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Joan Walsh on College Educated Progressives' Prejudice Against the White Working Class

Race and ethnic stereotypes in this country make it harder to see the many tensions and recent ethnic changes in the population.

Joan Walsh, the former editor of Salon (and now editor at large), has in recent years become the go-to MSNBC commentator on working class issues. Born into an Irish middle class family in New York, she offers a personal and analytical perspective on why so many white working class families defected from the Democratic Party. Her viewpoint on blue collar politics is insightful at a time that the progressive movement is still wrestling with how to rebuild the New Deal coalition in a contemporary format. 

Mark Karlin: What happened to the high school educated worker, who polls show vote in significant numbers for Republicans, even though the GOP economic policies are damaging to them? Did the Democrats abandon them, or did they abandon the Democrats? You argue that many voted for Obama, but still the siren song of the GOP has been luring this swing group for decades now.

Joan Walsh: I think it's important to remember this group did support Obama at higher rates than they did John Kerry or Al Gore. So they're not all hopelessly lost to the Democrats. But I think the obstructionism of Republicans, combined with the president's seeming more concerned about the banks than the banks' victims, left a lot of them disappointed, so they swung to the GOP hugely in 2010.

Mark Karlin: One of your most interesting personal anecdotes is your recollection of the hard hat rebellion in New York during an anti-Vietnam War protest decades ago. Can you recount the actual background to that incident (which represented a similar backlash in other cities) and what it represented?

Joan Walsh: White working class men were already feeling the early rumbles of deindustrialization. And they were also angry and resentful at the youth revolt. Some of it was patriotism – they couldn't stand to see the flag or the president disrespected. Some were veterans. Some were just angry that college kids who got chances they never had turned out to be so ungrateful! The Hard Hat Riot of 1970 followed a peaceful protest near New York City Hall, after four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State University May 4. By all accounts, it wasn't a rowdy or angry or at all violent gathering, but a little ways into it, about 200 construction workers from the World Trade Center site came charging up the street with flags, and they began beating some of the protesters with their hard hats.

My father was there as a protester, and he thought he saw his brother, a steamfitter, among the rioters. He fled and went back to his office and to my knowledge they never spoke about it.

Mark Karlin: Do you sometimes find it odd that college educated progressives speak out on behalf of whites (and minorities) who are experiencing economic decline, while many of those same whites may resent the progressives as elitists who are only interested in multi-culturism and helping out non-whites?

Joan Walsh: I write in the book about a long history of "educated" elite reformers approaching the white poor and working class – particularly my people, Irish Catholics – as dirty, backwards people, and often seeming more interested in the rights of minorities and women, not those white workers, who we can sometimes act like they created and deserve their fate. So I'm not always sure that "we" college educated progressives do deal well with the white working class.

Mark Karlin: Which brings us to the issue of race. I just read an opinion piece that Romney will need 61% of the white vote to win, given a turnout of non-whites somewhere below 2008 but above 2010. To what extent do many white middle, blue collar and elderly whites vote Republican because of their perception – egged on by GOP campaigns – that the Democrats represent giveaways to minorities. I am thinking, particularly of the poor whites in Appalachia who vote Republican year after year. I recall reading a Washington Post article about a dirt poor rural white county in Kentucky, where I think darn near everyone received some sort of government aid. The county would literally die without the federal government. Yet, the residents voted overwhelmingly Republican.

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