Do We Really Have to Care About Miserable White People?

Do We Really Have to Care About Miserable White People?

Do We Really Have to Care About Miserable White People?

Sadly, yes, because they wield disproportionate political power.


It’s like the proverbial car crash you can’t look away from (although, for the record, I never look at car crashes). Endless stories about the white voters who elected Donald Trump dying “deaths of despair,” lately dying disproportionately from Covid, and, on Monday in The New York Times, being the sad sacks who drove the House Republicans’ election denial caucus.

A Times analysis found that, on balance, in the districts represented by the 139 Republican House members who voted not to certify the Electoral College results on January 6, whites are becoming a minority more quickly—and they’re also struggling more, economically and socially. The gist of the piece is here:

The portion of white residents dropped about 35 percent more over the last three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans, the analysis found, and constituents also lagged behind in income and education. Rates of so-called ‘deaths of despair,’ such as suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver failure, were notably higher as well.

A political scientist told the Times: “A lot of white Americans who are really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms because they see it as a way to protect their status.”

Given that a lot of these districts are based in the former Confederacy, that shouldn’t be surprising. And when you perceive yourself as outnumbered, and somehow unfairly so, I guess it’s easier to give up on the promise of democracy—especially when your leaders are telling you to.

Some people I respect on social media lamented the piece as just one more entry in the mainstream media’s undying attempt to humanize the white voters who gave us Trump. I get that—I know the cliché “In this Ohio diner….” After so many journalists failed to anticipate Trump’s victory in 2016, there’s been an unending and mostly unenlightening media attempt to explain these poor, struggling white people, forced to compete on a more equal basis—more equal, but still not equal—with Americans of color, and growing more enraged every year. They have genuine grievances with the politicians and plutocrats who’ve shipped their jobs overseas and ignored their growing misery. But that’s not where they place the blame.

I inhale these stories nonetheless. Someday, I’m convinced, someone will explain these people in a way that gives me hope that there is some way Democrats can reach them. I used to think that was me. Ten years ago in August, I wrote a book titled What’s The Matter With White People? I meant to write about it, on that 10th anniversary, but I couldn’t force myself to, because I got so much wrong. I got plenty right—the disabling racism afflicting so much of the white working class—but I truly thought Democrats could appeal to more of these voters with redistributive economic policies that would promote a more egalitarian society—better health care, more funding for education, forgoing the obsession with the budget deficit, becoming the party of labor unions again. I’m not saying they’ve done enough—but they’ve done a lot. And it doesn’t appear to be helping.

Even more than Monday’s Times piece, last week’s Washington Post story about climbing Covid death rates for whites confounded me. Truly, these are deaths of despair.

“Usually, when we say a health disparity is disappearing, what we mean is that…the worse-off group is getting better,” health equity researcher Tasleem Padamsee told the Post. “We don’t usually mean that the group that had a systematic advantage got worse.” The main reason: White Republicans’ declining to get vaccinated. “Lifesaving vaccines and droplet-blocking masks became ideological Rorschach tests,” the paper reported.

And whether we go back to the Affordable Care Act or President Biden’s many moves to combat both Covid and “inflation”—it’s OK they named it the “Inflation Reduction Act”; we know it was a climate change/corporate tax hike bill—polls repeatedly show that many white voters don’t give Democrats credit for the assistance they receive. A Los Angeles Times survey in 2017 showed that 68 of the 70 counties that would lose the most if the ACA were repealed voted for Trump.

So I understand why people are tired of all this reporting about down-on-their-luck white people: It hasn’t helped us figure out what to do about the hold they have on our politics. But another Times story shows us how Republicans are preying on these people: Their rhetoric has gotten uglier. “The language of the 139 objecting members is markedly more hostile than that of other Republicans and Democrats. In their telling, those who oppose them not only are wrong about certain policies but also hate their country.” One analyst called the “objectors’” increasingly ugly GOP language “devil terms.”

And it made me realize: We sometimes act like the GOP is merely responding to its base, with all of its radicalism and racism. But in fact it has created its base. Yes, there are political and material conditions that are making the white working class more miserable, and more extremist. But there’s a feedback loop with its Republican leadership designed to stoke that extremism, and to make them see Americans who disagree with them as not merely wrong but evil. Decades of dog-whistle politics and coded racism gave way seven years ago to the explicit racial appeals of Trump. They’re told the enemy is stealing their jobs, their schools, their hometowns—and in 2020, the election.

That doesn’t tell us what Democrats could do to fight these conditions, but it does tell us that the conditions are at least partly political—and thus can be changed. But not for a while. I don’t see anyone on the horizon who seems up to doing that.

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