It was only a matter of time until liberal elites' obsession with America's white working class would burn through every possible analytical framework – racial attitudes, economic misfortunes, health conditions, political preferences – and end up on a subject they find even more irresistible: themselves.
“White Working Class” by law professor Joan C. Williams is more an effort to puncture the foibles and misperceptions of upper-class liberals than an attempt to get to know the people her book title comprises. It's just as well. The author's personal knowledge of the white working class appears mainly secondhand: Williams cites her eighth-grade-dropout father-in-law, pores over polls and studies, and can quote on demand from “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land,” but that's about it. By contrast, she has a vise grip on the attitudes of her fellow liberal professionals – Williams teaches at the University of California's Hastings College of Law (yes, in San Francisco) – and she structures the book around those nasty little questions they mutter about working-class Trump voters at dinner parties or, I've heard, in gourmet sandwich shops.
Why don't they push their kids harder to succeed and go to college? Shouldn't they move for better jobs? Why do they resent government benefits? Aren't they just racist? Sexist? And why do they dislike us so much, even while admiring gauche plutocrats such as President Donald Trump?
Those questions are of recent vintage, Williams notes, because for a long time left-leaning elites were concerned with just about everyone except the white working class. She accuses her tribe of “class cluelessness – and in some cases, even class callousness.”
One of the strengths of Williams' book is the author's willingness to call out such callousness and hypocrisy among her fellow travelers. One of its weaknesses is her reluctance to call out Trump voters for much of anything.
Williams begins with some definitional clarity – or confusion, depending on the order in which you typically peck. Even though, in some circles, “working class” has become a euphemism for “poor,” Williams uses the term for those living a few rungs higher, Americans with earnings above the lowest 30 percent and below the top 20 percent, with a median household income of about $75,000.
Williams' working-class America, then, excludes the poor. In fact, the white working class, thus delineated, often begrudges government efforts to help the poor, Williams writes. When such programs “are limited to those below a certain income level (and) ... exclude those just a notch above,” she contends, “this is a recipe for class conflict.” So if you've ever wondered what's the matter with Kansas, Williams has an answer. “Because the white working class resents programs for the poor, to the extent that benefit cuts target the poor, that's attractive. To the extent that tax cuts for the rich hold the promise of jobs, that's attractive, too.”
The working class' simultaneous fascination with the ultra-wealthy and disdain for the professional class is not only about trickle-down fantasies – it's about proximity. “Most working-class people have little contact with the truly rich,” Williams explains, “but they suffer class affronts from professionals every day: the doctor who unthinkingly patronizes the medical technician, the harried office worker who treats the security guard as invisible, the overbooked business traveler who snaps at the TSA agent.”
Williams chastises the professional-managerial elite, or PME, for the sort of thoughtless and condescending behavior that breeds animosity among the white working class, or WWC, as she dubbed it in the post-election Harvard Business Review essay that inspired this book (apparently you're not an official socioeconomic segment without an acronym). The president, for one, knows better. “Brashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred,” Williams writes. “Trump epitomizes this.”
When passing judgment on the white working class, elites regard their own values about home life (helicopter parenting, constant uprooting) and work life (creativity, innovation) as the norm, oblivious to the fact that others may hold different ones, Williams argues. Working-class families may not choose to relocate for a job because they care more about their community ties. They may worry about tuition debt and see college as a risky investment. And they may cling to religion because “for many in the working class, churches provide the kind of mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, future orientation, impulse control, and social safety net many in the professional elite get from their families, their career potential, their therapists, and their bank accounts.”
Williams thinks she understands why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. (Don't we all.) Rather than focusing so much on the candidate's résumé and on the history-making aspect of a female presidency, for instance, her campaign should have emphasized how Trump routinely “stiffed” the blue-collar guys working on his buildings. “Gender does not necessarily bind women together across social class,” Williams writes, noting that for many working-class women, there is little to be gained by “giving privileged women access to the high-level jobs now held almost exclusively by privileged men.”
When discussing racial attitudes, Williams is quick to stress that those lofty liberals are as bad as anyone else. “Among the professional elite, where the coin of the realm is merit, people of color are constructed as lacking in merit,” she writes. “Among the white working class, where the coin of the realm is morality, people of color are constructed as lacking in that quality.” And on the sexism so evident in the 2016 race, Williams is skeptical of straightforward conclusions. “Does Trump's victory signal that working-class men are sexist?” she asks. “It's not as simple as that.” Working-class men, she notes, spend more time with their kids than their upper-class counterparts. Moreover, “elite men can talk the talk of gender equality because they know in their bones that their careers will deliver them dignity,” Williams writes. “Economic power, both inside the family and in the society at large, is their trump card.” (We see what you did there.)
Williams chastises white elites for always seeking out “structural factors” to explain the conditions of the poor while denying the working class similar generosity. “When it comes to working-class whites,” she complains, “social structure evaporates.” This is a compelling point, but to make it, Williams seems willing to commit the opposite offense, deploying cultural values or equivalences to explain away so very much.
The author calls for a “reframing” of American liberal politics, a grand statement that feels less grand as it gets specific. Williams wants vocational training for communities undercut by trade and technology, more civics education in schools, and a climate-change debate that stops screaming about settled science and instead enlists farmers to discuss changing conditions on the ground. She wants to boost working-class trust in government with a publicity campaign featuring videos of Americans thanking the feds for highways, sewer systems, schools and the internet. (“Thank you, Uncle Sam!” they would say at the end.)
At the same time, though, she wants to heighten working-class mistrust in government to boost concern about civil liberties. I wonder how those videos would end.
Williams' book is a quick read and a good-faith effort at cultural and class introspection. I wish it ranged more widely beyond the themes the author raised in her initial essay last year, rather than covering much the same ground with more words. In particular, I'd want to know how zealously we need to focus on that first “W” in the WWC. At times, the author cites the experiences of working-class Hispanic families to buttress her points, and she notes that working-class black Americans hold many attitudes in common with blue-collar white Americans regarding work, personal responsibility and integrity. Class, more than race, is Williams' crucial divide.
Whether it is the country's as well is a matter not settled in this book.
Carlos Lozada is associate editor and nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.