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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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You know, on the left we often talk about the absence of social class in the American conversation, and no doubt we should talk about that more. But I’ve come to believe the division in this country is often more a system of cultural castes that is not purely economic.

Yeah, I agree. It’s cultural caste and it’s isolation, including self-isolation. You often hear this about isolated black neighborhoods, but it can be just as true about isolated white neighborhoods, where people never go into the city and live in a lot of generic fear. And when you don’t go to college you’re just not exposed to different ways of thinking and different people. Even if you go to an all-white Christian college, you’re likely to come away with somewhat different attitudes than if you never do it at all.

On the subject of white people, one who’s been in the news a fair bit lately is Paul Ryan. Obviously he comes from a very different social background than Mitt Romney. But he’s been proclaimed as “working-class” by many commentators, and you dispute that.

Absolutely. He is a child of privilege and comfort, born into a construction business run by his family in Janesville, Wis. I think Paul Ryan is a great example of what drove me to write this book. It has been so vexing to me, and so mysterious, that wealthy or upper-middle-class white people, especially Irish Catholics, have become the face of the white working class when they never spent a frickin’ day in the working class in their lives. And that goes for Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Buchanan and Paul Ryan. Ryan’s not as associated with the racism and the really nasty stuff, but his politics are just as nasty. His beliefs and what he wants to do are just as divisive and damaging.

But without irony, last weekend we saw him hailed as the white working-class addition to this ticket. And again, it works. I think it works in part because the media is so removed from any kind of working-class roots themselves that they don’t think about what that means. What that has come to mean is not that you lack a college education and work your ass off doing manual labor. It’s come to symbolize being closed-minded about abortion, being hyper-pro-military, being religious, being culturally very conservative. It doesn’t have any class content at all.

How much does the Romney-Ryan ticket represent a doubling down on whiteness? You can’t get any whiter than those two guys, and I don’t just mean their skin color or cultural background. They both seem like people with no experience of diversity, no relationship to the changing nature of America.

I think the Republicans doubled down on whiteness, and I think they have a problem. It could be a winning strategy, temporarily. They are making decisions that, well, it’s not great that Latinos and Asians don’t like us, but we have to double down on that base. This could get us through 2012, and we’ll worry about 2016 later. I would think that, as a Republican, you would think it’s a problem that nine out of 10 self-identified Republicans are white, in a country that’s about 60 to 62 percent white right now. One of our two major parties is a white party! It’s not named the white party, and I’m not going to call it a white supremacist party. But it’s the white party, and they don’t seem to give a damn about that. I think that’s a demographic and political and social disaster.

 
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