Conclusion

THIS BOOK DESCRIBES a relationship gone bad: that between the white working class and the PME. Empathy’s a good place to start, but remedying this relationship will require more. Like all good family therapy, it will require not just that the family “troublemaker” learn to behave. What’s amiss is the family dynamic that cast the “troublemaker” in that unhappy role. Changing that dynamic requires change on the part of the family members who are “not in the wrong.”

It’s a simple message: when you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice. And when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss “the dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America,”289 this is a recipe for extreme alienation among working-class whites. Deriding “political correctness” becomes a way for less-privileged whites to express their fury at the snobbery of more-privileged whites. If you like what that dynamic is doing to the country, by all means continue business as usual.

I don’t, for two reasons. The first is ethical: I am committed to social equality, not for some groups but for all groups. The second is strategic: the hidden injuries of class now have become visible in politics so polarized that our democracy is threatened. Another key message is that elite truths don’t make sense in working-class lives. Working-class truths do, and my hope is that I’ve provided a window into why. If we’re not going to provide elite lives for the broad mass of people, neither can we expect them to embrace elite truths.

Once the elite cast the white working class outside of its ambit of responsibility, the elite did what elites do. They ignored those who print their New York Times, make their KitchenAides,290 tell them at the doctor’s to undress from the waist down. The professional class first stopped noticing, and then they started condescending. Class cluelessness became class callousness.

Much anxiety has been expressed about whether bringing the white working class into focus will mean that privileged whites will stop caring about racism. I think that remedying the relationship between the professional elite and working-class whites will actually help people of color. I recall a conversation with Angela Harris, an African-American law professor whom I was trying to interest in a joint conference on class. Angela, with her inimitable candor, told me I was describing an issue among white people. Implicit: not her business, but I should get on it. White-on-white crime, opined another friend in critical race theory.

Ignoring and belittling the white working class is not a constructive move vis-à-vis people of color. I suggest a different approach: one that condemns racism and builds an interracial coalition for economic justice. If you don’t like how a family member behaves, the best approach is to assume that you need to establish a different relationship with them that brings out their better self. Typically that requires you to be your better self, too.

Less anxiety has been expressed on the gender front. This is ironic, given that women just suffered an historic setback. But sometimes an insistent focus on gender is not the best way to help women. Remedying the relationship between the PME and working-class whites will stop misogyny from being seen as a delicious poke-in-the-eye of the powerful.

I remain hopeful. Reckless alpha-male posturing, I suspect, will work about as well as it usually does: fine in the short term but poorly in the long term. Meanwhile, we need to begin the process of healing the rift between white elites and white workers so that class conflict no longer dominates and distorts our politics. We need to begin now.

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