything to merit it, black conservatism’s thought-provoking perspective on racial issues in America goes unheard. Which is a shame, for there is a wealth of insight and commentary contained within black conservative thought. From Frederick Douglass’ Reaganesque optimism about the American project to the proud and resilient communitarianism of Malcolm X, black conservatism has been part of the black community’s struggle for social equality and individual dignity since the very beginning. Prior to revelations of his gross sexual misconduct, Bill Cosby served as the voice of personal responsibility and self-reliance for black men in the post Rodney King-era, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has so movingly described. The tragic marginalization of black conservatism in modern political discourse is yet another example of racism’s pernicious presence in American politics, as white and black become hopelessly and ahistorically associated with conservatism and liberalism in the public discourse.
A similar fate of political marginalization has befallen the black conservative’s left-wing counterpart: the unionized worker. At the height of its power in postwar America, the labor movement represented a mass constituency of skilled and unskilled workers who were the foundation of America’s economic and geopolitical strength in the postwar era. The social-democratic promise of mass prosperity and social equality, promoted by labor stalwarts such as John Lewis and Walter Reuther, once served as the populist core of the New Deal political program. Now condemned to virtual irrelevancy, thanks to deindustrialization and widespread anti-unionism on the part of economic elites, organized labor lingers on as a seemingly archaic relic in today’s precarious gig economy. It was the labor movement that helped forge a powerful alliance between liberal intellectuals and the American working class, enabling the latter to gradually shed their provincial bigotry and the former to embrace a political cause of the masses. And it was the decline of labor that heralded the end of the New Deal coalition, and with it the promise of American social democracy.
Much of the rancor and division in modern political discourse is rooted in that most petty of vices: jealousy. Working-class whites are more socially conservative than their affluent progressive counterparts, but their primary source of resentment is the snobbery that pervades these liberal elites. Impoverished urban black communities lend a receptive ear to the nominally populist and identitarian rhetoric of progressives, but they also despise the way in which conservatives ignore their valid complaints and turn a blind eye to the bigoted narratives of racialized criminality and welfare dependence that often emerge from their ranks. And both affluent liberals and conservative apparatchiks paternalistically write off their opponents’ political supporters as bigoted or morally inferior. Like scorned lovers dealing with a recent breakup, these elites lack the humility and self-awareness to repair their old relationships or recover and search for new voters. Then, and only then, can we escape the abject misery of the culture wars and be done with the plantation theory of politics once and for all.