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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): Home

By David Cullen

Issue

This essay first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 8).

Introduction

The terms white working-class, working poor, and American workers appeared more times in political speeches and political columns in 2016 than any of the previous four presidential elections. President Donald Trump’s success, some claim, was his ability to connect automatically with the concerns of white American workers, as Michèle Lamont, Bo Yun Park, and Elena Ayala-Hurtado discuss in their essay “Trump’s Electoral Speeches and His Appeal to the American White Working Class.” During the 2020 Democratic primaries Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren openly courted working-class voters, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden often referenced his working-class background.

As a result, since 2016 the number of books about working-class Americans that have reached the best-seller list far exceeds previous books published about workers, which have sold far fewer copies. Many of these works are memoirs or commentary from political pundits or were produced in response to marketing opportunities. With rare exceptions these best sellers all have one thing in common—their authors are not historians. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis (now a Netflix film) by J. D. Vance, a venture capitalist, argues that the working poor are trapped in poverty because of their own poor decisions; Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, describes growing up in a dysfunctional, abusive family in rural Idaho; law professor Joan C. Williams’s White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America is more a criticism of liberal elites than a study of the working poor; sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right explores the motivations of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana; and The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is an extended political essay suggesting that the working poor have always been supporters of Republican policies. Another book-length essay, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, by Michael Lind, a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, blames class conflict on the managerial elite of the tech economy. Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, writer Sheryl WuDunn, is a series of stories highlighting the isolation and despair of white working-class people, ending with an appendix entitled “Ten Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes to Make a Difference,” as if poverty was little more than a problem of self-empowerment. Reporter Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor is an argument for the importance of unions to rebalance the income inequality between classes.

Two historians managed to join the ranks of best sellers whose subjects are working-class Americans, but both of their works are narrow in focus and more a product of market demands than scholarship. Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide grew out of an op-ed she wrote in 2014 for the Washington Post, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America concentrates more on the social construction of the term rather than the reasons for the conditions that affect those identified by the pejorative.

Few of these works reflect the scholarship produced by historians of labor and the working class in the first two decades of this century, a project that was largely associated with labor economists. Influenced by the work of University of Wisconsin economist John Commons, the first generation of labor historians, working in the 1920s–1950s, concentrated their scholarship on the relationship between labor organizations and the business community, that is the relationship between unions and business leaders. Following the publication of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, the second generation of American labor historians, active from 1960 to the 1980s and led by Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery, shifted the focus from union workers to wage earners, writing from a perspective of “history from the bottom up” and emphasizing the cultural worlds of American labor. This perspective is exemplified by Elizabeth Faue’s Rethinking the American Labor Movement and Perspectives on American Labor History: The Problems of Synthesis, edited by J. Carroll Moody and Alice Kessler-Harris.

Although the current generation of historians has yet to produce a consensus approach, their scholarship challenges the notion that all working-class Americans, especially white working-class Americans, represent a fixed, static, and unchanging community with little understanding of the dynamics of modern capitalism. Instead, their work demonstrates that working-class Americans are a dynamic, flexible community that better understands the modern financial economy than previously considered. By examining the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion, and using these categories as analytical devices to explore the economic subjugation of workers in rural communities and urban centers, this new generation of historians disputes the traditional definition of who a worker is, what a worker does, and the many worlds that workers both inhabit and create. This essay will highlight a number of these important works published between 2000 and 2020. Titles that reflect the work of labor historians before 2000 can be found in “The Working Class in American History” series from the University of Illinois Press, edited by James Barrett et al. 


David Cullen's PhD is from the University of North Texas. He is visiting lecturer of history at Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Arkansas.