01 August 2016
What do working-class whites want?
Michael Gerson has become another frustrated cheerleader for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In his column following the Democratic National Convention Gerson offers a critique similar to David Brooks' from last week. To their minds, the Democrats focus too exclusively on economic matters to the exclusion of what Gerson calls "cultural matters." His implication is that Clinton will need to address such matters if she wants to win over white working-class voters, who seem overwhelmingly to favor Donald Trump. Gerson's convinced that Clinton's "liberal communitarianism" will not win them over. Well, why shouldn't it, apart from Clinton's questionable credibility as a spokesman for such a philosophy? What does she need to say to this demographic, defined largely by their lack of college education? Gerson suggests that she and Democrats in general need to be more tolerant of conservative views on reproductive rights, for instance, and offers Bill Clinton's welfare-reform agenda as a model for outreach to so-called cultural conservatives. But what exactly is "cultural" about welfare reform, or even about a dislike for abortion? Is Gerson using "cultural" as a synonym (or euphemism) for "moral?" The word has an obfuscating effect since culture in some sense of the word seems to weigh heavily on the 2016 race, most obviously in the way many whites perceive "their culture" to be under attack, not only by terrorists in the name of Islam or immigrants importing alien ways and languages but by an intelligentsia, if not a whole political class that sees "whiteness" as an evil at the heart of American life. Trump appeals to those whites most determined to push back against this last sort of attack by affirming that theirs is the one, true American culture that must prevail if the country is to be great again. That appeal, I think, is largely a backlash against the narrative of "white privilege" identified with "political correctness" in general. I think I understand intellectually what is meant by "white privilege," but I still think it is an unwise, alienating argument to make. The assertion that working-class whites enjoy a "privilege" that is essentially negative -- that they're "privileged" because they're not stigmatized or profiled wherever they go, for instance -- can't help but seem insultingly absurd to people who see no positive material benefit from such privilege. Those same people often see themselves as the people who never get a break in life, and definitely aren't given any breaks by the government, while everyone else wants and gets breaks all the time. Who, then, is privileged? The "white privilege" narrative strikes me as absolutely the wrong way to address actual enduring racism, much less police excesses that don't really respect white privilege at all. It wouldn't hurt Clinton to drop the subject. She can still talk about racism and other forms of discrimination in which gender and sexual preference factor in, so long as she and her surrogates lay off the privilege thing. She shouldn't have to compromise her liberal or progressive principles any more than she normally does to win back at least some working-class whites. But what she (or any candidate out to beat Trump from the left) absolutely must do is reassure those white people that, as far as the candidate, the party and the country are concerned, they are not the enemy. That shouldn't be hard for someone who actually wants to be President of the United States.