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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.

Joan Walsh’s family, as she writes in her new book  “What’s the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was,” participated in two of the great migrations of 20th-century American history. Joan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but mostly grew up in suburbia (first on Long Island and later in Wisconsin). As that happened she watched many of her Irish-American family members morph from bedrock New Deal-JFK Democrats into Nixon-Reagan Republicans. In her book, Joan tries to wrestle with this legacy as honestly and forthrightly as she can, without betraying either her family’s complicated lived experience or her own passionate commitment to social, racial and economic justice.

“What’s the Matter With White People?” is sure to provoke much discussion during the fall campaign, with its personal and historical approach to one of the most toxic issues in American politics: How and why the white working class became the Republican base, in defiance of its own economic interests, and whether the Democrats can ever win it back. Along the way it’s also a family memoir that captures a specific period in the history of Irish-American assimilation, one that resonated strongly with me (and will also with you, if you have immigrant roots), and an account of Joan’s somewhat improbable rise to fame as an MSNBC commentator, which came about in large part because she embraced her working-class, Irish Catholic roots. Joan revisits many of the questions of the bitter 2008 Democratic campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – which thrust issues of race and class back into the national consciousness – and argues that Obama now has the opportunity to embrace a broad, inclusive economic agenda that can both win this year’s election and help to heal the nation’s worsening caste divide.

But this isn’t a book review, for obvious reasons. Across a dozen years or so as Salon colleagues, Joan has been my co-worker, my boss and then a co-worker again (as well as a TV personality). We have had a number of late-night political debates, mostly friendly and occasionally argumentative. (One of those was about the fate of Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, which took place when we were barely schoolchildren.) To stereotype both of us ruthlessly, Joan’s passion is the muddy trenches of politics, full of blood and compromise, while I’ve spent most of my journalistic career watching from the ivory tower of culture, with the other pointy-headed intellectuals. I am profoundly grateful to her for not mentioning, amid all the rough-and-tumble in her book, that I wrote a fervent Salon article defending my vote for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. (Want someone to blame for eight years of Bush? Mea culpa.)

Over the years we’ve picked up that we have strikingly similar Irish-American family histories, and strikingly dissimilar approaches to framing the major issues of the day. Joan’s father and my father were both the children of recent immigrants, and were born two years apart in adjoining New York neighborhoods. Both were the first kids in their extended families to go to college and break through to the middle class, and both remained liberal Democrats as many of their relatives drifted into the Reagan coalition. While Joan was born in Brooklyn and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, I was born in the Bay Area and now live in Brooklyn. That’s where we met for lunch, in a lovely, tree-lined, multiracial neighborhood that looks like a 3-D Obama commercial, to talk about what in fact is wrong with white people.

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