What’s the Matter With the White Working Class?

Right after a post on Thomas Frank we get a cultural Thomas Frank moment! People are saying Obama’s gaffe is derived from the book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” I’ve thought through, and read a lot on, that book back in those awful post-2004 election days (remember those?) Now everyone is hashing out all those old arguments – luckily I happened to like those arguments. So now I’ll give my 4 favorite problems with Thomas Frank’s argument (and bring up the subtle points of what he argues):


1) “Conservatives won’t pull the trigger.” This argument shows up a lot on the left:

The leaders of the backlash may talk Christ, but they walk corporate. Values may “matter most” to voters, but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won. This is a basic earmark of the phenomenon, absolutely consistent across its decades-long history. Abortion is never halted. Affirmative action is never abolished. (6)

I remember hearing this in 2000 from the Nader camp and supporters (and falling for it!) – that modern Republicans say they want to end abortion, but what they really they want to do is privatize Social Security. My answer is: Why can’t they do both? Do we really think, post Roberts/Alito, that abortion rights aren’t endangered? That the Bush administration hasn’t done all they can do to muck with civil rights? Cultural issues? I won’t list them out now, but Bush has done a ton along these lines.

This argument is complicated by pull on the extremes – the religious right is a notably hard group to please (Bush can’t simply undo the Supreme Court – he can give the Right their judges though). Also the left, following Nader, wants to make an argument that the Democrats real advantage is on economic issues, and that that is where the push should be – ignore all the battles on the cultural front.

2) “Nerd Theory argument.” (Don’t worry, Beavis and Butthead is on the way.) I think this static game theoretic environment of Working-Class “Plays Conservative Values” and the Republicans “Plays Conservative Values with Hidden Corporate Values” doesn’t do enough to investigate how small-town conservative values share a space with corporate values, with Christianity permeating all of it. Frank’s theory presupposes a (modern) religious identity seperate from corporate capitalism. Any way of viewing oneself that is knee deep in self-flagellation, apocalypse, and trembling before a higher order doesn’t have to be at odds with the “creative destruction” of our current economic order. Listen to Sean Hannity explain CEO salaries in small-town conservative folk wisdom, or Rush Limbaugh explain our credit crisis solely in terms of “personal responsibility.” (More theory fun here)

3) This chart surprised me out when I first saw it (though it shouldn’t have):

So the first approximation of the “What’s the Matter” is that few people work on farms or factories anymore. Is there something about low-end white collar work that is conservative? Working in a factory, solidarity seems like a byproduct of the means of production – if I screw up, you could lose your leg, and either way, the factory shuts down (and we make less). Do something about the low man on the productivity scale so he doesn’t screw us all up. In an office, if I screw up, that could be a bigger bonus for you depending on how you play it. Deleuze: “If the most idiotic television game shows are so successful, it’s because they express the corporate situation with great precision.” Keep that low man on the productivity scale around – he’ll be the first to go (before me) at downsizing time.

More importantly for the politics, of course, is that lower-end white-collar employees, either because of material conditions or of a newly found habitus, don’t want to identify themselves as blue-collar, and certainly don’t see themselves as benefiting from the Democratic economic platform in theory (if not, in actual practice). Even if they make less than a union factory worker as a low-level database engineer, and have less security and higher volatility, they aren’t a worker. They wear a dress shirt – so please, no regulation. This paper is the most charitable, and has the best summary of these issues (it is where the graph is from).

So yes, this is where I move tangentially to Frank’s argument – I think with the newclass of workers out there, there are new problems, and solutions, needs and anxieties to focus on – the politics has to move with it, however.

4) Do Left and Right Wingers have the same problems with corporations? What to do about it? Obama’s line has an implicit “if they could see just a bit further out there, they’d see our line of reasoning.” Frank says:

The argument I’m making is not that they’re absolutely right to be disgusted by our culture—although when I’m away from the country and I come back and turn on MTV, I’m always like, “Holy shit!” I’m just trying to play up the flagrant contradiction. If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it! I’m focusing on the contradiction there, rather than accepting their argument about obscenity or whatever.

Following Berube’s excellent post on the matter – what the left doesn’t like about corporations is not the same as what the right doesn’t like about corporations. The left hates consolidation of news because of concentrated (profit-driven) control of the public sphere. The right loves talk radio – they hate Murphy Brown having a child out of wedlock on network television. What makes people anxious to get their guns is not what makes the left anxious to get their regulators.

Another example is the time Beavis and Butthead when on a conservative talk show so that they could all complain how awful music videos were: (listen here)

Host: These rock video are immoral, indecent, profane … and blasphemous.
Beavis: Yeah! They suck! They suck!
Butthead: Yeah. Especially Meatloaf. He sucks.

I have problems with music, but it is more along the Meatloaf variety than the blasphemous variety. The same goes for all the economic security (or anything really). The problems I want to see fixed aren’t the same as others, even if we can work it to a common source. And this, of course is where the problems with Franks false consciousness arguments start to show up.

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3 Responses to What’s the Matter With the White Working Class?

  1. Ed 2.0 says:

    This is really excellent stuff. I remember reading the Thomas Frank argument for the first time and being dazzled. And my amazement has perpetually diminished ever since. I’d fumbled with points two and four before, but never articulated them as well as you did.

    And I don’t throw around compliments on political acumen lightly. Several of my co-workers are mobilized Reservists, who are very well-connected politically in civilian life. And I’ve only complimented one on his political observations.

    Your office worker comment is great. I’d only add that bottom-level officer workers are either young and naive or stupid and inept or both.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks! I tried to link to the as much of original stuff that got me really thinking about the argument (especially Berube). I agree with the diminishing returns on WTMWK, however I think Frank is still an excellent storyteller with the material.

    By the way, If you are the person I think you are, the first time I met you I drunkenly slurred “you look like Thomas Frank……”. Good times.

  3. Ed 2.0 says:

    I do remember that night, and I was equally surprised that you had course packets from Louis Menand.

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