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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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I completely agree. Moynihan once proposed that we have twice-daily mail delivery, to add hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and here we are talking about slashing the Postal Service. He understood that jobs were money but also that jobs were social fabric, jobs were pride. I fret about how much I praise Moynihan in this book! I know that someone is going to come up with something he said sometime –

His language can sound patronizing or paternalistic.

Right. But I think that’s a really important moment, when Michael Harrington and Moynihan are in the Labor Department and they’re proposing this massive public works project. It gets rejected because Johnson is spending billions of dollars on the war. If those recommendations had been adopted, I think things would have been very different. I defend welfare, but the idea that we were going to let society’s most marginal, vulnerable people live on welfare, raise their children alone and not have to work — first of all, it led to incredible isolation, and second of all, it was never realistic. As women from all other classes were surging into the workforce, whether they wanted to or not, the way we administered welfare at that time was a recipe for social resentment and all kinds of unintended consequences.

So, yeah, put me down for a massive public employment program back in 1964, or in 2012. We’re not going to solve these problems without looking at government as the employer of last resort, and we are at last resort. African-American teen unemployment is ridiculous. These problems are just as urgent as they were then. Some of the solutions are the same, and some are different. And my last word about Moynihan is that everything he said about black people he also said about his own people. He knew that we had been on the bottom and had colluded in keeping ourselves on the bottom to some extent. Poverty, oppression and nativism had forced the Irish into ghettoes, and some had a culture of poverty that made things worse.

This is tricky to talk about, but it would be great if we could: The way that African-American poverty is on a continuum with white immigrant poverty. Some people will argue that Moynihan had no business opining on the problems of African-Americans, and that’s problematic. He did so fully believing that he could do it because his people had the same problems. If we can’t talk about that and see the common bond, we’re screwed.

You make a persuasive case, in many ways, for supporting President Obama and the Democratic Party – and you know how difficult it is, on a personal level, for me to say that! But how do you respond, at this point, to what we might call the Glenn Greenwald issues? The expensive and dubious overseas military adventures, the drone assassinations, the erosion of constitutional liberties – all the stuff from the Bush administration that we thought would go away and mostly hasn’t.

You know, I’m very disappointed on all of those fronts, and to some extent on economic fronts as well. When we’re talking about why the white working class left the Democratic Party — well, the Democratic Party left the working class around the same time. The Democratic Party drew the conclusion that government was being blamed for all these problems and so they were no longer going to be the party of government. They moved away from economic populism and greater inclusion, and they began courting business. They ceded the argument to Republicans, they joined the deregulation brigade, they signed on to the argument that entitlements are a problem and we’ve really got to cut Medicare and Social Security.

 
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