Since Donald Trump won the presidency, a disproportionate amount of media coverage has been given to white working-class voters. Lower-income whites, particularly in Rust Belt states, the narrative goes, were attracted to Trump because of his anti-elite posturing and (empty) promises of a coal-mining and nonspecific manufacturing renaissance. Though white working-class voters have been moving away from liberal politics for decades, many liberals seem to have been under the impression that West Virginia was just recently a Democratic stronghold. Few journalists seem to disagree on this demographic’s supposed significance, but the correct stance to have on it has become a major point of contention. As liberals struggle to understand the poor white’s place in 21st century politics, an array of competing takes have emerged. Is a laid-off factory worker in Pennsylvania a historically unique specimen, one whose condition can only be understood through bleakly romantic magazine profiles and patronizing mock-sympathy? Or is he merely an asshole, bereft of basic empathy and common sense, deserving of crushing poverty, opioid withdrawals, and an early death because he voted for the wrong guy out of spite? However the story goes, the focus on “poor whites” as a sad and foreign voting bloc only illustrates how out-of-touch the Democratic party continues to be.
First, a look at the facts. Pundits spent 2016 arguing about whether or not Trump’s base was in fact disproportionately poor. Determining the racial makeup of each party is easy (86 percent of registered Republicans are white) but accurate narratives about voter income are hard to construct. The median income for Trump voters in the primary was $72,000, higher than the national average of $56,000. This appears to debunk the claim that Trump had a unique appeal for poorer voters, but the median income of Sanders and Clinton voters, while lower, also exceeded the national median income at $61,000. So where were the poorest Americans, and who were they voting for? Well, here’s the thing: poor Americans don’t vote. However, exit polls did show a lower average income for Trump primary voters ($72,000) compared to Kasich ($91,000) and Cruz ($73,000) voters. What this actually means is unclear: Trump may have brought more poor voters to the GOP primaries, or driven away wealthier GOP voters, or both.
There isn’t sufficient justification for the sheer amount of media focus spent on white working-class Trump voters.
Confusingly, the general election results seem to both confirm and deny the “white working class” narrative. Exit polls showed that support for Clinton was strongest (53 percent) among all voters earning less than $30,000. At the same time, Clinton won 16 of the 20 wealthiest states. In Maryland and California, respectively the wealthiest and third-wealthiest states, she actually improved on Obama’s turnout. Clinton lost non-college-educated whites to Trump by huge margins; they were neck and neck among those with a degree, a proxy for middle to high income. Only one conclusion can be drawn from this mess of data — that there isn’t sufficient justification for the sheer amount of media focus spent on white working-class Trump voters.
Where did this focus originate? For many journalists, the designated explainer of the poor white’s plight is J.D. Vance, a National Review writer whose 2014 book Hillbilly Elegy was touted as a must-read for confused and bereft coastal elites after the election. Vance tells the story of his troubled upbringing on the border of Ohio and Kentucky, where his alcoholic grandparents and drug-addict mother made his life a living hell until he was able to escape to Yale Law School. (Whether a gig with National Review, a largely irrelevant publication that offsets its million-dollar losses with donations from the Koch brothers, is less shameful than hydrocodone and welfare fraud is debatable.) The narrative superficially casts Appalachian and Rust Belt whites as underdogs but also places the majority of the blame for their predicament on the moral failures of the individual, as Vance’s Review colleagues often do. Sarah Jones tackled Vance’s bestseller in the New Republic shortly after the election: “Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles.”
Vance’s reading of Appalachian poverty is remarkably conservative for someone so esteemed by ostensible liberals. As he sees it, the chaotic family lives, joblessness, and drug abuse endemic to forgotten coal towns are the result of cultural decay, not economic factors. (“Too many men are immune to hard work,” Vance says of his fellow Ohioans as he gets paid to insult them.) If liberals think Hillbilly Elegy will help them understand poor whites, they are tragically misguided. The old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric that Vance peddles is part of the reason why places like his hometown, Middletown, Ohio, came out for Trump, whose acknowledgement of economic exploitation, however confused and dishonest it may have been, was a breath of fresh air to voters accustomed to the Prosperity Gospel morality police that dominated the old GOP. The Elegy mindset — condescension and demands that the poor will themselves out of poverty — is about as effective at uplifting the downtrodden as was Bill Cosby’s “pull up your pants” speech at empowering poor black communities. Ending poverty isn’t the point, however; the point is to give Vance’s readers an entirely unearned sense of understanding. At this it succeeds.
If colorblind and genderblind poverty is the future that centrists propose, it should come as no surprise that poor whites seek to look backward.
While J.D. Vance’s work on the white working class is patronizing in a way that’s ultimately intended to assuage coastal elite guilt, others in the liberal media crafted takes that were plainly sociopathic. Frank Rich’s recent New York article, titled “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly,” implores Democrats to give up on working-class Trump voters and let them suffer for their bad choices. On the suggestion that New Deal-type programs can win rural white votes, Rich only calls it “wishful thinking.” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall was ahead of the curve when, in December 2015, he cast blame for the increase in suicide and rampant drug abuse among working-class whites: “Let's put this clearly: the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white.” Wrong and needlessly cruel, Marshall’s take illustrates the neoliberal impulse to manage expectations downward. Rather than hold up the booming economy of postwar America (which many forget was fueled by high taxes and unprecedented social spending) as the gold standard of prosperity and propose that nonwhites be given the same material comforts, Marshall attempts to make black poverty the norm that white poverty should fall to in the name of equality. Earlier this month, Jill Filipovic, who opines on American class politics from the vantage point of an expat who moved to Kenya, echoed Marshall’s blame-the-poor sentiments in USA Today. (“Women have increasingly adapted and sought out training necessary to meet the demand of jobs in health care. Many men have simply refused, deeming care jobs feminine and therefore below their station.”) If colorblind and genderblind poverty is the future that centrists propose, it should come as no surprise that poor whites seek to look backward.
Thankfully, there has been consistent pushback to the narrative that poor whites are to blame for their misfortune. The Atlantic analyzed the popularity of Vance and others in September of last year and criticized them for focusing on culture and morality at the expense of economic factors. Jacobin has been an important voice from the left, proposing that widespread and disproportionate media disdain for the white working class is part of an elite divide-and-conquer strategy. This is far closer to the truth. While the novelty of having a new group to exoticize always appeals to journalists, the reality is that poor whites did not appear out of thin air to vote in the 2016 election. In fact, Trump won only slightly more of the white vote than Romney did in 2012, and he did worse than McCain in 2008. Trump’s victory was not simply the result of poor white voters’ mass mobilization. If the Democrats ever want to win again, the focus must be taken off the red herring of poor whites and shifted to proposing genuine, simple, universal programs that draw support from working and middle-class Americans of all races.