On of the central tenets of my thesis work over the last couple of years is that progressives, and especially progressive Christians, cannot and absolutely must not abandon or dismiss the concerns and existence of white working class voters in rural areas of the country, especially the Midwest, Great Plains, deep South, and mountain west. Here’s a portion of what I wrote in my thesis:
For progressives who are especially attuned to situations of oppression and injustice, the plight of rural white working-class people should be a concern. Instead, they are dismissed because of their repugnant political beliefs, with no understanding of how or why they arrived at those beliefs. White progressives still advocate for and stand alongside black Americans, Muslims, or Hispanic people, despite the existence of some poll numbers showing, for instance, the level of antipathy among these groups for the rights of LGBT people.24 Why is the same consideration not extended to the rural white working class? Hochschild calls this the “empathy wall,” that which inhibits the understanding of another’s deep story, and the resultant inability to have empathy or understanding for those different from us.
Finally, this is a group that is largely disdained and derided by other populations. As noted above, Nancy Isenberg has traced this history of cultural alienation in her book. This has resulted in the determination by advocacy and political groups that rural white working-class people are not worth the time. One particularly pernicious narrative applied to them is the idea that they vote for and support candidates who go against their own interests. This infantilizing narrative robs rural white working-class people of their own agency. To reduce the interests of white working-class people to merely economic considerations is to reduce the humanity of these people, and to disparage their ability to make rational choices about their own lives. Additionally, it is a narrative firmly entrenched in a neo-liberal, market-oriented world, one where the only legitimate choices to be made (at least by those we look down our noses at) are strictly economic in nature. Christians especially should eschew such essentializing narratives about human beings.
Instead, we need to understand that people make decisions – rational decisions – for a variety of reasons that are ultimately personal for each person. If any economically distressed person chooses to vote for and support candidates or policies that are not directly beneficial to their financial well-being, but instead picks a candidate that speaks to their cultural, social or identity priorities, then it is important to view that as a legitimate and reasonable choice to make, even if we abhor the positions and policies endorsed by such a vote. Even more importantly, if Christians claim to care about these people, then we must understand the real reasons behind these actions, and take real, concrete steps to address them, rather than dismissing them as irrational and self-destructive actors undeserving of our attention. The electoral results of 2016 demand such a response, not to mention the inherent dignity of each person.
I believe this very strongly. Rural white working class folks drove the election of Donald Trump in 2016, thrusting on us the horror of the last 3 1/2 years. They bear a share of this guilt. But, we live in a democracy. We govern ourselves and make decisions about our future in community with the other citizens of this nation, and sometimes people win who we don’t choose. And, in a healthy democracy, we don’t just ignore the voices of those we disagree with, and make plans to defeat them through sheer force. Instead, we have a moral and civic duty to acknowledge the voices of our fellow citizens.
And, even ignoring the moral imperative, we have a utilitarian one as well. Rural working class whites still maintain political power in this country, at the national level for little longer, but certainly at the local level in different parts of the country for years to come. We must hear their voices, and try to understand what they are telling us about their experience of America in the 21st century. This isn’t to say we must agree with them, or accede to them. Far from it; we must reject their worst impulses. But, we must find a way to do that that doesn’t include demeaning or dismissing them.
I’m thinking about all of this today because of John Judis’ recent piece at the Washington Post, “A Warning from the ’60s Generations.” The piece a long, good look at the dangers facing today’s political left, and should be read seriously by those looking to move towards a more progressive America. But here is the section that grabbed me:
Today’s left has not embraced the separatism or the revolutionary fantasies of the last days of the ’60s left, but, as someone who was there, I find disturbing echoes in the present. I’ll list three. First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018. It is an echo of the ’60s left’s Manichaean view of Americans.
As a result, today’s left has become fond of a political strategy that discounts the importance altogether of winning over the white working class. Such a strategy assumes Democrats can gain majorities simply by winning over people of color (a term that groups people of wildly varying backgrounds, incomes and worldviews), single women and the young. One recent article in the left-wing Nation declared: “Since the 1980s, Democratic candidates have proven that they can win elections while losing whites without a college degree by a significant margin.” It’s a questionable strategy for Democrats — in a presidential election, it could cede many of the Midwestern swing states to a Republican — but it is even more questionable as a strategy for the left, which has historically been committed to achieving equality by building a movement of the bottom and middle of society against the very wealthy and powerful at the top.
The last point is really important. Democrats and leftists can cede Midwestern whites to the right. But, first, 2016 showed us that that is a political loser as often (or more often) as it is a winner. Spin the math just the right way, and you get a GOP sweep of purple Midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It’s really hard to win without those states.
Second, Judis is right. One of the central tenants of democratic socialist/leftist politics has long been a commitment to fighting for the rights of working class people. To now just abandon those people is to abandon the history of leftist politics around the world. The left can’t just give up on these people because they have become susceptible to the racist, xenophobic, and bigoted politics of the right. The left needs to find a way to better speak to the economic and cultural concerns of all working class peoples.
Again, this isn’t to dismiss the racism and bigotry being exhibited by these groups. But, I think these tendencies are a symptom of other ills for rural working class whites, not a first-order driver. As Judis notes, many of these voters voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. This simple fact refutes the idea they are somehow irredeemable. Recent history shows us otherwise. But, with an ever shrinking pie of economic interests, these voters are seeing the cultural sphere as the only one left to them. Strongly addressing the siphoning of economic power from rural, working class areas is the way to address the racism and bigotry that are increasingly coming back into vogue there.
As I wrote in my thesis, the Church has a large measure of blame to bear for the plight of the rural working class. Here is what I wrote in my thesis:
I am making two primary claims about the state of the church: it is failing the people it is meant to serve because of a theological deficiency that causes it to be irrelevant to the life of the community on one hand, and unable to tell a coherent story about what it is, what is important, and what it takes to be a disciple on the other. Consequently, the people who have long depended on the church to provide a way of understanding and encountering the world no longer have it as guide and are thus becoming susceptible to other stories and institutions. This is the result of the world changing in the wake of the Enlightenment, the rise of the liberal nation-state, and the project of modernity; because of these things, the church no longer is relevant to the life situations of people, because it does not know what story it is trying to tell.
I think that it is this specific confluence of events – well into the decline of the institutional church as a relevant voice in the lives of many Americans, meeting the long strain of fear-based politics, right at a moment of unique geopolitical and economic stability in world history – that brought about such a unique political phenomenon as the Trump presidency. Rural white working-class people played a large role in this moment, finding as they did a narrative that spoke to their situation in a way Christianity no longer seems able to.
The Church has failed its members because it no longer presents a convincing, theologically grounded, and unique story about why it exists. So much of the church – left and right – is so concerned with contemporary cultural and political relevance that it has become essentially indistinguishable from the rest of American culture. When this is the case, the Church faces two terrible outcomes: it either becomes a wing of political and social forces driven by traditionally liberal and Enlightenment ideals (this is the fate of conservative churches in America), or it becomes useless and superfluous to other civic institutions (this is the fate of liberal churches.) Either way, the Church is no longer telling the story of Christ; instead, it is telling its own, modern story, disconnected from the traditions of the past (post-modernism at its worst.)
The Church needs to find its unique voice again. This is how it will become relevant to the needs of people today. And this is how those rural, working class whites will find some meaning outside of xenophobic and nationalist politics again. We cannot give up on them, or leave them behind. But we can’t feed their worse impulses either.