McDowell County, West Virginia, is one of the sacrifice zones of American life. The poorest county in one of the poorest states in the country, it’s been the setting for a seemingly inexorable social catastrophe that’s still unfolding decades after it began. In the middle of the twentieth century, McDowell was the heart of West Virginia’s coal industry, a place where the struggles of the United Mine Workers lifted entire communities out of poverty and degradation and into proletarian respectability. It was the home of one of the largest coal mining and processing industries in the world, and at its height it provided enough employment to support a population of roughly a hundred thousand.

Then came the collapse. The Appalachian region lost tens of thousands of mining jobs in the 1980s, and few places were hit harder than West Virginia. Between 1983 and 1992, the state lost close to twenty thousand mining jobs, many of them in McDowell. Mechanization was the leading culprit, but rising competition from Western coal producers and natural-gas fracking have also played major roles.1 As a result of coal’s decline, McDowell’s population cratered — there are eighty thousand fewer people living in McDowell today than there were fifty years ago. The median income in the county is barely above $20,000, a third of residents (including over 60 percent of children under five) live below the federal poverty line, and less than two-thirds of adults have graduated from high school. The catastrophic scale of McDowell’s opioid epidemic has pushed the county government to take the unprecedented step of filing suit against a group of drug wholesalers, accusing them of responsibility for the nation’s highest rate of deaths by drug overdose. The most shocking measure of McDowell’s devastation is its life expectancy — seventy-three years for women and sixty-four for men. These figures are comparable to those in Mongolia and Namibia, not the rest of the United States or any other advanced capitalist country in the world.2

McDowell County is not a place where many people could reasonably be described as “privileged.” But it is largely white — over 77 percent, as of 2015. In the 2016 presidential election, 75 percent of its voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, a higher proportion of the vote than Trump won in the state as a whole.

This combination of white despair and seemingly overwhelming enthusiasm for Trump was too much for the media to resist. Before and after November 8, intrepid journalists filed a spate of reports on the region that take us, in the words of one prominent New Yorker article, into “the heart of Trump Country.” For the professional-managerial class, places like McDowell have become a screen for projecting their anxieties about the rough beast they blame for delivering Donald Trump to the White House — the white working class.

A pre-election video report on McDowell from the Guardian is symptomatic of the genre. Titled “Why the Poorest County in West Virginia Has Faith in Trump,” the report takes a largely sympathetic look at the dire circumstances confronting McDowell’s residents. It’s premised on the observation that Trump received a higher percentage of the GOP primary vote in the county — over 90 percent — than anywhere else in the country. While this is undoubtedly true, the Trump Country narrative that’s built on that number begins to fall apart the moment one interrogates it. Trump may have received an overwhelming share of the vote in the McDowell County Republican primary election, but only 860 people voted in that context. By contrast, close to 2,700 people voted in the county’s Democratic primary election, and Bernie Sanders won about 1,500 votes, or 55 percent of the total. Hillary Clinton won more votes in the McDowell primaries than Trump did — 817 to 785.3

A similar dynamic played out in November’s general election. While McDowell County delivered three-quarters of its votes to Trump, turnout was abysmal. Just 36.4 percent of its eligible voters showed up on Election Day, a participation rate far below the rest of the state (57.5 percent) and the country as a whole (about 60 percent).4

While Trump’s hard-hat routine undoubtedly won him the support of some working-class white voters in places like McDowell, their role in powering Trump’s unexpected victory has been consistently overstated. As Mike Davis argues in a compelling analysis of county-level voting data, the Trump Democrat phenomenon “is real but largely limited to a score or so of troubled Rust Belt counties from Iowa to New York,” where a confluence of plant closures and growing immigrant populations have stoked a nationalist and nativist backlash.5

McDowell County was not among them, despite its prominence in the punditry’s imagination. It was not overrun with hillbilly stormtroopers bent on striking a blow in defense of their increasingly devalued whiteness. To the extent that its residents felt compelled to participate in the electoral process at all, one could make a strong case to call it Sanders Country instead of Trump Country. When offered the opportunity to vote for Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic agenda, many of McDowell’s down-and-out did so. About 120,000 of their fellow West Virginians felt the same way and carried an avowed socialist to a clean sweep of all fifty-five counties in the state’s Democratic primary election.6

Since the basic rule of journalism is “simplify, then exaggerate,” perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by its failure to adequately illuminate the political behavior of working-class whites. Unfortunately, many scholars and intellectuals have not fared much better in untangling these issues. Over the last year, a spate of widely praised books purporting to illuminate the sources of white malaise have fallen into many of the same traps. Whether historical, sociological, ethnographic, or autobiographical, these books share fundamental weaknesses. They confuse symptoms for causes, overemphasize culture and identity at the expense of political economy, and fail to offer any insight as to how the impasse of contemporary politics might be broken.

A Cultural Chasm

The “culture of poverty” thesis is one of the most malleable and resilient tropes in American politics. Formulated by the sociologist Oscar Lewis and popularized by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, its intellectual pedigree can be traced back to the liberal left, not the chauvinist right. Nevertheless, its focus on cultural practices and family structures in explaining poverty among African Americans made it very easy for a rising generation of conservative intellectuals to appropriate it for their project to roll back the gains of the New Deal/Great Society welfare state.7

In their view, the black poor found themselves in poverty not because of economic structures or legal-institutional discrimination, but because of a set of values and behaviors ostensibly specific to the “black community” and passed from one generation to the next. By now, the particulars of this narrative should be quite familiar. By providing the black poor with cash benefits, government policy, the argument goes, underwrote a range of pathological behaviors: single-parent/female-headed households, out-of-wedlock births, mass unemployment, criminality, violence, and drug addiction. Instead of reducing poverty, the welfare state generated perverse incentives for people to remain poor and maintain the bad habits that got them there.8

The most influential statement of this school was Losing Ground, by the odious Charles Murray. Published in 1984, Murray’s policy proposals were praised by Democrats and Republicans alike — Bill Clinton referred to Murray’s work as a “great service” to the country — and directly inspired the successful campaign to “end welfare as we know it.”9

He followed it up with The Bell Curve (1994), an open defense of the notion that differences by race in IQ test results are rooted in racial genetic differences, and most recently Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010 (2012). In Coming Apart, Murray showed that his reactionary ideas could just as easily be applied to poor whites as poor blacks. In his view, the intensifying class polarization among whites in recent decades can also be explained by divergent cultural values and behavioral repertoires. The white elite is well off because it works hard, goes to college, stays married, goes to church, and gives to charity. The white underclass, by contrast, has more in common with the black welfare queens of popular imagination. In Murray’s telling, they’re poor not because of structural problems but because they drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, avoid work whenever possible, depend on welfare, sell and abuse drugs, and engage in criminal activity — all the while dooming their offspring to a similar fate. To break the cycle, upper-crust whites must begin to “preach what they practice” and inspire their poor relations to get their acts together. Like their counterparts on the other side of town, an expanded welfare state won’t save them — only a steady diet of bourgeois virtue can.10

Murray’s influence permeates the pages of Hillbilly Elegy, the bestselling memoir by Appalachian boy-made-good J.D. Vance. In the wake of the election, Vance has become the punditocracy’s go-to native informant on all things white trash. He and Murray have spoken together at think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, and their views are often linked in media reports on the white poor. As Vance somewhat awkwardly discloses at the outset of the book, “There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story.”11

For Vance, class is not a matter of political-economic structures but cultural identity, something close to a racial category in itself. In his view, the poor Scots-Irish Americans he grew up with aren’t held back by the bleak economic prospects confronting them, but by a Lamarckian moral degeneracy transmitted from one generation of hillbillies to the next. As he claims in one particularly appalling passage, back home “you can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”12

He is often compelled to acknowledge the grim realities of the region’s economic collapse, but quickly retrains his fire on “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”13

It’s a vicious little book, a litany of well-worn complaints against the intemperate and shiftless poor disguised as a hardscrabble personal narrative.

The likes of Murray and Vance are not wrong to discern a cultural chasm between the white elite and the increasingly immiserated ranks of the white poor. Clear divergences in marriage and divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, church attendance, and drug abuse are all observable phenomena and appear to have intensified in recent years. But that’s to be expected when almost all the growth in new income accrues to the top, while real wages and living standards collapse at the bottom. It would be quite an achievement if working-class communities and family structures held up under such enormous economic strain. But they have not, and the fallout from these developments should not come as a surprise. Vance’s grandparents could relocate from their corner of eastern Kentucky to Ohio for well-paid work at a unionized steel plant. How many people can follow the same strategy today? Who in their right mind would uproot themselves to drive an Uber or pack boxes at an Amazon warehouse for low wages and no benefits? Under these circumstances, staying home to collect disability checks or sell meth looks like a much more rational decision.

Can the Hillbilly Speak?

The impulse to transmute class into a cultural/identity category is not confined to the Right. It is a common maneuver in the contemporary Left, where discussions of “classism” often substitute for serious considerations of political economy and class structure. Instead of understanding class relations in structural terms, the concept of classism relates primarily to attitudes, stereotyping, and interpersonal behavior. Its proponents often attempt to sneak a structural dimension in through the back door by arguing that the classist attitudes of the powerful shape public policies and institutional rules at the expense of people at the lower end of the class hierarchy. While the political implications of the concept are often left unspoken, the critique of classism does not imply a movement from below to overturn the structural underpinnings of class exploitation but rather a change in attitudes from above to “build bridges” across the class divide. Instead of getting workers into unions and socialist parties, the goal is to get elites into a seminar room so they can understand and unpack their class privilege. What they do with that privilege after they’ve unpacked it is left unaddressed.14

This relentless focus on intersubjective, interpersonal relations between individual members of different classes completely overlooks the ways in which capitalism operates as a system of objective social relationships. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has argued, the universal market dependence that defines capitalism necessarily imposes certain imperatives on economic activity: competition, profit maximization, accumulation, productivity growth. Workers and capitalists alike are subject to the constraints of the market and are forced to comply with its demands in order to survive. They simply have no choice but to do so, regardless of their personal beliefs, attitudes, and values. Exploitation occurs not because owners and employers are prejudiced against workers but because the whip of competition constantly forces them to cut costs, intensify workers’ labor, and reduce wages.15

Even if prejudicial attitudes toward working-class people were eradicated tomorrow, class exploitation would still continue. What’s more, those attitudes would likely resurface because abusing and mistreating other human beings always requires a justification.

This concern with treating poor and working-class people with respect is not, of course, completely misguided. The Left’s cultural milieu has largely been confined to academia, and any honest attempt to make our organizing spaces accessible and welcoming to working-class people should be encouraged. This does not, however, take us very far past the realm of interpersonal behavior and microaggressions, the very terrain on which so much of today’s Left feels most comfortable. It does not help us understand how the class structure works as an impersonal, objective system of exploitation, nor does it offer any insight as to how it might be upended through the collective action of the working class itself.

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg offers a clear example of the culturalist school of class politics and its limitations. Unlike Vance, Isenberg is a liberal; her book is aimed at puncturing the national mythos of the classless society. She is not out to berate or shame the poor Southern whites she focuses on but to place them at the heart of historical battles over the nature of American identity. Her approach to the question, however, has the perverse effect of putting white elites at the center of the story.

The book is largely a chronicle of the ways in which elites have sought to control, manage, and manipulate the embarrassing rednecks down in the holler. Because it relies largely on primary sources generated by the wealthy and well educated, White Trash focuses mainly on their anxieties and obsessions: breeding, racial purity, moral degeneracy, eugenics. The poor rarely get a chance to speak for themselves in this story, and when they do it’s typically when politicians, landlords, journalists, novelists, and media executives ventriloquize them. Isenberg finds room to consider the cultural implications of the reality TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but you won’t find an index entry for Populism, one of the most important political and cultural movements of the Southern poor in US history.

While the search for agency and resistance has arguably been overemphasized in other fields of social history, it’s strange to find so little of it in a book on poor white people written by a contemporary liberal historian. A similar history of the black poor would be roundly criticized for this, and rightfully so. Instead, Isenberg’s book has been showered with largely sympathetic appraisals from the leading media organs of the professional-managerial class.

That’s because White Trash is not really a history of class structure or class relations in the United States but a history of classism. As such, it falls into the same traps as the discourse of white privilege that dominates the academic and activist left. Contemporary privilege theory ostensibly seeks to center and defer to the agency of people of color, but it consistently brings the focus of attention back to the thoughts, motivations, and actions of white people.16

It also provides ample opportunity for activists to engage in competitive virtue signaling, a game that does little more than build the personal brands of those playing it. The concept of classism does much the same thing, but on a different register. It is the mechanism by which a history of poor people becomes a history of what elites have thought about and done to poor people. Like the concept of white privilege, it does not provide an adequate account of the phenomenon it seeks to explain, nor does it offer much support for a political practice that might actually achieve its stated goals. It points toward little more than a class-inflected version of the interminable “conversations on race” that do more to support political careers and nonprofit jobs than they do to end racism.

All too Rational

Of all the books seeking to explain the appeal of right-wing politics in the age of Trump, Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild has probably been the most popular and best received among educated liberals. Much like Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? — another book indelibly linked to a particular electoral cycle — Hochschild visits a down-and-out corner of the heartland in an attempt to understand why so many downscale whites strenuously oppose ideas and policies that seem to be in their own best interests.

After years of ethnographic fieldwork in the oil and gas lands of southwestern Louisiana, Hochschild grapples restlessly with what she calls the Great Paradox: “the need for help and a principled refusal of it.”17

Among Hochschild’s subjects, the paradox manifests itself as opposition to government regulation in the face of truly catastrophic environmental pollution. For her, explaining this ostensible paradox does not mainly require reference to the configuration of power and interest in a region dominated by energy companies. While she is compelled to acknowledge their prominent place in Louisiana’s political economy, she is at pains to minimize their impact as a source of state revenues and as employers. This is not entirely misguided; the share of Louisiana’s state budget that comes from mineral revenues has sharply declined since the 1970s. But oil and gas still plays an important role in the state’s labor market. The industry’s share of state employment has remained steady even as automation advances and offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico has increased. Crucially, the industry continues to pay above-average wages to local residents, and the fracking boom has clearly contributed to economic growth in the region.18

As Hochschild acknowledges, wages for permanent workers in fracking “hover around $80,000 plus benefits. As a carpenter in Louisiana, you can earn about $33,000; as a truck driver, $46,000; and as an elementary school teacher, $34,000. Maybe you needed training to get a job as a plant operator, but you didn’t need a college degree.”19

Despite the risks and externalities, these are good jobs in the eyes of many working-class Louisianans — the kinds of jobs that can make the people who benefit from them, directly or indirectly, identify with the companies that provide them.

Hochschild largely skips over these considerations (the chapter on “Industry” is a brisk twelve pages) to focus her attention on culture and affect instead. She portrays local opposition to environmental regulation as a fundamentally irrational phenomenon, an expression of the “deep story” that structures the emotional landscapes of her subjects. The deep story is the way that people try to make sense of their situation, an account of life as it feels to them, completely devoid of facts or judgments made on the basis of objective criteria. Politics, in this view, is not a battle of interests but a clash of competing narratives. It’s a cultural conflict driven by different ways of “seeing and feeling about a place and its people,” where considerations of objective self-interest are swept away by the overriding force of raw emotion.20

This is not an opportune moment to defend the place of rational behavior in American politics. Many of Trump’s core supporters are deeply invested in Breitbart’s fantastical nonsense, and all too many liberals seem to have taken leave of their sanity in the wake of Trump’s election. But the appeal of conservative politics among a section of working-class whites is not necessarily mysterious or irrational. Roughly a third of Hochschild’s subjects were employed directly or indirectly by the oil and gas industry.21

Almost all of them were willing to accept — or at least resign themselves to — pollution and disease as the price to pay for steady employment at decent wages.

Take the case of Janice Areno, the subject of an entire chapter of the book. While Hochschild relies on an emotional profile (“The Team Player”) to explain her Tea Party politics, a much simpler and materialist explanation is closer to hand. As Hochschild’s account makes clear, Janice’s entire world is structured by the dominant local industries. She works as an accountant for a land-management company that leases property to oil and gas companies. Her father worked as a union pipefitter for Citgo. Her sister worked as a shipping supervisor checking train cars for a chemical company, contracting a debilitating autoimmune disease in the process. While she’s fully aware of the costs associated with the industry (including a toxic-waste landfill a block from her home), she also knows that the companies produce useful goods and provide jobs, no matter how destructive or dangerous they might be.22

As another of Hochschild’s subjects concludes, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” — and nobody in southwestern Louisiana is offering any kind of alternative to it.23

While controlling pollution may be in these residents’ interest, so are income and employment from the industry that causes it. This is a very common dynamic in areas dominated by extractive industries. An analogous situation can be found in places like West Virginia, where the thorough intertwining of the coal industry with community life and the Democratic Party has made it very difficult to formulate an alternative program for economic development.24

It should not be surprising to a sociologist that so many people in a place like southwestern Louisiana would defer to the energy companies politically, even when they make arguments against environmental regulation that are demonstrably false. These people could hardly be more aware that these companies making good profits and reinvesting them locally is the fundamental prerequisite for their receiving good wages, and they are not prepared to force industry to shoulder the costs of an environmental cleanup that would reduce those profits. Considering the structures and choices the residents of southwestern Louisiana confront, their commitment to probusiness, antigovernment, individualistic politics is all too rational.

Recognition or Revolution

Much of the postelection discourse has focused on “racial and cultural resentment” as the force driving support for Trump among downscale white voters. This has been a favorite trope of a clutch of liberal journalists seemingly bent on defending the remains of Third Way liberalism from an unexpected ideological challenge from the Left.25 This school consistently portrays white racism as a sort of unmoved mover, a primordial force that has no explanation outside of its own existence. The liberal journalist Ned Resnikoff offers a particularly egregious example of this tendency in an article that traces racial antagonisms to “an ancient, tribal section of the human brain.”26

Of all the books under consideration here, The New Minority by Justin Gest comes the closest to offering potentially useful material concerning the vexed question of working-class whites and their place in contemporary politics. By highlighting the grim realities of deindustrialization, Gest provides a backdrop for the political behavior of the scores of people he interviewed in “post-traumatic cities” like East London and Youngstown, Ohio. Capital moved out of these places in the late 1970s, precisely the moment when immigrants and people of color moved in. Union membership collapsed along with industrial employment and the historic parties of the working class appeared to lose interest in representing their traditional base.27

Against such a backdrop, it is not difficult to understand why a section of white, native-born workers might be attracted to the politics of the far right. As Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner argue in a classic essay on the subject:

It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their position as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and adopt ideas which can make their actions seem reasonable and coherent. These ideas, are, of course, the ideas of the right.28

Adopting these sorts of exclusionary strategies is certainly indefensible, but it is not fundamentally irrational. When the potential for class-based resistance has been profoundly reduced, grievances leading to fightbacks that might otherwise be directed at economic elites can be easily be displaced on to blacks, immigrants, Muslims, queers, and other targets closer to hand. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the hollowing out of unions and parties that could potentially develop class-based identities that cut across lines of race, national origin, sexuality, and religion has given the far right an opportunity to step into the breach by organizing that builds on existing solidarities like gender, race, and nation. The extent to which working-class whites have rallied to the banner of the far right is often overstated. But there is no doubt that in the absence of any alternative political articulation, many will come to interpret their marginalization in cultural terms and identify a coalition of well-heeled liberals and supposedly ascendant minority groups as the enemy — not capital and its political functionaries.29

The question, as ever, is what to do about it. Gest proposes to offer working-class whites recognition and representation as an interest group in the Democratic Party coalition, along the same lines as African Americans, LGBTQ people, and Latinos. From a socialist point of view, it is difficult to imagine a worse way of dealing with the problem. Recognizing the “white working class” as a discrete cultural-identity bloc would mark the final ideological triumph of Third Way liberalism and foreclose any possibility of breaking out of the cul-de-sac of culturalist politics. Its integration as just one more “community” in the constellation of interest groups would certainly benefit those individuals called upon to represent it, as with the earlier integration of African Americans and other historically oppressed groups. But it would not further the possibility of building a broader political alliance, one that cuts across identitarian lines and is grounded in a shared position as part of the working class.

What would a socialist approach to this problem look like? Since the election, Bernie Sanders has been holding televised town-hall meetings in places where Trump won, including McDowell County, West Virginia. As ever, his core message is simple and direct: your problems are not caused by immigrants, queers, blacks, or Muslims — they’re caused by the rich, and we must all work together take their power away from them. To build and sustain a truly universal working-class movement, this position can’t be where our politics ends. But it is the only place from which it can begin.

About the Author

Chris Maisano is a member of the Catalyst editorial board, a contributing editor for Jacobin, and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.