Voting with Your Middle Finger
How Working-Class Whites Became a Negative Stereotype & What That Means for the Rest of Us
It is August 2019, the day after a fight broke out during a political rally in Ohio. Outside that same venue a 29-year-old man jumped from a red pickup truck and punched out a 61-year-old protester. I’ve seen all this before. The 2016 presidential election was not that long ago. But recent polling says the candidate at last night’s rally has a solid approval rating of 42% against his top-polling opponent on the other side. At least that’s the way things stand so far.
Are you kidding me? Forty-two percent?
But it’s not a joke. Neither is the recent New Yorker cartoon of a mother reprimanding her son for using “presidential language.” When I posted the cartoon on social media, several people responded with the “sad” emoji, the one with the tears.
I look at all this and try to remember author Zadie Smith’s comment when asked about similar troubles surrounding Brexit. “I think people are basically good,” she said. It’s only when they get manipulated and stirred up by demogogues that things turn ugly.
As an African-American who lives in a red state after student and career years in solidly blue ones like New York, California, and Washington State, I think she’s right. I meet white people here in the Deep South every day who treat me with kindness and respect in grocery stores, gas stations, the shopping mall, the fitness club, and the coffee shop. Some of them get into cars with political bumper stickers that seem to contradict their behavior. On the way home, I pass houses that fly the American flag 24/7, rain or shine, a clear indication that the residents believe jingoism is the same as patriotism. Although I have a pretty good idea who they’ll vote for, I don’t experience the rank hostility I see during these rallies and fistfights that go viral on social media.
So who are these angry rally-goers? Where is that 42% coming from? The answer is complicated and data-driven. But not long ago, I came across a podcast that shed some light on the situation.
First, the complicated part.
Although Donald Trump could not have won the 2016 election without the support of white working-class voters, the data show that he also received votes from people who cast ballots for Barack Obama four years earlier. Some of his support came from traditional GOP voters concerned about deficits and the economy, the alt-right coalition associated with Steve Bannon, voters who disliked Hillary Clinton, and assimilated Latinos who do not relate to illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. He also captured one-issue voters like anti-abortion advocates, critics of the Affordable Care Act, and supporters of immigration reform who liked his idea of “the wall.” Trump also benefitted substantially from voters who sat out the election altogether or declined to vote for either presidential candidate.
Some of that support is in play. According to an analysis of several polls by FiveThirtyEight (accounting for each poll’s quality, recency, sample size and partisan lean), Trump’s approval rating is 42.3%. His disapproval rating is 53.2%.
Also, despite a belief that Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony on live TV did little to move the needle, Newsweek reports that Republican support for impeachment has nearly doubled since the special prosecutor testified before Congress in late July.
And yet, Trump maintains unwavering allegiance among a core group of white working-class voters.
In April of 2018, political scientist Alan Abramowitz published an analysis of Trump’s support among the white working class for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. His report looked at race and economics to determine the motivational drivers behind their allegiance. What he found was a strong divide between college-educated and non-college-educated whites. Although economics play a role, “racial attitudes, not economics, appears to be the main factor producing strong support for Trump among members of the white working class.”
So how come the non-college-educated whites I meet in the Deep South treat me with such kindness and respect? What gives?
Well, they don’t use the same definition of racism. As a Trump supporter in Ohio told Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour shortly before his most recent rally there, her idea of racism does not include tropes that signal racially motivated hatred to minorities. Things like “Go back where you came from” and “vermin infested” aimed at people of color.
Here’s how that voter put it: “To me, it’s how you treat other people of a different race. It’s if you’re a bully to them. I think it’s also getting in someone’s face and denying them service, denying them the right to live where they want to live, denying them the right to religious freedom, denying them the right to rent a house because of a certain race.”
That is a definition that goes all the way back to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Not a thing wrong with it — except that it leaves out everything we’ve learned about racism since then. While it makes for peaceful interactions with Trump rally-goers and supporters in the mall or grocery store, this limited definition of racism allows Trump to use plausibly deniable tropes and even explicit messages that invoke resentment and fear of racial minorities and immigrants. What we’re talking about here are deep-seated feelings his supporters may not even be consciously aware of.
Now it’s time for that podcast I’ve been alluding to.
It’s part of the Hidden Brain series, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which I subscribe to because I’m very interested in the unconscious factors that drive our behavior. The title of this particular program got my attention right away. How could I ignore “Voting with Your Middle Finger” now that a polarized electorate has given the presidency to a candidate who did not win the popular vote? If I didn’t understand it before, I began to see that the 2016 election was a big F-U from a part of the country that has been stereotyped for decades.
Because I’m black, I know how it feels to be seen as a stereotype. You get pigeonholed before anyone even bothers to ask your name. Definitely not fun. But as I learned in this program, white blue-collar workers are stereotyped too. We already know that Trump got to the White House by tapping into their pain over the loss of manufacturing jobs. But there’s a lot more to the story than that. Why, for instance, do his followers remain loyal to him no matter what?
”Voting with Your Middle Finger” provides an answer to one part of a complicated scenario. It’s a discussion with Joan C. Williams, a Distinguished Professor at Hastings College of Law, and Marisa Abrejano, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Williams’ book is called White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Abrejano is co-author (with Zoltan Hajnal) of White Backlash: Immigration, Race and American Politics.
During the podcast, these two authors break down the significance of race and class in determining voter behavior. Whether you realize it or not, your class identification — the way you move through the world and relate to others — tips the scale almost as much as race. Sure, sure. But there’s an aspect to this we tend to overlook.
It has to do with that word stereotype. Take my word for it — when others place you in a box, confining you to a concept, it takes plenty of energy to climb out of that box long enough to say, I Am Somebody! Over the past several decades, the white working class has become a negative meme. Something to poke fun at. They’ve been looking for a way to climb out of that box for a long time.
Compare the worker-hero image depicted in posters for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression to what followed in the TV era. Once seen as the backbone of the country, that hero has been debased as fat and lazy, loud and stupid. Need examples? Try Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, and Family Guy to name just a few.
It’s pretty bad when the culture-at-large strips you of value. For blue-collar workers, value and identity do not come from the work they do. Their value comes from something deeper. It has to do with why they work at jobs they often hate, work the rest of the culture looks down on. They do it to support the family. Put food on the table. Pay the mortgage and the car note. Coach the neighborhood Little League team. Get the children educated.
I know a little about this. It’s how my Dad kept our family together working as a railroad dining-car waiter in the Jim Crow south, a job he held for nearly thirty years. He didn’t get enough sleep. The passengers he served looked down on him. His superiors were often racists who called him boy. Yet he and my mother put four kids through private schools, making sacrifices I regard as downright saintly. Two of those kids became psychologists. There’s a lawyer in the group. And oh yeah, a writer too.
This is why the debasement of the white working class is a disservice to the entire country. It strips them of their value as human beings. It also isolates them and renders them voiceless. Of course, ostracism based on class is not the same as racial segregation and never will be. You can put on an expensive suit and blend in with a different class. But there’s not a tailor alive who can take away black skin. As recent history has shown, there’s no escaping the systemic degredation of racism even if you get elected to Congress.
Still, there is a parallel between the two. We Americans like to think we’re a classless society. But we’re anything but. We reinforce class distinctions all the time in our media, in first-class airline seats, and the way we perk up and get all smiley at a cocktail party when someone says, “I’m a doctor.”
Voting for Donald Trump was an opportunity for the white working class to climb out of the box society had put them in. His candidacy unearthed feelings of fear and resentment many of them didn’t even know they had. They could relate to the way he said You’re fired! on TV. The F in fired looks a lot like the F in another word too. Especially when it’s said with anger. Trump gave these people a way to raise the middle finger and shout, I Am Somebody!
There’s far too much in “Voting with Your Middle Finger” for me to summarize here. But I encourage you to listen to the full 49-minute program. It will shed light on how we got here and provide insight on how we might begin to dig out. If you don’t have time to listen, here’s the transcript.
As everyone knows by now, the Divider-in-Chief does not need to unite the country in order to control an agenda that resonates with the middle-finger voter. In fact, it’s in his interest to keep the country divided. All he has to do is hold onto the base that put him in power. His tweets are a way to deliver government-controlled messaging to a captive audience.
Because, as the Hidden Brain reveals, Trump’s base exhibits an unusual trend. If they believe him on one or two things, they tend to believe him on everything else. That’s why he could say a few months ago that the immigrant caravan crossing Mexico included “bad people” from the Middle East. And his base believed it. They believed it even though there was no evidence to support it. Although Trump reversed hmself before news cameras, acknowledging that his original statement was inaccurate, the damage had already been done. The bad seed had been planted in the collective consciousness of a base that believes him on just about everything. There are many other examples of this post-truth, alternative reality stuff, but you already know about that.
So What Does All This Mean for the Rest of Us?
A few years ago, I attended the 83rd birthday party of Civil Rights legend and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. During the program I heard something that stuck with me. People don’t trust politics, Young said. When he was running for Congress and mayor, he won by connecting with people on a human level door-to-door. In this way, he was able to put together a coalition that crossed race and class divisions. People voted for Andy because they liked him — and because they trusted him.
I believe Ambassador Young got it right. We are much more than race or class or whether we see ourselves as blue or red in the voting booth.
Do you think about politics when making love? During surgery? Or when, through some unearned act of grace, mercy drops like a gentle rain from heaven upon some error you have made?
On top of everything else I learned listening to that Hidden Brain podcast, there was also this — I have work to do within myself. I have to be vigilant about recognizing the negative stereotyping of others. It’s up to me to get free of class-thinking that puts others in a box. To become conscious of any unconscious biases I may have. And uproot them whenever they appear. It’s up to me to respect everyone. Listen to everyone. Judge no one. Write no one off.
It’s also up to me to vote. To make full use of that hard-won right I never take for granted. These are certainly scary times. But I still agree with Zadie Smith. People are basically good. So why not treat everyone the way we want to be treated? And while we’re at it, “Let’s All Pray for This World.”
Originally published at https://www.andrewhillbooks.com.