It’s almost 50 years old, but the 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb accurately identified the problems of class in the U.S. that have fed the divisiveness of Donald Trump. If only we paid attention. Their book also gives us an alternative path – a way out of our current mess.
The two sociologists interviewed white, working-class men in Boston back in 1969 and 1970, a narrow approach that ignores the people who now make up the majority of the working class. Nonetheless, their findings are useful. They identified a growing divide between the white, male working class and the upwardly mobile, well-educated class.
Ideally, human beings in society should be treated as equals. But the interviews revealed something quite different. The social order – fostered in the mostly unregulated American version of capitalism – had created a working class with a deficit of not only economic status, but social status as well. The men Sennett and Cobb interviewed thought that upper-middle-class people would judge them as not worthy of being “respected as equals.”
For Sennett and Cobb, this made clear that “class is a system for limiting freedom.” They asked “What happens to the dignity men see in themselves and in each other, when their freedom is checked by class?” The answer: working-class grievances.
“All of the dreams of individuality now, all the anger and accusations, revolve around the issue of common dignity. The working people of Boston have been denied the presumption, rather than the possibility, of social respect, denied in some way of moving through daily life without being defensive and on guard, some way of being open with other people without being hurt,” they wrote.
We can treat these injuries of class as either a problem to be solved or a problem to be exploited.
You know what Donald Trump decided to do. Hillary Clinton took his bait, in a statement that reflects exactly the kind of judgment Sennett and Cobb’s interviewees feared: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” It didn’t matter that she was speaking against “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” discourse and behavior, not against working-class people in general.
Trump turned “deplorables” into a badge of honor. A Trump ad responded “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard-working people like you.” In his Republican presidential nomination speech in 2016, mimicking the message of fellow Republican Richard Nixon in 1968, Trump fully appropriated the mantle of the working class by saying to “the forgotten men and women of our country” that “I am your voice.”
It soon became clear that Trump wanted to be the voice for only the white working class. And he wanted to be only a voice, not a true advocate. He wasn’t going to deliver an economic policy for working people (despite his claims of building the best economy ever). Instead, he strung them along – not solving their problems but exploiting their grievances.
Trump created a governing administration – a cult, actually – that exploited every grievance ever known to social relations in U.S. history: racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitism, anti-internationalism, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-journalism, anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-government, and embraced authoritarianism, white supremacism, conspiracy theories. And then he lied about everything in such an audacious manner it was almost too difficult for anyone to keep pace.
Aided by a conservative mass media (including Fox News, talk radio, and a network of conservative web sites) and social media that served as his safe space and propaganda arm, Trump has tried to hold together a base of mostly white men without college degrees, to the exclusion of nearly everyone else – despite his recent efforts to bring suburban white women back into his fold.
Trump doesn’t have to court the wealthy, a usual suspect in the Republican Party. They have gone quietly along for the ride, collecting bonuses every time Trump passes Go: wonderful tax cuts, extraordinary opportunities for influence-peddling, and fewer pesky regulations to hold them accountable.
For the working class people who follow Trump, the benefits are mostly psychological. Trump offers them a snarky attitude of superiority: own the libs, suppress women and people of color, screw the international order, deride the legitimate news media, and destroy the truth. These benefits might salve the grievances of feeling disrespected by the elite, but perhaps because he has offered so few economic rewards, his base is now shrinking.
There is another path to reach out to working-class voters who have felt the injuries of class as well as of race, gender, immigration status, and a myriad of other injuries of social exclusion. Biden captured the idea in the last presidential debate in a single word: dignity.
“What is on the ballot here is the character of this country,” Biden said. “Decency, honor, respect. Treating people with dignity, making sure that everyone has an even chance. And I’m going to make sure you get that.”
Fifty years ago, in his afterword to The Hidden Injuries of Class, Cobb wrote that those in power in society set the standards of class, which subsequently create those feelings of indignity. The alternative is to reject the class-based order, and instead value “having different cultures, different values, different developments, different abilities” – different, but valued equally. In other words, class is structure that has meaning only when we enforce its perverse rules.
The right policies could tear down this house: health-care as a right for all; a living wage for all work; equal wages and opportunities for women and people of color; progressive taxation; equal per-pupil funding for all public schools; an inviolable right to vote; and the right to easily organize into labor unions and collectively bargain.
If Biden is elected and follows through on building a society based on human dignity, he could begin solving the problems of class injuries. But no matter who is president, the challenge for working-class people – in all of their wonderful diversity – is to stick together and not let another leader define us and divide us. We can be our own voice.
Christopher R. Martin
Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).