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Toothless, Cousin Loving



Photo: David Mark/Pixabay

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

Last month, while the nation was rapt with millionaire heir Hugh Culverhouse’s heroic tale portraying himself as a defender of reproductive rights, some of us in Alabama dunked our cornbread in our buttermilk and pondered when national news might catch up to our local reporters, whose coverage offered a different narrative. 

In June, Culverhouse duped his way into the hearts of progressives by claiming the University of Alabama voted to return his $26.5 million gift to the law school. The reason according to Culverhouse? He called on students to boycott the institution in opposition to Alabama’s restrictive abortion ban. 

Of course, his story went viral. Here was a perfect morality play for a nation that loves to hate the South: A white savior single-handedly railing against a backwards state. 

Turns out, the University of Alabama and Culverhouse were long locked in disagreements about how his money ought to be spent. Emails show UA decided to return the money four days before Culverhouse’s abortion PR stunt. Their reason? Let me borrow from my dad’s family’s favorite phrase for the tight cling of the wealthy and power hungry: UA was dealing with a dingleberry.

I’d bet most folks who saw those early stories continue to believe Culverhouse’s version—even after reading additional reporting. The facts bore out a truth that simply didn’t fit with the narrative of Alabama most folks prefer to believe. 

Here’s a story that captures how I figure everyone thinks of the South:

It’s 2009, my first day of graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 

I’m 24, somewhat foolishly pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry, newly transplanted from Birmingham to a city where I know no one. Many of my peers have arrived from prestigious universities or positions as Real Writers or with a partner to keep them company during the depressing months ahead. 

In my first class, a professor asks us to include our favorite novel from high school in our introductions. When it’s my turn, I offer two: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Some other folks are tossing around unreadable, existential tomes that broody college students carry spine-up in their messenger bags so I’m thinking I’ve played it safe. The point is, with the others, the professor has tossed softball questions about form or the questionable morality of the author and how we separate their lives from their work.

To me, the professor asks: “Homeschooled kid?”

I shake my head, not sure where we’re heading.

She frowns. “Did you board out-of-state?” 

“I went to public school,” I say. 

“In Alabama?” she asks. 

“In Madison, a suburb of Huntsville.” Until this point, I’ve lived in Alabama my whole life. 

I scan the faces of the others in this room—some of them as young or younger than I am, many of them older with a great deal more life experience than even this professor. Potatoes with buttons shoved in the heads for eyes have been more expressive. 

The professor and I share a belabored back-and-forth about how I came to know these texts (summer reading assignments for English classes) and whether or not my peers also enjoyed, or more importantly, understood them (they did; most of them were and are much brighter than I am). Instead of accepting my experience and focussing on the novels I’d offered to discussion, there is open indignation and continued interrogation about the validity of my education and whether or not I was an Alabama outlier (I’m not).

I get the feeling it would be easier for me to don the mask of a dimwit and say, “Just kidding, y’all. I only read the pictures in my Paw-paw’s Bible.”

(An important geographical note here: We are in the South.)

Later, I’ll realize this indignation is born of an affront to the false narratives these folks have internalized about themselves as culturally and intellectually superior in relation to the ignorant Southerner. 

Right now, I’m only aware this encounter is lasting longer than any of the others.

“Huh,” the professor says. I can tell she doesn’t totally trust me, but at least the encounter is over. She moves to the next person, but I’m not listening. 

I’m wondering if I am some backwoods imposter. 

I’m thinking about Flannery O’Connor, how she showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1945, and when the director couldn’t understand her Georgia lilt, she wrote on a piece of paper, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. May I come to the Writers Workshop?” 

Accounts of O’Connor sitting silently in those workshops during her masters program and eventually stunning all those yankee dingleberries with her brilliance when she submitted her prose have long quelled any sense of inferiority I have about where I come from.

In this moment, though, I realize I am not going to be anything like O’Connor. 

This class can make perfect sense of the words I’m saying. 

They just don’t believe me.

Luckily, I wasn’t on the official roster, and when I didn’t make it into the class, I was relieved not to be in a semester-long position of constantly defending my background or home.

I should have considered it a primer, or better, a premonition for the years to come.

In a rare recording of O’Connor, you can listen to her read the essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” which includes the line: “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

This was 1960. By now a famous and acclaimed author, O’Connor was criticizing modern critical and scholarly attitudes toward popular realist fiction and the limitations of narratives that lacked mystery and imagination. Of course, she was also making a joke about misconceptions of the South more broadly. That’s why the line resonates with me each time I come across it. 

Coming to the defense of Alabama and the South at large is pretty much what I’ve been up to in the decade since that first awkward introduction to literary academia. 

Back then, my protests amounted to a lot of blood-boiled “but, buts” at parties and in class when people offered misinformed ideas about the South. Here’s a for instance: In a workshop, a classmate explained her choice to have a fictional character live in a trailer to show the reader the protagonist was ignorant and poor without having to say so. When I suggested she might be using classist stereotypes to incorrectly caricaturize, the professor came to her defense. 

“It’s funny,” he said. And that was that. 

In recent years, as a journalist, many of the stories I pitch to magazines outside the South use this framework: “Everyone thinks X about the South but Y is true.” It’s an angle that’s allowed me to write about artists, activists, politicians, whatever. I’m beginning to suspect I’ll get sick of this framework long before I run out of topics. 

In communities online and at home, I’ve sought a kind of support group for Southerners who give a shit about examining what Southern identity really is, who are comfortable wrestling with the complexity of this place, celebrating what makes it so wonderful while also raging against what makes it a hellscape. 

A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I asked, “What’s the most condescending thing someone has said to you about living in / being from the South?” I shared my grad school “boarding school / homeschool” moment. 

Hundreds of people replied with results varying from hilarious to odd to downright sad. There were the clichés—lots of jokes about bare feet and toothless, cousin loving. There were elitist culinary digs about squirrel soup or possum dumplings or fried everything. There were comments about the South as the only place where racism thrives or where poverty abounds because of the population’s incompetence and not the pitfalls of capitalism and extractive, racist labor practices in which the North continues to benefit from the South, a relationship as old as America herself. And, my favorite, there were strange assumptions about what might hurt our feelings, like this, courtesy of a guy named Bob Lynch, a sports writer and self-described Waffle House enthusiast:

“Met a Vermonter at a hostel in Munich. He brought up his admiration for Abraham Lincoln in conversation then apologized because he worried that mentioning him would offend me.”

Taken individually, these offenses might seem minor, and any hurt feelings an overreaction in a world full of real trauma for oppressed folks. Collectively, though, the conversation illuminated a more invasive and dangerous pattern in our storytelling in both art and news media. The most populous region of the United States is, contrary to popular belief, not a monolith of barefoot, cis-gendered, hetero white folks.

Stereotyping Southerners reduces our understanding of the South to a crude representation that is both sociologically false and imaginatively dead.

Here’s what folks don’t understand when they readily accept these narratives as truth: They give more power to the (mostly) white men who run this state, the very people who fund or write our oppressive laws, ensuring those dudes and their wealthy offspring and cohorts will continue to hold power. Every time a law creeps from our nightmares to their statehouse or every time Alabama lawmakers ignore very real issues of corruption and inequity, folks outside of Alabama flippantly suggest the rest of the U.S. give us the boot. Little cartoon maps of the U.S. with a blacked-out Alabama get passed around the internet as if we have become the missing tooth in our redneck uncle’s smile. 

By dismissing this state in such a way, well-intended progressives are ignoring the people who call the South home who are Black, brown, queer, trans. In that way, their self-righteous reactions are born of the same racist elitism as the very laws they say they’re criticizing.

They’re assuming there aren’t people on the ground working toward solutions against or around or to upend a system that benefits the few.

This matters beyond Southerners feeling unheard or misrepresented because funding—political, nonprofit, corporate—is so often determined by people who’ve bought into these narratives and see Alabama as a lost cause. We’ve heard that from activists from as far back as the Civil Rights Movement. (Luckily for the U.S., Black civil rights leaders believed in and fought for the inherent dignity of all Alabamians.) We’ve seen Democratic candidates in Alabama left high and dry even when on-the-ground organizers are making headway in spite of gerrymandered districts and voter suppression that make real representation here damn near impossible. 

We’ve also seen a Democrat narrowly win a Senate seat by the margin of a mouse fart, as my dad likes to say, against an alleged child predator. So yes, of course, there’s work to be done. 

Meanwhile—and this one’s real important—white supremacy runs amok outside of the South and in Southern progressive spaces because white progressives have adopted the notion that racism exists as a caricature. Whenever power structures in progressive spaces—politics, academia, the media, wherever—are challenged, there’s much defensiveness and pearl-clutching and rarely an open acknowledgement of a need for change. Look at what happened recently the Jackson Free Press, and the women of color calling attention to their poor treatment by leadership.

If our collective understanding of a racist wasn’t that of a southern bubba in a pick-up truck or a good old boy in a seersucker suit in a boardroom, then we might be better at truly examining our nation’s oppressive history and how that history informs our power structures today. Here’s a for instance: When I was in Portland recently, I saw way more Black Lives Matter signs than I saw Black people. That could be because of the neighborhoods I was in, but I’ve got a hunch that’s because Oregon is the only state to have ever banned Black residents, and today, Black people who do live in Portland—the place most of us consider the holy ground for progressive culture—report high instances of labor and housing discrimination.

So how do we have such a skewed perspective? The folks who benefit from the ego boost of false Southern narratives (yes, the dingleberries) often control narrative. They choose our movies, our novels, our headlines. They determine whose lives are centered in our stories and whose lives ought to exist on the periphery. 

And we Southerners, in turn, consume these stories and risk internalizing the belief we are less than, unworthy and eternally hopeless. 

We’re told we deserve our high rates of impoverished communities. We’re told we deserve to have the worst schools. We’re told we deserve our shitty mortality rates because we should die off for continuing to elect people who write laws that undeniably stunt progress and equity for all. 

It’s no wonder we grow weary or worse, apathetic. It’s no wonder we worship football and Jesus. At least we can be champions. At least we can be loved.

To the great benefit and convenience of those in power, these narratives do not allow for the complicated ways our political and economic systems (backed by so many of our faith leaders) are built to ensure these folks continue to hold power.

It’s easier to sanctimoniously imagine us Southerners pissing away life than to accept this truth: The modern horrors of the South aren’t unique to the South, and what is exacerbated here—including oppressive law—is often connected to national attitudes and political strategies and to our collective history.

In the poem, “Everybody in America Hate the South,” the Alabama poet Jacqueline Trimble writes:

America ought to say
thank you, Miss South, thank you for being like
Jesus and taking on the sins of the whole country.
I wish everybody would listen to her. I bet they won’t.

“We are the land of the backward, we are hicks, we lack the sophistication to see two sides to an argument.”

That’s what Culverhouse said to media about the impetus for his family’s large donation. He claimed they hoped their money might change the state’s stereotypes. 

This quote appeared in dozens of early news stories, and a number of folks I knew back at UNCW shared those articles.

I wrote to some of them, suggesting they consider reading the local news coverage, including a history of Culverhouse’s anti-abortion political donations. Many of them simply deleted their posts without sharing with their (sometimes large) social media audiences they’d be fooled into thinking this man a hero.

O’Connor often lamented comments from Southerners who told her there weren’t Bible salesmen on the sexual prowl for one-legged intellectuals or murderers lurking along backroads awaiting self-righteous grannies. She lamented northern readers, too, who also assumed she was a kind of literary journalist, believing the eccentricity of her characters to be an exclusive representation of Southern identity. 

All along, she’d declared she was a writer of fiction, not a journalist. Yet, she often got to deeper truths about this place than any nonfiction writer might hope to achieve. If folks believed O’Connor’s portraits to be wholly true, then, and I’m glad she’s too dead to read this, even that would be an improvement over the view we have of Southerners now.

Instead, reductive stereotypes abound. By tapping into the notion we’re a state full of hicks, Culverhouse stretched out his hand and asked, once again, for everyone to climb aboard a high horse where they might all comfortably look down on this place. 

And that doesn’t do anyone any good. Because Alabama—same as the rest of the South, same as America—is deeply flawed. 

To change it, we have to see things as they are.

Katherine Webb-Hehn in a freelance multimedia journalist in the South. She’s the recipient of fellowships from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Her work has been honored, awarded or selected by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Institute of Nonprofit News, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Longreads and others. She lives with her husband, son and a pup in Birmingham, Alabama. Follow her on Twitter @KAWebb_.


Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt



In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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How Organized Labor Can Reverse Decades of Decline



A union miner at the rally for pension protection. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collective bargaining has long been one of organized labor’s most attractive selling points.

In its simplest form, collective bargaining involves an organized body of employees negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. In other words, unions are saying: Join us, and we’ll bargain with your boss for better pay.

Unfortunately, traditional collective bargaining is no longer an effective strategy for labor union growth. That’s because employers and many states have made it incredibly hard for workers to form a union, which is necessary for workers to bargain collectively.

My own research suggests unions should pursue alternative ways to organize, such as by focusing on more forceful worker advocacy and offering benefits like health care. Doing so would help unions swell in size, putting them in a stronger position to secure and defend the collective bargaining rights that helped build America’s middle class.

Why unions still matter

Unions reached their pinnacle in the mid-1950s when a third of American workers belonged to one. Today, that figure stands at just 10.5 percent.

A big part of the problem is that employers have used heavy-handed legal and managerial tactics to block organizing and the elections necessary to form a union. And more than half of U.S. states have passed so-called right to work laws, which allow workers at a unionized company to avoid paying dues.

The stakes of this challenge are high – not just for unions but for most workers in the U.S. That’s because weaker unions correlate with lower wages, reduced benefits and greater economic inequality.

Millions stand to gain from a strengthened labor movement, from Uber and Lyft drivers in the gig economy to low-wage employees in retail and hospitality. And surveys show nearly half of nonunion workers in the U.S. say they would join one if they could.

I believe there are three models traditional unions could pursue to add members without relying on workplace certification and collective bargaining.

Advocating for workers

One approach is to build on the success of worker advocacy groups like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Fight for $15, for example, played a leading role advocating increases in the minimum wage in several states, most recently Connecticut, while the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped secure the passage of the domestic workers bill of rights in New York.

What they all have in common is that they engage in protests and strikes to call public attention to the plight of exploited workers while advocating for economic and social justice. Unions, which used to engage in more of this kind of activism, need to recapture some of that militant spirit.

Establishing minimum standards

A second model involves pushing employers to agree to a minimum set of standards for benefits and pay to provide workers.

The Writers Guild of America, which represent screenwriters and others in television, theater and Hollywood, exemplify this model. For example, they establish minimum levels of compensation for specific jobs and duties and then require members – both employers and workers – to adhere to them. It’s a collective bargaining agreement with a potentially much wider reach.

That’s because these agreements are negotiated with employers but also cover independent contractors who sign on as well. Their strength comes from the aggressive organizing and advocacy plus the strategic importance of the workers they represent, which puts pressure on employers to take part and meet the minimum standards.

Other unions could expand this approach to encourage workers throughout industries that have little or no labor representation to join their ranks as affiliated members, which should pressure employers to follow suit.

Unions peaked in the 1950s. Photo: AP Photo/Sam Myers

Unions with benefits

Another approach involves focusing on offering special benefits to independent workers in exchange for fees.

Some labor groups already do this, but the workers would benefit from unions combining their collective power to offer more heavily discounted goods and services, such as health care, disability benefits and legal representation.

For example, although the 375,000-strong Freelancers Union can’t negotiate over pay, it offers independent contractors these sorts of discounted benefits. Instead of charging dues, it charges fees for its benefits, essentially operating as its own insurance company. It also advocates for public policy changes that safeguard freelancers from exploitation, such as New York’s Freelance Wage Protection Act of 2010.

This model is probably the approach most likely to succeed in attracting large numbers of new members. The growing gig economy and low-wage industries like fast food are two areas that could receive benefits from these types of collective entities.

The endgame

Ideally, unions would embrace all three of these models, offering discounted benefits to any worker interested in signing on, fighting for minimum standards across industries and putting worker advocacy front and center. By broadening the ways in which workers can join and what they offer, unions will become stronger and closer to the people and communities that they are meant to represent.

But by no means are these models meant to supplant organized labor’s traditional collective bargaining role. My point is that unions should break the straightjacket fixation on traditional bargaining and use alternative models as intermediate steps to the ultimate goal of unionizing more workplaces in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of workers.

To get there, though, unions must mobilize a critical mass of workers. Only then will they break the dynamic of labor’s decline.

[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]

Marick Masters, Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why Do So Many Rural Americans Feel Politics is Pointless?



Of Jennifer Silva’s sample of 108 working-class people, over two-thirds didn’t even vote in the 2016 election. Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

In sociologist Jennifer Silva’s first book, “Coming Up Short,” she interviewed working-class young adults in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond, Virginia.

Most had a tough time earning decent wages. Many felt like they were in a perpetual state of limbo, unable to reach the traditional markers of adulthood: job, marriage, house and kids. But Silva was surprised to learn that many blamed themselves for their situations and believed that relying on others could only result in disappointment.

After the book was published, it bothered Silva that she never pressed her subjects further on their politics to see how they might be connected to their worldview.

Jennifer Silva. Bucknell

Now, in a new book, “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America,” she has made working-class politics her focus.

Beginning in May 2015, Silva started conducting interviews in a once-thriving coal town in central Pennsylvania, which she calls “Coal Brook.” The timing was prescient: A month after she began her research, Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president.

Silva spent over a year interviewing townspeople. She gained their trust, forged relationships and spent time in their homes and at community meetings. After years of declining prospects under both political parties, some of the townspeople she interviewed were drawn to Trump’s anti-establishment message. But for most, their politics had devolved into an abyss of cynicism that couldn’t even be penetrated by a politician who promised to “fix” everything.

In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Silva describes a community that is racially diverse, hardworking and politically aware. But its residents are also deeply distrustful and shoulder immense amounts of pain and alienation.

Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to study working-class Americans?

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I experienced some self-doubt and discomfort when I tried to integrate into the world of academia.

In my position between two worlds – growing up with more working-class roots, and then building a professional middle-class life – I would cringe whenever I saw upper-middle-class people treat working-class people with casual condescension or indifference. It sometimes seemed like the very colleagues who most loudly proclaimed their commitment to social justice were the ones treating the administrative assistant like their personal secretary or complaining about the cost of their housekeeper. It made me really skeptical of whether people’s stated political beliefs were even a good predictor of how they treat people with less power and status.

What was the hardest part of the research?

Getting people to open up to me. I wasn’t from the area. This is the kind of place where if you knock on someone’s door, they’re not going to let you in. I started off talking to white people. I’d go to football games and addiction meetings to try to meet people, and I was able to get to be known as “so-and-so’s friend.” Then I realized I wanted to have a non-white group in my book, because there’s been an increase in Latino and black people in the area. So I had to find out how to get this population to trust me because the white population and the minority population don’t overlap very much.

You spent months conducting interviews. Then the election happened, and Trump won. All of a sudden, there was a lot of interest in the very sort of community you had just spent time in. What’s your take on the ensuing media coverage of these small towns?

It seemed like there was one dominant story: older white men, angry and in pain, were feeling bad about not having jobs and blaming racial minorities or foreigners.

And an element of that certainly emerged in my research. But the overall picture was just so much more complex. One of the things that was very striking to me was how much distrust there was. Among everyone I interviewed – white, Latino and black – there was a fierce distrust and hatred of politicians, a suspicion that politicians and big business were basically working together to take away the American Dream. Everyone was very critical of inequality.

So it wasn’t this idea of “dumb white people voting for billionaires because they don’t understand it’s against their interests.” Almost everyone was aware that the system is rigged against poor people. They blamed politicians for refusing to raise wages to a level people can live on. Many wanted higher taxes to support education. I heard a lot of that, across all of the different groups, and I didn’t read a lot of that in the articles about these communities.

You interviewed 108 people and only 37 of them actually voted, with 26 voting for Trump. Of the 41 black or Latino people you spoke with, only four voted. So to me, one of the major stories wasn’t necessarily support for Trump. It was a refusal to participate in politics altogether.

Two-thirds of the sample were nonvoters. They knew the election was happening but they just viewed political participation as pointless. They thought of it as a joke. And they said, “Look at what’s happened in my lifetime, it doesn’t really matter who’s been president.”

One of the critiques I heard a lot was that everything’s about money now. If you have money, your life is good. You can buy anything. But if you don’t have money, the system is stacked against you. I heard that from old white men. I heard that from young black women. And it was interesting, because it’s not untrue, right? If you kill someone and you’re rich you’re more likely to get off.

So I think for them it was almost like, “Well, if we participate, we’re just playing along and pretending. But we’re not naive. We know already that politicians are bought off by corporations. No one actually cares about us.”

There’s that great story in the book where you showed up to an interview wearing your “I voted” sticker.

He laughed at me! Like, “Why would you vote? Are you crazy?”

And yet of those who voted, Trump did emerge as the clear favorite.

Well, Trump and Bernie Sanders. But Sanders wasn’t an option in the end. The general take on Trump was, “We like Trump’s personality, we like his aggressiveness, we like how he doesn’t care about the rules.” And then they liked Bernie Sanders for his authenticity and his heart. But for many who even ended up voting for Trump, they still didn’t think it would matter if they voted.

Where does this disillusionment come from?

There’s a sense of betrayal by a number of social institutions – education, the workplace, the military – all of these things that they thought they could trust, but, for one reason or another, ended up disappointing them.

So they turned inward. No one was really looking for external collective strategies changing the world. Many wanted to simply prove that they didn’t have to rely on other people. There was this sense that any kind of redemption is only going to come out of your own efforts. And then you’ll see some blame other people who don’t seem to support themselves.

Before and after the 2016 election, J.D. Vance, with the publication of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was held up in the mainstream media as an oracle for dispossessed rural Americans. But in your book, you vehemently disagree with his worldview.

Vance seemed to look at other people in his community and think that the reason they were suffering was because of their own choices – that they weren’t really strong enough to face the truth about themselves, that they had to stop blaming the government and corporations and actually take responsibility.

And that just wasn’t the story that I heard. I heard a lot of self-blame and a lot of people who wanted to take responsibility for their own fate. There was a lot of soul searching and a lot of pain. Vance makes it seem like everyone just needs to be like him – a lone hero who escapes his difficult past on his own. It’s not that simple or easy.

Can the pain people feel be used as a bridge to bring people together? That’s how I end my book. And I saw signs of it. Families suffering from addiction were coming together and wondering, how can we change the ways that doctors prescribe medicine? Or how can we challenge pharmaceutical companies to stop making these medications that get our children addicted? Can we get the police to help addicts instead of arresting them?

That sounds like the stirrings of political mobilization. But what’s the biggest obstacle that’s preventing working-class voters from organizing en masse?

I think that it’s the absence of what you could call “mediating institutions.” The people in my book have a lot of critical and smart ideas. But they don’t have a lot of ways to actually connect their individual voices. So they don’t have a church group or a club that they would join that would then give them political tools or a louder voice. And I don’t even know if they would join one if these did exist, because of their distrust of institutions. So it just ends up being turned inward rather than outward.

Within academia, what are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter when it comes to working-class politics?

I have heard some liberal academics talk about how self-defeating and misinformed working-class white people are. They seem to believe that if these people just knew the facts, they would change their votes immediately. Or they dismiss all working-class white people as angry and racist.

The working-class people I met were often radically critical of inequality and deeply skeptical about whether we live in a meritocracy. It was important to me to show that the people in my book of all races are creative and thoughtful – that they arrive at their positions by piecing together their histories and experiences in meaningful ways.

Sometimes these ways are destructive and divisive, and sometimes they have the potential to be transformative and healing.

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Nick Lehr, Arts + Culture Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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