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What's the Matter With White People? Longing for a Golden Age That Never Was

In her new book, Joan Walsh discusses the complex story of why many in the white working class turned conservative.

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So is there anything in this book that you’re anxious about your family reading?

Of course. Any time I’ve written anything about my family, people get upset about focusing on the negativity. I say in the book that I once called the Christian Brothers [monastic order] “foster care for the Irish poor,” and that remains a point of contention. I soften it a little bit in the book, but that’s still not popular in my family. Over the years I’ve tried to be more sensitive. And yet I still don’t think you send your kids off at 12 or 13, the way my grandparents did, if you have the wherewithal to support them.

There’s a scene in my book where my brother’s black friend is not made welcome by someone in my family, and people may be unhappy about that. We’ve had a lot of these discussions before. Once I started reengaging with my family, we revisited some of it. I am struck by the extent to which I probably acted like an entitled know-it-all, or a superior, self-righteous little ass, throughout my teens and 20s. Hopefully it wasn’t much longer than that. I understand things differently now.

I’m sure you know that anecdote by the novelist Mary Gordon, who describes going to her father’s funeral and having one of her aunts, who was a nun, come up to her and say, “Mary, you know we all hated your book.”

My father really wanted to be a writer, and at a certain point he said to me that what stopped him was this very Irish thing, where he always heard a voice in his head saying, “Who do you think you are?” Right after he died, that Mary Gordon essay ran, examining the relative lack of accomplished Irish-American writers. She literally says it’s that voice: Who do you think you are? There’s a lot of that.

You write about the fact that your father was the first person in his family to go to college, and also about the fact that he remained a liberal Democrat when many others around him didn’t. Both of those things describe my father too, and many other people. This is a tricky thing to discuss, but what’s the connection between higher education and voting for Democrats?

Sticking to my father’s family, the three boys who went to college, all because they went away to religious orders, turned out to be Democrats. The three siblings who didn’t turned out to be Republicans. When I’ve said that before, it can sound like I’m saying, “Oh, the smart ones became Democrats,” and I’m not saying that at all. What I realized writing this book was that liberalism in my family could seem like a form of class privilege. We were in the suburbs, we were isolated from the changes in New York. Of course my values are firmly held and my father’s were too. But it’s easy for us to think that integration is great and school busing is great, because those things did not affect us, by and large.

But that division is very important. Obama’s real problem right now is not exactly with working-class whites. That’s shorthand for a lot of things. It’s really with non-college-educated whites. Those are the people in our society who feel the most besieged, and in every poll they’re the most pessimistic about their chances and the chances of their kids. Somehow, for a lot of complicated reasons, they’ve come to associate their problems with what the government has done for other people but not for them.

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