What’s the Matter with White People?: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was
WHAT’S THE MATTER with White People is really about what’s the matter with the white working class—more specifically, with the way they vote. Joan Walsh’s concern is with how the white working class has strayed from the New Deal coalition and from the Democrats. She explains and examines this thesis using her own experience: the political evolution of her New York working-class Irish Catholic family, most of whom followed the classic path from New-Deal-lunch-pail Democrats to Nixon-and-Reagan devotees.
Walsh is a more-or-less unreconstructed New Deal liberal who believes economic universalism is the glue that can and should hold the Democratic coalition together. As she puts it: “Democrats do best when they can unite around a vision of economic improvement for everybody.” That, in her view, was what made the New Deal coalition so successful. So how did it all go so wrong, both for the white working class overall and for her own family? (Walsh and her college-educated father are the only ones who have kept faith with the Democrats through the Nixon-Reagan years.)
Her answer is three-fold. First, she gives a great deal of credit to the Republicans for successfully using social and cultural issues—race, abortion, gays, guns, drugs, faith, crime, and so on—to obfuscate economic ones. In this view, she has plenty of company, including Thomas Frank, whose book What’s The Matter With Kansas? was focused on this point. Second, she blames the slowdown in income growth, the disappearance of secure middle-class jobs for less skilled workers, and dramatically rising inequality, for undercutting faith in government. White working-class voters increasingly saw government as ineffective and taxes as wasted on social programs for others, especially undeserving minorities. Republicans also get considerable credit for shredding the social contract, destroying union power, and deregulating the market, but Democrats were also culpable, she believes, by acquiescing to these changes and becoming increasingly oriented toward Wall Street.
This brings us to the third and most distinctive part of Walsh’s argument: the role that Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, have played in alienating the white working class. In her view, the retreat of the white working class became an excuse for liberal Democrats to vilify this group, magnifying their shortcomings into a cartoon portrait of hopelessly racist and mean-spirited enemies of progress. This accelerated the white working class’s bitter departure from the Democrats. It also ensured that identity politics displaced class politics within the Democratic Party. As Walsh puts it: “I watched one area of common ground emerge on the left: more and more observers seemed to believe that so-called people of color … shared more interests with one another than with any white Americans.”