Joan Walsh’s family, as she writes in her new book “What’s the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was,” participated in two of the great migrations of 20th-century American history. Joan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but mostly grew up in suburbia (first on Long Island and later in Wisconsin). As that happened she watched many of her Irish-American family members morph from bedrock New Deal-JFK Democrats into Nixon-Reagan Republicans. In her book, Joan tries to wrestle with this legacy as honestly and forthrightly as she can, without betraying either her family’s complicated lived experience or her own passionate commitment to social, racial and economic justice.
“What’s the Matter With White People?” is sure to provoke much discussion during the fall campaign, with its personal and historical approach to one of the most toxic issues in American politics: How and why the white working class became the Republican base, in defiance of its own economic interests, and whether the Democrats can ever win it back. Along the way it’s also a family memoir that captures a specific period in the history of Irish-American assimilation, one that resonated strongly with me (and will also with you, if you have immigrant roots), and an account of Joan’s somewhat improbable rise to fame as an MSNBC commentator, which came about in large part because she embraced her working-class, Irish Catholic roots. Joan revisits many of the questions of the bitter 2008 Democratic campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—which thrust issues of race and class back into the national consciousness—and argues that Obama now has the opportunity to embrace a broad, inclusive economic agenda that can both win this year’s election and help to heal the nation’s worsening caste divide.
You write about the fact that your father was the first person in his family to go to college, and also about the fact that he remained a liberal Democrat when many others around him didn’t. Both of those things describe my father too, and many other people. This is a tricky thing to discuss, but what’s the connection between higher education and voting for Democrats?
Sticking to my father’s family, the three boys who went to college, all because they went away to religious orders, turned out to be Democrats. The three siblings who didn’t turned out to be Republicans. When I’ve said that before, it can sound like I’m saying, “Oh, the smart ones became Democrats,” and I’m not saying that at all. What I realized writing this book was that liberalism in my family could seem like a form of class privilege. We were in the suburbs, we were isolated from the changes in New York. Of course my values are firmly held and my father’s were too. But it’s easy for us to think that integration is great and school busing is great, because those things did not affect us, by and large.
But that division is very important. Obama’s real problem right now is not exactly with working-class whites. That’s shorthand for a lot of things. It’s really with non-college-educated whites. Those are the people in our society who feel the most besieged, and in every poll they’re the most pessimistic about their chances and the chances of their kids. Somehow, for a lot of complicated reasons, they’ve come to associate their problems with what the government has done for other people but not for them.
You know, on the left we often talk about the absence of social class in the American conversation, and no doubt we should talk about that more. But I’ve come to believe the division in this country is often more a system of cultural castes that is not purely economic.
Yeah, I agree. It’s cultural caste and it’s isolation, including self-isolation. You often hear this about isolated black neighborhoods, but it can be just as true about isolated white neighborhoods, where people never go into the city and live in a lot of generic fear. And when you don’t go to college you’re just not exposed to different ways of thinking and different people. Even if you go to an all-white Christian college, you’re likely to come away with somewhat different attitudes than if you never do it at all.
On the subject of white people, one who’s been in the news a fair bit lately is Paul Ryan. Obviously he comes from a very different social background than Mitt Romney. But he’s been proclaimed as “working-class” by many commentators, and you dispute that.
Absolutely. He is a child of privilege and comfort, born into a construction business run by his family in Janesville, Wis. I think Paul Ryan is a great example of what drove me to write this book. It has been so vexing to me, and so mysterious, that wealthy or upper-middle-class white people, especially Irish Catholics, have become the face of the white working class when they never spent a frickin’ day in the working class in their lives. And that goes for Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Buchanan and Paul Ryan. Ryan’s not as associated with the racism and the really nasty stuff, but his politics are just as nasty. His beliefs and what he wants to do are just as divisive and damaging.
But without irony, last weekend we saw him hailed as the white working-class addition to this ticket. And again, it works. I think it works in part because the media is so removed from any kind of working-class roots themselves that they don’t think about what that means. What that has come to mean is not that you lack a college education and work your ass off doing manual labor. It’s come to symbolize being closed-minded about abortion, being hyper-pro-military, being religious, being culturally very conservative. It doesn’t have any class content at all.
How much does the Romney-Ryan ticket represent a doubling down on whiteness? You can’t get any whiter than those two guys, and I don’t just mean their skin color or cultural background. They both seem like people with no experience of diversity, no relationship to the changing nature of America.
I think the Republicans doubled down on whiteness, and I think they have a problem. It could be a winning strategy, temporarily. They are making decisions that, well, it’s not great that Latinos and Asians don’t like us, but we have to double down on that base. This could get us through 2012, and we’ll worry about 2016 later. I would think that, as a Republican, you would think it’s a problem that nine out of 10 self-identified Republicans are white, in a country that’s about 60 to 62 percent white right now. One of our two major parties is a white party! It’s not named the white party, and I’m not going to call it a white supremacist party. But it’s the white party, and they don’t seem to give a damn about that. I think that’s a demographic and political and social disaster.
In the long game, they probably still have a shot at Latinos and Asians. If the people in the Republican Party who are not racists come together and say, OK, we have to write off African-Americans for a while, but we’re really going to make a play for these other groups—I mean, they have to do that. Otherwise, it’s demographic extinction. But for 2012, their only hope is to double down on whiteness and play Paul Ryan’s “makers and takers” card.
You know, I was on the floor of the Republican convention in 1992 when Pat Buchanan made that famous speech about the “cultural war” in America, and I still think that was a moment of twisted brilliance on his part. You and I may feel that he’s on the wrong side of that war, but he correctly perceived that the people you’re writing about feel themselves cut off and divided from the mainstream of American society, especially the educated, multicultural people on the coasts and in the big cities. Moreover, they’re right to perceive themselves as being on the other side of a caste divide, and nobody really knows how to bridge that gap.
Absolutely. It took us a while to get here, and it’s going to take us a while to get out. We can start by talking about it differently, using less divisive language. Not writing them off, even if we can’t win them back. It made me nervous in 2011 when there were stories about how Obama could win without Ohio. They’re not talking about that anymore, and remember that Obama won the white working class in Ohio. He didn’t win it nationally, but he won it in Ohio. It wasn’t as though the “Hillary voters” were unreachable, or unable to see what he offered versus John McCain. And I think they’ll be able to see what he offers versus Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. The way we sometimes congratulate ourselves on being the Obama coalition—you know, we’re younger, we’re fun and flirty, we’re colorful, we’re on Twitter!—there’s no place there for 50-somethings who’ve lost their jobs and will never get the same kind of job back, and who can’t afford college for their kids. I think there are ways to talk about these issues that should give us a better chance than when we’re fighting on a culture-war level.
I think the president has begun to talk about it that way. You know, in the 2008 campaign, the hope and change stuff—“We’re the ones we’re waiting for”—had an edge of elitism. I don’t believe Barack Obama is an elitist, but the campaign could take on the fervor of the better class of people doing what’s best for America, and that’s never good. Those were the times I was worried, and I’m not seeing that in the 2012 campaign.
One thing I talk about a lot in the book is the idea of the golden age that never was. We made the political decision in this country to create a middle class, out of fear of communism and domestic unrest and fascism. The powers that be decided that it was better to flatten income and inequality, to have a 90-something percent top level of marginal taxation. There were engines of the middle class—mortgage insurance, highway construction, public universities, college funds—and those were political decisions. One problem is that people don’t see them that way, and another problem is that they didn’t help nonwhite people nearly as much.
This great apparatus that created the middle class excluded black people for a long time, and the suburbs had restrictive covenants, where certain people couldn’t buy even if they had the means. So we left a lot of people out, and all these white people got a lot of help. Government made all these decisions to help people that were colorless and odorless, and just seemed to be the background, like the air in this restaurant. People didn’t even identify them as government help, and then you get a situation where minorities say, “We didn’t get what you got,” and white people say, “We didn’t get anything! We worked for everything we got!”
It’s a fundamental divide of understanding, where you really need to change the terms of the conversation. And that’s where I think the president has been brilliant. There’s a new debate, where we have to recognize all the things government did to make an earlier generation of success possible. We stopped doing those things 20 or 30 years ago, and we have fallen into a horrible economic and social decline.