Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?

MEMBERS OF THE ELITE tend to assume that working-class people want to join their ranks. This is not always true.

Professionals aren’t necessarily admired. Many are seen as suspect. Managers are seen as college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything, but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job.”48 Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters . . . and professors were without exception phonies.”49 Sociologist Annette Lareau also found mistrust of doctors and other health professionals. She also found resentment against teachers by working-class parents, who perceived their children’s educators as condescending and unhelpful50—a resentment that perhaps fuels working-class support for conservatives’ assault on teachers’ unions.51

However, this resentment of professionals does not extend to the rich. “There’s an almost mystical desire among the working class to see a rich person from the upper class reach out to them,” commented class migrant Eric Sansoni* (remember, a class migrant is someone who starts in one class but moves to another—in this case, out of the working class and into a professional job). “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told Lamont. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk.52 “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” said a machine operator. The ideal is to own a business. “The dream of self-employment is one expression of class consciousness, not a denial of it,” noted an influential book on class.53

Daily life reinforces admiration of the rich but resentment of professionals. Most working-class people have little contact with the truly rich outside of “The Apprentice” or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but they suffer class affronts from professionals every day: the doctor who unthinkingly patronizes the medical technician, the harried office worker who treats the security guard as invisible, the overbooked business traveler who snaps at the TSA agent.

Remember: class isn’t just about money. Everything we do is class-marked. Especially today. Although my family was wealthy, my mom shopped at Sears and the A&P, I went to public school, and everyone watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. Today, the professional elite sends their kids to private schools, shops at Whole Foods, and reads Slate instead of watching Fox. Floods of ink cover the increased segmentation of the American media market, but almost no one makes the obvious point that the segmentation is shaped by social class. My circle of friends would no more send a Hallmark card than eat at TGI Friday’s. We all know what’s classy, though we wouldn’t be so gauche as to admit it.

Or consider coffee, a daily part of most Americans’ lives. When I was growing up in the 1960s, there were two kinds of coffee: decent and burnt. But over the past 30 years, a class structure of coffee has emerged. In the Rust Belt city where my in-laws live, you still go to Dunkin’ Donuts for a good cup. Not where I live in San Francisco: it’s all local coffee shops, with pour-overs starting at $6 a cup. And what of Starbucks? As Starbucks has democratized, and its drinks made sweeter and fattier, my PME friends wouldn’t think of setting foot in a Starbucks. Seeking to recapture that market, the ubiquitous chain recently announced a new premium coffee for $12 a cup.54

Not only the mundane is class-marked. So is the sublime. Among the elite, we proudly announce we are “spiritual but not religious” and invent some unique blend. Developing one’s own personal mélange of world religions reflects our taste for novelty and our penchant for self-development. Conventional religion? So down market.

Looking down on religion is a commonplace form of modern snobbery. I think it’s silly. Personally, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in religion. Religion helps me sit quietly, listening to beautiful music, among a group of people trying to be their best selves. I’m offended by the likes of Richard Dawkins—so dismissive of sincerely held beliefs.55 Some believe God exists, while others see religion as a metaphorical structure that gives shape to their deepest aspirations and griefs. Ontological questions don’t interest me.

Why do elites seek out novelty while the working class seeks out stability? For one thing, elites can afford it—star fruit costs more than bananas—but there’s more to it than that. The elite gains social honor by displaying their sophistication; the white working class has different fish to fry.

The contrast is most vivid at dinner parties. Anthropologist Arlie Hochschild, for her book Strangers in Their Own Land, traveled to Louisiana where she interviewed and got to know locals who identified as members of the Tea Party. For Hochschild’s Tea Party friends, a good party typically consisted of extended family getting together for “steaming roast beef, gravy, potatoes, okra, green beans, corn bread, and sweetened ice tea”56—large portions of familiar favorites and familiar faces, signaling comforting stability. For my crowd, a good party means a day of intensive cooking, often not for people we know well already, but for “people we’d like to know better.” What’s on display? Novelty is meant to signal sophistication; cultural capital, sociologists would call it. It’s important to impress, all the more so because the dinner party often serves a work purpose as well as a social one; it’s designed to cement relationships that will be helpful in developing a career—colleagues or potential clients or customers.

If food and religion are deep class divides, so is the role of talk. Elite families talk with their children far more than non-elite ones do.57 “While working-class people are not without self-insight and concern about their inward states, nevertheless they are not typically occupied with their ‘innards’ on the scale of the middle class,” noted a class migrant, now a professor.58 J. D. Vance tried going to a therapist but “talking with some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit.”59 This response also reflects the high value placed on privacy, on not “spilling your guts.” Noted one class migrant who grew up in North Dakota, “In my family, a conversation about one’s work typically consumed only six words. (‘How was your day?’ ‘Oh, fine.’) Speaking otherwise, in detail or with enthusiasm, was to risk display of the dreaded swelled head.”60 So much for discussing that amazing book you’re reading.

Still another class divide concerns social networks.61 Elites typically have a narrow intimate circle but also have a broad network of acquaintances—“entrepreneurial networks,” sociologists call them. Entrepreneurial networks help professionals get jobs, customers, clients, business partners, and business opportunities around the country or even in other countries.

Elite socializing thus cultivates the ability to get along smoothly with a broad range of people and impress them with your sophistication. Elite children are taught from a very young age to shake hands and look strangers firmly in the eye,62 because their futures rely on the ability to form and maintain entrepreneurial networks. Studies show that between 51% and 70% of professionals get jobs through personal contacts, so they “network” and host those aforementioned dinner parties.63 This is part of the self-actualization ethic so central to elite life (see Table 1).

This peculiar combination of the personal and the strategic strikes the working class as insincere. So does the kind of politicking required for career success in professional and business careers. Working-class entertaining is designed to denote a space apart from jobs, not be an extension of them. The goal is not to impress people you don’t know well, but to comfort those you do with abundant portions of familiar dishes—think Old Country Buffet, not Chez Panisse.

Blue-collar jobs often involve technical rather than social skills, and the working class takes pride in their technical expertise, not their ability to influence other people. A pipe fitter criticized “shirt and ties types” for “too much politicking.” “They are jockeying for jobs and worrying about whether they are making the right moves and stuff. I feel that I don’t have to get involved in that.” Working-class men often see professionals as phony and value their own ability to call a spade a spade. Said a man who had left Wall Street to be a firefighter, “In big business, there’s a lot of false stuff going on.” Said an auto mechanic, “You know what I hate? Two-face. I can’t stand that. You’re a fake, you’re a fake. Why be a fake?”64 “Middle-class game-playing bullshit” was the verdict of one class migrant.65

Irony versus sincerity is yet another class divide. Both black and white workers value sincerity and direct talk because they believe it sets them above the (fake, suck-up) professionals. The professional elite values irony and polish, because this sets them above the (inarticulate, unsophisticated) working class.

So much of what the professional elite identifies as normal life the white working class sees as the display of class privilege. Take the standard professional-class ice-breaker: “What do you do?” It makes sense in a class context where personal dignity stems from economic power and professional achievement. When people ask me, I reply, “I’m a law professor.”

But that kind of honor is available to only a few in the working class—to firefighters, police, soldiers. For most, the dignity work affords is from what it allows you to buy and whom it allows you to support, not from the job itself. “What do you do?” is not the first question at a party. I remember attending my class-migrant husband’s high school reunion when, with a regrettable lack of code switching, he posed the “What do you do?” question to a classmate. The classmate’s face got very red as he came right up into Jim’s face and hissed, I sell toilets.”

This helps explain why, in working-class communities, attention often shifts from what one does to who one is—to character. Working-class whites seek to “keep the world in moral order,” to quote Lamont, often measured by adherence to “traditional” values.66 “I was seldom entirely clear about what was meant by tradition,” admits Sherman, but the rural whites she interviewed were all for it. For them, it meant both rural rootedness and family values, which meant the two-parent family, the stability of family life, and the high value placed on family caregiving.67

For people whose jobs deny them prestige, “family comes first” is a common refrain. As a retired mill worker told Sherman, in his life everything was built around family. Having a “successful nuclear family was one of his life’s greatest achievements,” notes Sherman. Connecting to tradition through aspirational family structure allows working-class whites “to claim moral and personal success when they have few other opportunities to achieve some version of the American dream,” she concludes.68 This is why family values are so resonant.

The high value placed on traditional family values creates another clash with the professional class: among elites, a key way they show sophistication is to signal comfort with avant-garde sexuality, self-presentation, and family dynamics. The avant-garde arose in the early nineteenth century as an artistic movement that “pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo, primarily in the cultural realm.”69 What began as transgression among nineteenth-century European artists now defines the cultural world of the twenty-first-century American elite: it’s a point of pride not to be one of those petty bourgeois who’s shocked by sexual transgression. I knew I was born to live in San Francisco when, driving down Market Street, I spotted a man sporting sturdy shoes—and nothing else. I was uncomfortable—and delighted.

Securing approval for a new range of sexualities is a cause now embraced by progressives and mainstream conservatives alike (as evidenced by the partnership of Ted Olson and David Boies in arguing a landmark marriage equality case). Ted Olson’s championship of marriage equality in the Supreme Court dramatized that mainstream conservatives have joined the progressive elite in embracing acceptance of formerly transgressive sexualities as being open-minded and sophisticated rather than narrow and provincial.

The professional class seeks social honor by embracing the edgy; the white working class seeks social honor by embracing the traditional. The focus on character, morality, and family values is a key expression of class disadvantage; we all choose baskets we can fill. This attachment to tradition is part of what the white working class shared for so long with Burkean conservatives.70

All this is crucial background to understanding why working-class whites resent professionals. The professional-class values of sophistication, boundary breaking, and creativity are all useful for getting and keeping a job if you’re an order giver who has to signal initiative. Working-class whites value stability and dependability—dispositions useful for getting and keeping a job if you’re an order taker.71

For many in the working class, becoming a member of the professional class is an ambiguous achievement—you have more money, yes, but you also have to adopt new folkways, like two-facedness. The dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable—just with more money.72 Brashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred. Trump epitomizes this—after all, his original fortune was made in garish casinos that sold a working-class brand of luxury (aka “garish bad taste”).73

Bridging the class culture gap is difficult—for professionals as well as the working class. The first step is to recognize elite folkways as just that: folkways, not “good taste.” Many habits of the professional elite—from artisanal religion to a life of self-actualization—require a college education. America doesn’t provide that, so we need to take the working class as we find them. We don’t fault the poor for failing to value the same things the professional class values. We need to extend that courtesy to working-class people of all races. Many of our truths just don’t make sense in the context of their lives.

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