I am very excited to see my article appear in HNN today. Many thanks to editor Rick Shenkman for making this happen. This article provides a detailed perspective on the white, working-class, and its historical relationship with racial resentment, anti-intellectualism, economic mobility, and government policy. Through numerous examples dating back to the Virginia slave codes, Indian Removal, the development of mass political parties, and the American Civil war, I show how wealthier whites successfully employed a “divide and conquer” strategy that brought together whites of all social classes under a common racial identity. The consequences, which prevented the formation of interracial class-based alliances, were profound. Poor whites benefited from government policy in multiple ways that accumulated over time, contributing to the long-standing paradigm that freedom for some segments of the population came at the expense of others. As the Democratic Party began to embrace the modern civil rights movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the Republican Party capitalized on the racial anxieties of the white, working-class. But whereas racial resentment may have been subtle under the Nixon and Reagan presidencies, it has become painfully and irredeemably toxic under the bombastic authoritarian, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, neoliberal policies supported by Republicans and corporate Democrats have left today’s working-class with many legitimate grievances, but a comprehensive understanding of American history suggests that they have more often been beneficiaries of the state, and not victims. In addition to citing multiple academic studies, this article engages the recent work of many prominent commentators, including Thomas Frank, Emmett Rensin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Amanda Taub. Deeply researched, trenchant, and clearly written, this article contains important implications and context for the upcoming November elections and promises to be an enriching story.
Hobbes: So Calvin, I see the referendum on leaving the EU is coming up. How will you be voting?
Calvin: To leave the European Union, of course. I'm all in for the Brexit!
Hobbes: Really? How come?
Calvin: We pay millions of pounds to the EU every year and get very little in return. Our businesses are burdened by their onerous regulations. I haven’t had a steady-paying job in years and immigrants are overrunning our country. They’re taking our health care, burdening our services, and overcrowding our schools.
Hobbes: I think you're succumbing to a lot of fear-based rhetoric. First of all, many of the people you're speaking about are refugees. And that begs us to ask, what has caused the refugee crisis? From what I’ve read, the civil war in Syria is attributed principally to: 1) climate change; and 2) the destabilization of the region brought about by the US invasion of Iraq. Aren’t you compassionate for people victimized by a situation that we helped cause?
Calvin: Well even if the climate is changing, I don’t trust those communist scientists who fudge the data. The Earth has been much warmer in the past and there are natural cycles. Those scientists are just trying to take away our freedom.
Hobbes: okay, you've got a lot of misleading claims there, too. Did you know that something like 80-85% of the pollutants in the air that are caused by the burning of fossil fuels have come from western countries, including Great Britain? We were the first country, after all, to undergo an industrial revolution based, in large part, on burning coal.
Hobbes: Well…if we, as Britons, are very much responsible for heating the planet, which in turn, has displaced millions of people across the globe because of drought and other forms of extreme weather, don’t you think that we also have a responsibility to care for the refugees? Did you know that Great Britain, during WWI, redrew the boundaries of the Middle East to suit its own imperial interests rather than conform to the ethnic realities on the ground? Did you know that Iraq, currently in shambles and effectively partitioned in three, did not really exist as a country before the 1920s? I would add that our country, led by Tony Blair at the time, was a firm supporter of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Don’t you think that this invasion played a big part in causing the refugee crisis?
Calvin: Well even if that were true—and I just think you’re listening to communistic media—how will that get me a job?
Hobbes: Well first of all, I'm not convinced that breaking away from the EU will do anything to solve your problems. It may make you feel good, but it could very well make things worse for you economically, especially because you've traditionally worked in jobs that rely on trade with continental Europe. And nothing I’ve said thus far is remotely “communistic” as you say. I’m just trying to get you to engage in critical thinking; to be aware of the importance of history. And yet you seem to want to throw around misplaced labels. Quite frankly, you don’t have a job for a lot of reasons. The companies you that you associate with freedom and feel are burdened by regulations…they profited a lot from the Iraq invasion through contracts with our government. They sent your job overseas because they didn’t like the labor union you belonged to. They also lobbied our government for tax breaks, put all of their money offshore in the Cayman's and in Switzerland, and their CEOs make millions of dollars while you suffer. Don’t you think that’s unfair?
Calvin: There you go again. Always hating Britain first. I’m not gonna fall prey to your Jedi mind tricks. I want to feel proud of Britain. This is about heritage. We were once a great nation and now we're in the dumps. These immigrants that are overrunning our country…they don’t share our common values. They don’t believe in freedom. Many of them are terrorists. We need to make Great Britain “great” again. All you smug, elitist professors sitting in your ivory tower in Cambridge, all you do is look down upon the true salt of the Earth like me…the real people.
Hobbes: Uggh…that sounds like a talking point from Rupert Murdoch and Sarah Palin. Rest assured they don't have your best interests in mind. People who have uttered those words have done much to divide people along the lines of race and religion, all the while laughing to the bank. But let’s get back to your economic woes…You claim that immigrants are taking your jobs, right? What evidence do you have for that?
Calvin: I heard it in the Times. It’s also all over the tabloid news. And a friend of mine told me about a Syrian immigrant who hit on his wife.
Hobbes: Well there’s your problem. Again, Rupert Murdoch. And the example from your friend is just anecdotal.
Calvin: You know something? You’re going to lose this election. You’re just an elitist professor. You don’t understand how real British people feel.
Hobbes: Oh my god, you’re making my head spin. If you wrote this in an essay for my class, I’d give you a “D” for all of these vague generalizations, trite clichés, and meaningless catchphrases. What exactly does it mean to be "elite"? How can you call me “elite” when I’ve lived on food stamps? How can you call me elite when my salary is 25,000 pounds per year? This is hardly an excessive standard of living. By this measure I have much more in common with you than with those business owners you associate with freedom.
Calvin: You just don’t understand where I come from. You’re an arrogant person who just wants to make decisions for me. You want to take away my freedom.
Hobbes: Where on earth are you getting this from? In what way have I behaved arrogantly? Besides, as the great historian Eric Foner tells us, there are multiple versions of freedom. You may have articulated one version of freedom in calling for low taxes and deregulation, but that's largely the wealthy businessman's version of freedom. Are you a wealthy businessman? I would argue this version of freedom actually takes away other peoples’ freedom. It takes away equal opportunity. It takes away fairness. There are plenty of other versions of freedom – the right to health care; the right to due process; the right to not have air pollution; human rights; the right to marriage equality; the right to a minimum wage. Aren’t those freedoms, too? And to get back to your original point, I don’t see how immigrants are taking away your job. They contribute to the economy, too. They pay taxes. Some of them might be great inventors but they're not able to make use of their skills in their country of origin. They’re not taking the jobs that you would take anyway.
Calvin: They’re overrunning our borders.
Hobbes: Again, where are you getting that from? This isn’t the Roman Empire and they’re not the Visigoths.
Calvin: I heard it in the news.
Hobbes: Yeah, well I’ve read lots of academic studies on this and all the empirical evidence I’ve seen says you’re wrong.
Hobbes: What do you mean lies? What you are effectively saying is that you don't trust the scientific method. Are you telling me you don’t believe in empiricism? In evidence? In data? In having an argument based on some sort of reason and rationality? This doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, but it does mean we have to agree on certain standards of evidence and what constitutes a valid argument. All you're really arguing for is hatred, anger, and exclusion, and it won't solve any of your problems. And by the way, the entire society you thought was “great” would have never come to be without these standards. All of those advancements in the industrial revolution came about because people trusted science. They trusted academics. It’s my job to study this stuff. And when you call me “elite,” all you’re really doing is saying you don’t accept knowledge. You don’t accept learning. You can’t demand that I respect your opinion merely because you are capable of forming one. Here’s an analogy: I know how to play football on a very basic level. I also know, however, that I can’t play it very well and probably couldn't score a goal for the life of me. Because I'm aware of my limitations, I leave it up to the experts to decide who will play on England's national team. I don’t demand that my opinion be accepted and respected by elite football players. They surely know much more about the game than I do. You see, this is really the opposite of arrogance. True arrogance to me is asserting something without any evidence that can be verified. It would be like me saying, beyond a doubt, with an absolute certainty, that the Easter Bunny and tooth fairy exist, and when I die, I'm going to go to some magical universe where I meet them along with Santa Clause. That would be arrogance. I don't see how referencing scientific studies that people have worked very hard to put together is arrogance. Politics is ultimately about power. It’s about distributing resources. If you want this process to work well, you need to study it. And you shouldn’t be insulting people who have dedicated their lives to these studying these subjects. If you have cancer, you’d go see a doctor. If you had legal troubles, you’d call a lawyer. So why don't you trust a professor when it comes to debating matters of policy? I’m not saying they’re right 100% of the time, but at some point you can’t just keep denying expertise because you find it inconvenient. I’ve tried to calmly tell you about the evidence and data suggesting different conclusions than the ones you hold and all you can do is angrily wave the Union Jack flag, talk about your narrow sense of “freedom” and turn around and call me a “snob” and an “elitist.” It’s impossible to have a helpful debate here. As a philosopher, I’ve dealt with a lot of arguments, but this one truly stumps me.
Calvin: Well, Hobbes, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I’ll swallow my pride and think about this.
[Note to reader: we all know the last response from Calvin never plays out this way in real life. But the question is…why must we accept Calvin's viewpoint as having equal merit to the one presented by Hobbes? Why must media always present "both sides" when clearly the two sides in this case are not based on the same rigor and credibility? Why must “snobs” have to legitimize and entertain ill conceived, ignorant arguments merely because they come from “real” people?]
Every once in a while I encounter the dubious assumption that it's hard to say anything "new" about history. I remember meeting some people at a social gathering in Bakersfield--a black hole and patch of Texas within California that is plagued by high crime and illiteracy rates, and where Confederate flags fly and far too many people drive big trucks, talk in tongues at church, and deny the scientific reality of human-caused climate change. I introduced myself to some people as a historian and they joked that I could not say anything new or interesting about the Roman empire since 2,000 years had passed. While I firmly believe that the world of scholarly, academic history places too much emphasis on publishing "new" topics--a market-driven discourse containing many problematic assumptions that may prove self-defeating in the end as it leads us astray to the latest trends and fads at the expense of subjects that are tried and true--it is also important for historians to let others know that we are not just recycling old ideas and stale debates. The following list is by no means exhaustive and may require fine-tuning, but here is what I usually mention when this topic comes up:
* New archives open up. Western scholars did not have access to archives within the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but this changed after 1991. Allowing access to historical documents heretofore unseen naturally led to new historical interpretations.
* Individuals donate their family collections to local historical societies. While I would imagine that the overwhelming majority of these sources are quotidian and uninteresting, occasionally they are not and we come across treasure troves.
* Analytical paradigms come in and out of fashion. Before roughly the 1960s, few professional historians had examined the history of non-elite, ordinary individuals; history from the "bottom up" so to speak. Social history began to dominate in the 1970s but has declined somewhat since then. Meanwhile, only in the last few decades have women, non-white, and LGBT historians added to the ranks of the profession. In my own sub-field the paradigms of "republicanism" and the "market revolution" were once popular, but ceased to be so after the 1990s. With the 2008 recession, the "history of capitalism" gained popularity.
* New digital tools enable new techniques, new interpretations, and the ability to answer new questions. This is ongoing.
* Intelligence agencies can release information that had previously been classified. When I first learned about the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" in high school, I learned that we should be skeptical and that an attack may not have occurred. Now we know definitively that an attack did not take place.
* The passage of time changes our perspective on historical events. Sometimes things that seemed like a really big deal at the time have not endured in their significance, and sometimes the opposite is true. Growing up in the Bay Area in the 1990s, amidst a Silicon Valley boom that was literally creating an entire middle class, I remembered life fondly. I remembered thinking that Bill Clinton was a good president. Now I am not so sure. The 2008 financial crisis, which was caused at least partially by financial deregulation, which Clinton enabled by repealing Glass-Steagall, gave me a different perspective on the 1990s. The same was true of NAFTA, a punitive crime bill, and welfare reform.
* Rediscovery. Sometimes we need historians to help us remember lessons or themes that, as a nation, we seem to have forgotten, either deliberately because it suits some political agenda, or innocently because of the passage of time. In this post-WWII era where too many Americans associate the US military with spreading "freedom" (rather than imperialism?), we have to remind ourselves that the Founding Fathers, steeped in notions of traditional English liberty, regarded a standing military as anathema to freedom. What else explains the colonists' opposition to quartering troops and the Third Amendment to the Constitution? What else but a historian can remind us that civil rights, the creation of our national parks, social security, Medicare, the Homestead Act, the Transcontinental Railroad Act, the National Reclamation Act, and sundry other pieces of legislation, demonstrate the advantages of using the power of government in our economy? As historian Brian Balogh argued, we have a "collective amnesia" about the role of government in society due, in no small part, because of a religious, unquestioning, Reaganite devotion to "free markets."
* Archaeologists and anthropologists can make new discoveries that lead us to change how we write the history of pre-Columbian peoples, including the peopling of North America, which is usually the first lecture and textbook chapter in a college-level survey of US history.
* Historians can re-examine old topics and write about them in new ways
* Current events. As someone who loves news and politics but is a professional historian by trade, I'm always thinking about this. The examples are limitless. A historian writing in the 1980s would naturally write differently about Pearl Harbor compared to a historian writing in a post-9/11 world. This is not only because 9/11 ushered in a frightening, dystopian world of pseudo-patriotism, fear-mongering politics, ill-conceived military invasions, torture, spying, racism, and an enlarged national security state willing to abuse civil liberties, but as an attack on US soil, the event forced historians to look back to other times in which the country had been attacked. Dylan Roof's massacre of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina made us look less sympathetically toward the Confederate flag (and there wasn't that much sympathy in the first place). The Confederate flag, long a symbol of "heritage" and "states' rights" among white southerners of a certain class, background, and political persuasion, was removed by Republican Governor Nikki Haley.
Today I write during a heated election season in which the bombastic and racist demagogue, Donald Trump, has taken almost everyone by surprise in securing the Republican Party nomination. While it is easy to say that his candidacy has come out of nowhere, the historian knows better. The historian knows that any complex event has a historical context.
The Trump candidacy proves a lot of things. It would take an entirely separate blog entry, and a long one at that, to go over how insane, irrational, insecure, and dangerous Donald Trump is, but let's take it as a given at the moment. Because it's impossible for historians to be "objective," not the least of which because we're always influenced by the current environment and events in which we live, the rise of Trump should force self-reflection and introspection among Republicans and non-Republicans alike. This includes looking back to the past. Is Trump's candidacy an aberration? Or is it just a more extreme variation of a trend that has been building for decades? One thing is abundantly clear: Trump's rise proves that Republican Party base voters don't care at all about the details of governing or policy; they care about being angry merely for the sake of being angry. They care about personality and they value fake, outlandish expressions of masculinity, sexism, and racism. Just look at how the poll numbers shot up after every ill-conceived, childish, and bombastic statement statement uttered from the mouth of Donald Trump:
If forty years of Republican ascendancy has led to Trump, the historian should be able to look back in time and find powerful antecedents and precursors. It shouldn't be that difficult. One conclusion, and by no means the only conclusion, is that it should force us to examine with a more critical lens the previous Republican presidencies, including Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. Were they appealing to racism, too, to win elections? I wouldn't be the first to make that claim.
All of this is to say that the discipline of history is never truly settled. It is constantly evolving. It is constructed. It is almost always open to reinterpretation, debate, contested meanings, and especially, a whole lifetime of fun and enriching conversation!
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.
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