White Workers and the Left’s Privilege Problem

It is, genuinely, difficult to imagine a person less qualified to be President of the United States than Donald Trump. This is not a paragraph or an article about him. The ire directed at him is entirely valid; he is infuriating, disgusting and incompetent. But this is an article about why people – predominantly white working-class people – voted for him. Because they did.

It is not enough to say that they are racist, though on balance they certainly are. If the left wants to reverse the current, worrying trend of right-wing isolationism, it needs to prevent people like Donald Trump from exploiting what lies underneath that racism, and using it as a base for his bigoted breakthrough messaging.

The context in which these voters – white, blue collar, many uneducated – find their grievance has three key facets. Firstly, they have been told, by cynical propagators of the American Dream, that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to in life if they work hard enough. Second, they have seen the ceiling for that power and wealth grow away from them, provoking inspiration and frustration in equal measure. And third, and most crucially, they bear the frustration of this dynamic most sharply because they have been told they are privileged.

They are, of course, privileged. They enjoy cultural and social acceptance, employers hire them, police don’t shoot them on sight, and they are more likely to have routes out of poverty. This is not an argument that the demographic in question is in some way beaten down. The sentiment that the white working man is an oppressed group is born from distinctly racist scapegoat narratives pushed by the beneficiaries of, yes, a “rigged” system.

And yet…

In the context of an American Dreamworld where such a tiny proportion of people climb the ladder out of the middle class grind despite the ever-present promise that it could happen, to hear the word “privilege” is to hear the word “failure”. The failure is the system’s, but the system doesn’t admit it. The trigger for white working and middle class frustration is the fear that, deep down, they’re not capitalising on the privilege they’re told they have. They see other demographic groups gaining ground on them and it scares them to be consumed into a mass of the “others” who haven’t made it and probably never will. And that’s when they start listening to somebody like Donald Trump, who tells them that the failure they silently feel can be fixed.

The fear and sense of failure is actually allayed on a raw, almost devastating level; what Trump’s message does is insinuate that he’ll put the people catching up back in their box. It’s a sleight of hand trick; he (and other right-wing leaders) make the best-off of a chasing pack feel like they’re moving forwards by standing them next to others on a backwards-moving treadmill. It’s never explicitly stated. It’s entangled with real-world rhetoric around jobs and security. But that’s the diversion. The core of the argument is: I will make you feel superior again.

The problem this poses to the left is crucial to winning back these people. Voting is an emotional activity for most of us, and fear is an enormously powerful emotion. Much of Clinton’s vote in this election was driven by fear of Trump. To untangle this emotional connection through carefully-crafted facts is impossible. Progressives need an equal and opposite reaction; they need to eliminate the sense of failure felt so keenly by this demographic. But how?

One way is to integrate communities more effectively. It is easy to think of this as cliché pandering in the direct aftermath of an election, but antagonism and a sense of division will only exacerbate the issue. If white working-class people (predominantly, but by no means exclusively, men) cannot win – and by and large, they can’t – then they won’t stop being angry, and if they can placate that anger temporarily by turning up the speed on the backwards treadmill next to them, they will do it. By merging the two treadmills, growing the pool of communities who feel disenfranchised, and interweaving people so they understand each other, it’s viable to create a broad church of people who punch up rather than down. This is easier said than done, but there are some general lessons to be had.

The second way is to stop talking about privilege. I’m a white guy saying this; I may get some flak for it. But while privilege is an accurate fulcrum for social discussion in 2016, it is an alienating one in the contexts described above and it is killing the left’s chances of winning back that enormous group of voters. I am not usually such a pragmatist, but what happened on November 8th seems so easily pulled from a history book that we need to stand the fuck still and rethink how we talk to 48% of the population. Some voters – the evangelicals, the anarchists and the dinosaurs – are beyond electoral persuasion. Most of them are not.

When privilege is discussed it is often invoked in a dismissive way; I’ve done it myself and so have most of the progressives I know. This toning and rhetoric and the immediate sense of division it causes are perilous for social cohesion. I understand it. I’m not lambasting any marginalised person for reacting with anger or passion or exhaustion when trying to explain how their experiences differ from someone else’s.

But those of us who have the choice, when we have the choice, must start being more inclusive about our anger, because while segments of it belong to people of colour or LGBT folks or non-males, a whole lot more of it belongs to practically fucking everyone.

 

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