Now Is the Time: Working-Class Studies in the Trump Era

I watched President Obama’s inauguration eight years ago with colleagues with whom I had been teaching and organizing around issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender for almost two decades.  That America had elected a black man to its highest office felt like confirmation that our work, together with the efforts of so many others, had made a difference.  We knew we were a long way from constructing a “post-racial” society, but surely our country was heading in a more just and progressive direction, right?

My sense of hope dissipated long before November 8th, and like many people, I spent much of the past year struggling to figure out how to respond to the very different atmosphere of today. As we enter 2017, with Trump’s inauguration just a few weeks away, I am still thinking about what this election means for Working-Class Studies.

Obviously, we have good reasons to be concerned.  You don’t need me to recite the litany, from a rise in hate crimes and harassment to the appointment of a Secretary of Labor who opposes not only unions and the minimum wage but the very idea that human workers have value, and much more.  However, both the election itself and what we see so far of the Trump administration also make clear that our work matters more than ever.  Those of us who study, teach, write about, and/or work with working-class people have important work to do, now more than ever.  While we can pursue many directions, I want to suggest three key tactics that we should pursue.

First, we must continue to analyze the recent history and culture of the working class in order to better understand – and help others understand – the multiple factors that have undermined working-class communities and generated ever more resentment and despair, especially among the white working class.  Over the past few years here at Working-Class Perspectives, Jack Metzgar has reviewed an emerging body of research and commentary that denigrates and misrepresents this group, ideas that were reflected in both reporting on and political appeals to white working-class voters. When left-leaning politicos and elite “coasters” comfort themselves by assuming that only the uneducated, foolish working class would support a racist, sexist, xenophobic campaign, those of us who have spent decades talking and working with working-class people must respond.

But we cannot rely solely on historical ideas about class solidarity or even analyses of the costs of deindustrialization, important as these histories are.  We must be prepared to talk about current conditions and challenges. Among other things, that means we must take seriously the significant support for Trump among white voters without college degrees (according to exit polls, he won the support of 67% of such voters). We may criticize the use of this single demographic to define “the working class,” but we cannot ignore the fact that many white working-class people voted for Trump, including many who had supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.  While they had varied reasons for doing so, including a long-simmering resentment of the political establishment, many did not merely accept his angry and divisive language but actually embraced his overt rejection and even ridicule of “political correctness.” Examining conflicts around race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion is not new work for Working-Class Studies, but the events of the past year provide rich if problematic material for further analysis.  Now is the time for us to ask more critical questions and to focus more on the recent past and on contemporary conditions.

Second, we must commit ourselves more fully to addressing non-academic audiences. The focus on white working-class voters has generated significant interest in class as a social category as well as in the long-term costs of deindustrialization and changes in work. It has sparked debates about how working-class culture is responding to economic, social, and political change. This provides fodder for our research, but it also creates an audience for our writing. Yes, let’s continue to argue with and encourage each other as we analyze the economic, social, and cultural conditions of contemporary working-class life.  Now is the time to create a more activist Working-Class Studies that regularly and creatively reaches out to diverse audiences.

Finally, we must deepen our commitment to teaching, because our students will carry forward the work of resistance and social justice.  In our classrooms and offices, we have the opportunity to help (mostly) young people understand how class works and why it matters. Such courses may not change people’s political views, and I’m quite sure that some of the students who have participated in lively and critical discussions in my courses about inequality probably voted for Donald Trump. But some of my former students now work on economic and social justice campaigns, teach the next generation of working-class students, and address inequality through their work in social service organizations.  As teachers, we encourage the emerging sense of resistance and agency that inspires some of our students, and our mentoring helps enable them to carry on the work of social justice.  Now is the time for us to work even harder to prepare our students for the fights that lie ahead.

On November 9, I wrote on Facebook that I was not yet ready to follow Joe Hill’s famous call to stop mourning and start organizing, but my goal – then and now — was to move from despair to action.  We have no shortage of work to do, and, of course, the academic actions I’ve outlined here are just part of that. We should also be marching, organizing, fighting the concrete and specific battles that lie ahead.  Now is the time.

Sherry Linkon

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9 Responses to Now Is the Time: Working-Class Studies in the Trump Era

  1. protestfolk says:

    One way for U.S. left activists to gain more support from anti-classist white working-class people might be to begin to non-violently confront more the institutional classim of the corporatized U.S. system of higher education; and to also challenge more the often classist intellectual viewpoints and attitudes about U.S. white working-class people expressed by privileged white upper-middle-class academics and white professionals, whose salaries are derived, in part, from donated corporate, foundation, and public funds obtained from the exploitation of working-class people of all racial backgrounds.

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  2. Fred Anderson says:

    I suspect Progressive’s reaction to Donald Trump’s election is destructive of Progressivism’s future.

    We feel better by demonizing the opponent and sanctifying our losing candidate. Both reactions are hurtful. Believing our own propaganda, we will foreclose accomplishments where our hopes and theirs might align. We will be too busy hating to cooperate with “those devils.” But the policy sphere is large and complex, and there certainly will be areas where we can agree on ends. There may even be cases where we desire different ends but can agree on present means. And too much love for our own policies prevents us from addressing — perhaps even from perceiving — potentially grievous flaws. We won’t fix what we refuse to contemplate.

    And, too much of the reaction here is badly cursed by “guilt by association.” So Donald Trump is to be held guilty of the odious views of some of his more vile supporters. (He denied some, but I wish he’d denied more. Then again, there was an election to win and aggressively chasing away supporters seems suicidal — especially if you’re the underdog.) We take his silence as full-throated endorsement. And, yet. “You can’t believe anything that man says.” I suspect that, often, we don’t know what Donald Trump believes. (Some days, I suspect Donald Trump doesn’t know what he believes.) Please note; many conservatives distrust Trump because of his long history of supporting liberal causes.

    We extend that “guilt by association” to the voters who elected him. This in spite of the widespread perception that many figuratively needed a clothespin on the nose to deal with the stench. I suspect most working class voters who voted for Trump are well aware he’s a bad choice. It’s just that they thought Hillary — and four more years of current policy — would have been worse.

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  3. There have been so many analyses of the so-called “white working class,” that I am not one to second guess them. Working people without a college degree lost jobs in high numbers. The jobs lost were likely jobs where automation replaced workers more than jobs being outsourced. These jobs are not coming back. People need to understand that. More importantly these people need training and financial help to relocate if feasible. Corporate America is not going to provide that service in any significant manner. This is the job of government but requires the knowledge and understanding of tomorrow’s jobs. The students you are training need that knowledge to take from graduation to their new careers and home. People in this country made a terrible mistake this election which will have devastating personal effects for them. Teach their children to be equipped to support their families and friends in a viable manner.

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  4. S. Lee says:

    Thanks Sherry. This is also something I’ve been thinking about a lot and the three points made in this piece have been on my mind as well. I’ve already discussed this with a couple of folks in the field and I’ll post it here too: I think organizing some roundtables at this years’ upcoming conferences (Texas and Indiana) would be helpful as well as some online discussions / interviews to collate ideas about how the field might advance in terms of hubs, centers, and cluster research / hires. I’m also interested in brainstorming new ways that programs can integrate with the communities they serve as I can’t imagine that many institutions would be opposed. There’s a lot of work to be done here indeed, so I hope we can brainstorm collectively and share ideas for the greater good.

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  5. Pingback: Now Is the Time WorkingClass Studies in the Trump Era - Real Media - The News You Don't See

  6. rumpydog says:

    Very thought-provoking. Here are some things I feel have also led to the predicament we find ourselves in now.

    1) Right-wing propaganda, as delivered through their media outlets, energized people by making them angry in a way that left-wing propaganda ever could prior to Bernie. Even Occupy Wall Street seemed isolated and not relative to most of us working stiffs. I supported Hillary, but maybe Bernie should have been the candidate. Would have been more of a fair fight anyway- crazy white dude versus crazy white dude.

    2) Congress’ inaction helped the very party that initiated the inaction, and the Democrats never put out an effective message to counter-act their coordinated effort.

    3) While much is said about white working-class voters siding with Trump, very little is said about the rich white men who bankrolled his campaign. Trump is very loyal, and his cabinet reflects that loyalty. These uneducated voters just shot themselves in the foot and so far seem to be proud of the fact.

    4) The Democratic party has yet to do anything substantive, despite the extreme voter angry pouring forth on social media they could be harnessing. What the hell is wrong with them anyway?

    It will take a lot of hurt to convince those voters that Trump is not on their side, because his kool-aid is mighty powerful. Personally, I’m biding my time, preparing myself for when the time comes for me to take action. I may even have to step up and become a leader. Or maybe you will. Are you ready?

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  7. Alan says:

    I’m not quite sure what distinction is being made in US English by a “college” degree’ Over here we refer simply to a degree and the awarding institution is normally a university. I would certainly agree that to attempt to define people without a degree as “working class” is wrong. This makes Sir Richard Branson working class and thousands of nurses, radiographers, teachers, lecturers on hourly paid contracts, etc. something other than working class.

    In the UK, level of education has been the strongest demographic correlation in the Brexit vote, with the overwhelming majority of people with higher degrees (M.A., Ph.D. etc.) voting to remain in the EU, while an equally overwhelming majority of people with no academic qualification at all voting to leave. Education trumped income, with grads in “books rich, cash poor” occupations being just as likely as richer grads to back Remain. I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence that grads who work in modestly paid jobs and perceive themselves as serving communities have been most pissed off with the result – a kind of “ungrateful bastards” syndrome.

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  8. wvulou says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Sherry. This is helpful to me as I think about the path forward. Another thing that I have been thinking about–and this kind of fits under your first tactic–is the way that when the elite and the professional class ascribe the racism, sexism, and xenophobia of our times to the white working class, they do not have to confront the racism, sexism, and xenophobia in their midst. We saw a lot of those isms on display on youtube during the campaign–many times assumed to be coming from the white working class–but a lot of those isms are just as prevalent in, say, a gated white-collar community. It is just not visible enough to capture on video. They are often so embedded in our institutions that the residents themselves may be unaware of them (or can happily ignore them). I hope we can continue to highlight their existence but also find new ways to talk about them. Unfortunately, most of the conversations I have had about white privilege have produced a middle- and upper-class white backlash.

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