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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 write that when you first became a TV commentator, you were aware of the fact that your white working-class background was, in effect, a card you could play. But then, as you started doing it, the role became real for you. Is that fair?

Yeah, I think that’s true. The impulse to describe myself as a working-class Irish Catholic was there, and I recognized that it gave me entree to the debate. It shocked people.

Right. Being a San Francisco liberal doesn’t carry the same cachet.

No, it doesn’t, for better or worse. And then, increasingly, I felt I was speaking for people who otherwise were being represented by Pat Buchanan or Paul Ryan. It’s a stretch to call me working-class, although my mother and father were both very much working-class, or even poor. By the time I came along, we lived in Flatbush [a Brooklyn neighborhood of modest single-family houses] and my dad had gone to college, and the rest of my life was a steady, lovely climb upward. My cousins are very much working-class, they work for Con Ed, they are cops, firefighters, steamfitters, teachers. So there really weren’t a lot of people like me in that debate.

In the book, I write a lot about the experience of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, where I felt that white working-class people voting for Hillary Clinton was exclusively explained in terms of racism, and I didn’t think that was true. Do I deny that some of it was racism, maybe a lot of it? No. But there was a lot more, and I thought it was unfortunate that debates about the two candidates’ economic policies were completely lost in charges of “You’re racist” and “You’re sexist.” It felt like going back to the ’60s again for a while.

That was a pretty hot and heavy campaign, and you don’t completely excuse yourself of all possible misdeeds.

No. As much as I wanted people to understand that the white working-class vote for Hillary represented class interests, I was also caught up in the first lady-president thing. I was shocked by that! I would have told you that didn’t matter to me at all. I didn’t start out supporting Hillary, but that became my own kind of tribalism. I felt that people weren’t really acknowledging her historic dynamic, and my tribalism got engaged, and that’s almost never a good thing.

You know, I really felt for Geraldine Ferraro, even though every time she tried to explain what she said it got worse and worse. And there was that crazy woman, Harriet Christian, screaming that Hillary had been robbed by an “inadequate black man.” I included a paragraph in a piece where I tried to explain what she meant, and there was really no explaining it. That particular cry from the heart — I should have left that alone, and explained how  I felt. There are people to this day who, if they want to say that I’m a racist, point to that one paragraph I wrote about Harriet Christian. So I apologize. I was wrong.

There are so many historical benchmarks along the way, from Bacon’s Rebellion and the draft riots and onward. In more recent times, we have Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act 1965, New York City’s white ethnic voters rejecting civilian oversight of the cops in 1966, and then the Democratic Party blowing itself up in 1968, when the white working class crosses over to vote for Nixon. Is that a very rough outline?

Very rough but largely accurate. But one thing I didn’t realize was the extent to which a lot of the white working class, especially Irish Catholics, left the Democratic Party much earlier. Some of them left with Al Smith [the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928]. The Al Smith story fascinated me!

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