What Causes the Poor Health of the Poor?

What is the cause of unhealthy eating? Richard Florida attempts to answer that, based on new research. He makes some good points, but maybe he is missing some of the context.

Let me begin with one thing that seems correct in the analysis. He points out that food deserts are found in poor areas. Dietary health is an issue of socioeconomic class. Yet even when better food is made available, either by grocery stores opening or people moving, the habits of foods bought don’t tend to change. That isn’t surprising and not particularly insightful. If changes were to happen, they would happen across generations as they always do. It took generations to create food deserts and the habits that accompany them. So, it would take generations to reverse the conditions that created the problem in the first place.

Florida sort of agrees with this, even though he doesn’t seek to explain the original cause and hence the fundamental problem. Instead, he points to the need for better knowledge by way of educating the public. What this overlooks is that in generations past there was much better eating habits that were altered by a combined effort of government dietary recommendations and corporate advertising, that is to say an alliance of big government and big business, an alliance that did great harm to public health (from the largely unhelpful food pyramid to the continuing subsidization of corn and corn syrup). The bad eating habits poor Americans have now come from what was taught and promoted over the past century, diet info and advice that in many cases has turned out to be harmfully wrong.

Florida sees this as being more about culture, as related to knowledge. It’s those dumbfucks in rural middle America who need to be taught the wisdom of the coastal elites. It’s a liberal’s way of speaking about ‘poor culture’, a way of blaming the poor while throwing in some paternalistic technocracy. The healthy middle-to-upper classes have to teach the poor how to have healthy middle-to-upper class habits. Then all of society will be well. (Not that the conservative elite are offering anything better with their preference of maintaining oppressive conditions, just let the poor suffer and die because they deserve it.)

Florida’s solution ignores a number of factors, such as costs. When I lived under the poverty level, I bought the cheapest food available which included some frozen vegetables but lots of cheap carbs (e.g., Ramen noodles) and cheap proteins (e.g., eggs) along with cheap junk food (e.g., Saltine crackers) and cheap fast food (e.g., 2 egg and sausage biscuits for $2). Crappy food is extremely inexpensive, a motivating factor for anyone living hand-to-mouth or paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s about getting the most calories for the buck. The healthiest food tends to be the most expensive and least filling (e.g., kale). I couldn’t afford many fresh fruits and vegetables back when I was barely making ends meet, a time when I was so lacking in excess money that I was forced to skip meals on a regular basis. Even when there isn’t a drastic difference in costs, saving a few bucks when shopping adds up for the poor.

Someone like Florida is unlikely to understand this. Maybe the middle-to-upper class could use some education themselves so as to comprehend the lived reality of the poor. But no doubt more and better knowledge should be made available to everyone, no matter their class status. We have way too much ignorance in this society, sadly with much of it to be found among those making public policies and working in corporate media. So, yes, we have room for improvement on this level for all involved. I’m just not sure that is the fundamental issue, as the state of knowledge at present is a result of the state of society, which is to say it is more of a systemic than individual problem.

Anyway, some of the data in the research cited seems a bit off or misleading. Florida’s article includes a map of “Average Health Index of Store Purchases by County.” It doesn’t entirely match various other mapped data for health such as infant mortality. The Upper Midwest, for example, looks rather mixed in terms of the store purchases by county while looking great according to other health indicators. Also, the Upper Midwest has low rates of food deserts, which is supposedly what Florida was talking about. Even though there are poor rural areas in the Upper Midwest, there are also higher rates of gardening and farmers’ markets.

Also, it must be kept in mind that most people in rural states don’t actually live in rural areas, as would have been the case earlier last century. Mapping data by county is misleading because a minority of the population visually dominates the map. The indicators of health would be lower for that minority of rural county residents, even as the indicators of health are high for the entire state population mostly concentrated in specific counties. In that case, it is socioeconomic conditions combined with geographic isolation (i.e., rural poverty) that is the challenge, along with entire communities slowly dying and entire populations aging as the youth and young families escape. That is no doubt problematic, although limited to a small and rapidly shrinking demographic. The majority of Upper Midwestern lower classes are doing fairly well in their living in or around urban centers. But of course, this varies by region. No matter the data, the Deep South almost always looks bad. That is a whole other can of worms.

That set of issues is entirely ignored by Florida’s article, which is severely limiting for his analysis. Those particular Middle Americans don’t need the condescension from the coastal elites. What is missing is that poverty and inequality is also lower in places like the Upper Midwest, while being higher elsewhere such as the Deep South. Socioeconomic conditions correlates strongly with all aspects of health, physical health and mental health, just as they correlate to with all aspects of societal health (e.g., rates of violent crime).

I applaud any attempt at new understanding, but not all attempts are equal. Part of my complaint is directed toward the conservative-mindedness of much of the liberal class. There is too often a lack of concern for and lack of willingness to admit to the worst systemic problems. Let me give a quick example. Florida wrote another article, also for City Lab, in which he discusses the great crime decline and the comeback of cities. Somehow, he manages to entirely avoid the topic of lead toxicity, the single most well researched and greatest proven factor of crime decline. This kind of omission is sadly common from this kind of public intellectual. In constantly skirting around the deeper issues, it’s a failure of intellect and morality going hand in hand with a failure of insight and imagination.

To return to the original topic, I suspect that there are even deeper issues at play. Inequality is definitely important. Then again, so is segregation, distrust, and stress. Along with all of this, loss of community and social capital is immensely important. To understand why inequality matters, an analysis has to dig deeper into what inequality means. It isn’t merely an economic issue. Inequality of income and wealth is inequality of education and time, as the author notes, while it is also inequality of political power, public resources, and individual opportunities. A high inequality society causes dysfunction, especially for the poor, in a thousand different ways. Inequality is less of a cause than the outward sign of deeper problems. Superficial attempts at solutions won’t be helpful.

In response to why the poor eat less well, one commenter suggested that, “It’s literally because they have less time” and offered supporting evidence. The article linked was about data showing the poor don’t eat more fast food than do the wealthier, despite more fast food restaurants being located near the poor, which implies the wealthier are more willing or more likely to be travelling further distances in their eating fast food at the same rate. What the article also shows is that it is busy people, no matter socioeconomic class, who eat the most fast food.

That is a key point to keep in mind. In that context, another commenter responded with a disagreement and pointed to other data. The counter-claim was that the lower classes have more leisure time. I dug into that data and other data and had a different take on it. I’ll end with my response from the comments section:

A superficial perusal of cherry-picked data isn’t particularly helpful. Show me where you included commute time, childcare, eldercare, housework, house maintenance, yard work, etc. The linked data doesn’t even have a category for commute time and it doesn’t disaggregate specific categories of non-employment work according to income, occupation, or education.

Also, what is called leisure is highly subjective, such as the wealthier having greater freedom to take relaxing breaks while at work or eating a healthy meal out at a restaurant for lunch, none of which would get listed as leisure. Wealthier people have lives that are more leisurely in general, even when it doesn’t involve anything they would explicitly perceive and self-report as leisure. They are more likely to be able to choose their own work schedule, such as sleeping in later if they want (e.g., because of sickness) or leaving work early when needed (e.g., in order to bring their child to an event). They might be puttering around the house which they consider work, as the nanny takes care of the kids and the maid cleans the house. What a wealthier person considers work a poor person might consider leisure.

None of that is accounted for in the data you linked to. And it doesn’t offer strong, clear support for your conclusions. Obviously, something is getting lost in the self-reported data in how people calculate their own leisure. It shows that the poorer someone is the more they are likely to go to work at a place of employment on an average day (and apparently for some bizarre reason that includes “single jobholders only” in terms of income): 93.9% of those making $0 – $580, 90.6% of those making $581 – $920, 85.4% of those making $921 – $1,440, and 78% of those making $1,441 and higher. Imagine if they included all the lower class people working multiple jobs (the data doesn’t list any categories that combine income bracket and number of jobs).

About those formally working on an average day, to put it in context of occupation, this is: 75.5% of management, business, and financial operations, 76.9% of professional and related, 90.1% of construction and extraction, 93.2% of installation, maintenance, and repair, 91.2% of production, and 88.7% of transportation and material moving. Or break it down by education, which strongly correlates to income brackets: 85.5% of those with less than a high school diploma, 89.8% of those with high school graduates, no college, 85.4% of those with some college or associate degree, 77.2% of those with bachelor’s degree only, and 70.7% of those with advanced degree. It is even more stark separated in two other categories: 85.6% of wage and salary workers and 49.9% of self-employed workers.

No matter how you slice and dice the data, non-professionals with less education and income are precisely those who are most likely to do employment-related work on an average day. That is to say they are more likely to not be at home, the typical location of most leisure activities. It’s true the wealthier and more well educated like to describe themselves as working a lot even when at home, but it’s not clear what that might or might not mean in terms of actual activities. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable, as it is based on self-perception and self-assessment.

Besides, anyone who knows anything about social science research knows that there are a lot of stresses involved in a life of poverty, far beyond less time, although that is significant. There is of course less wealth and resources, which is a major factor. Plus, there are such things as physical stress, from lack of healthcare to high rates of lead toxicity. Living in a food desert and being busy are among the lesser worries for the working poor.

To return to the work angle, I would also add that the poor are more likely to work multiple shifts in a row, to work irregular or unpredictable schedules (being on call, split or rotating shifts, etc), to work on the black market (doing yard work for cash, bartering one’s time and services in the non-cash economy, etc), along with probably having a higher number of family members such as teens working in some capacity (paid and/or helping at home, formal and/or informal work). There is also the number of hours spent looking for work, a major factor considering the growing gig economy. Also, what about the stress and uncertainty for the increasing number of people working minimum wage (many employees at Walmart and Amazon) who make so little that they have to be on welfare just to make ends meet.

None of this is found in the data you linked. In general, it’s hard to find high quality and detailed data on this kind of thing. But there is plenty of data that indicates the complicating and confounding factors.

Survey: More Than One-Third Of Working Millennials Have A Side Job
by Renee Morad

“majority of workers taking on side gigs (68%) are making less than $50K a year.”

Millennials Significantly Outpacing Other Age Groups for Taking on Side Gigs
by Michael Erwin

“Workers of all income levels are taking on side work. Nearly 1 in 5 workers making more than $75k (18 percent) and 12 percent of those making more than $100k currently have a gig outside of their full time job. This is compared to a third of workers making below $50k (34 percent) and 34 percent earning below $35k.”

Who Counts as Employed? Informal Work, Employment Status, and Labor Market Slack
by Anat Bracha and Mary A. Burke

“Among informal participants who experienced a job loss or other economic loss during or after the Great Recession, 40 percent report engaging in informal work out of economic necessity, and 8.5 percent of all informal workers report that they would like to have a formal job. However, about 70 percent of informal work hours offer wages that are similar to or higher than the same individual’s formal wage.

“[…] informal work participation complicates the official U.S. measurement of employment status. In particular, a significant share of those who report that they are currently engaged in informal work also report separately that they performed no work for pay or profit in the previous week. In light of such potential underreporting of informal work, the BLS’s official labor force participation rate might be too low by an economically meaningful (if modest) margin, and the share of employed workers with full-time hours is also likely to be higher than is indicated by the official employment statistics.”

What Is the Informal Labor Market?
by Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria

“Survey of Informal Work Participation within the Survey of Consumer Expectations revealed that about 20 percent of non-retired adults at least 21 years old in the U.S. generated income informally in 2015.2 The share jumped to 37 percent when including those who were exclusively involved in informal renting and selling activities.

“When breaking down the results by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment categories, about 16 percent of workers employed full time participated in informal work. Not surprisingly, the highest incidence of informal work was among those who are employed part time for economic reasons, with at least 30 percent participating in informal work. Also, at least 15 percent of those who are considered not in the labor force by the BLS also participated in informal work.

“[…] Enterprising and Informal Work Activities (EIWA) survey, which revealed that 36 percent of adults in the U.S. (18 and older) worked informally in the second half of 2015.3 Of these informal workers, 56 percent self-identified as also being formally employed, and 20 percent said they worked multiple jobs (including full-time and part-time positions).

“[…] There were slightly more women than men among informal workers, though the share of women was much larger in lower income categories.

“The majority of informal workers were white, non-Hispanic (64 percent), while the share of Hispanic workers tended to be slightly higher than that of African-Americans (16 and 12 percent, respectively). The racial breakdowns were consistent across most income categories, with a higher incidence of informal work among minorities in the lowest income categories.”

Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences
by Lonnie Golden

– “By income level, the lowest income workers face the most irregular work schedules.”
– “Irregular shift work is associated with working longer weekly hours.”
– “Employees who work irregular shift times, in contrast with those with more standard, regular shift times, experience greater work-family conflict, and sometimes experience greater work stress.”
– “The association between work-family conflict and irregular shift work is particularly strong for salaried workers, even when controlling for their relatively longer work hours.”
– “With work hours controlled for, having a greater ability to set one’s work schedule (start and end times and take time off from work) is significantly associated with reduced work-family conflict.”

Advertisements

Social Order and Strict Parenting

“I remembered when I was a child being in a bank and other places of business with my mother and experiencing the same phenomenon of watching the white kids play while my mother insisted that I stay near her. Watching the repeat of my experience, I wondered how the little black girl who stood in the bank line felt while she watched the white boy run and play in the bank. I suspect she felt a number of emotions: fear of the consequences she might receive from disobeying her mother; shame from the curious looks of her white peers; anger at not being able to move about freely.

“Without explicitly saying so, the black mother sent a message to her children and the message was, ‘little white children can safely run and play but you cannot because it is not okay or safe for you.’ These experiences teach black children that somehow this world does not belong to black boys and girls, but it does belong to the little white children.”

This is from a book I somewhat randomly was perusing. It is Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy DeGruy (Kindle Locations 580-599). I get the point the author is making, but I’d widen the significance to the social order. This isn’t just a race thing. Many poor white children have had similar experiences, even without the harsh legacy of slavery. My mother grew up working class and her parents grew up poor. Her family was very strict in their parenting and it was assumed children would not stray.

By the time my brothers and I were born, the family was joining the ranks of the middle class. After living in a factory town on the edge of Appalachia, we moved to a wealthy suburb of Chicago. My mother has told me how the children of the wealthier families were given great freedom and made the center of attention. That isn’t how my mother was raised and that wasn’t how she raised us. I can’t say that my brothers and I clung to my mother’s dress, but we knew we were to be obedient and not cause trouble. As children, we most definitely didn’t run around in places of business. We stood still or sat quietly. We weren’t raised as if we had the privilege to do whatever we wanted, not matter how much it bothered others. Instead, we were raised as lower class kids who should know their place in the world.

Consider a rich kid. When Donald Trump was a little boy, did anyone tell him what he couldn’t do? Probably not. If his mother was in a bank line, he could have ran screaming around the place, punched the bank guard in the balls, and no one would have done anything about it. That isn’t because Trump was a white boy but because he had the privilege of being born into immense wealth. Everyone in that bank would have known who the Trump family was or at the very least they would have known these were rich people who were used to doing whatever they pleased.

That explains the kind of person Trump grew up to be. Trump bragged that he could shoot someone in public and he would lose no support. That mindset comes from someone who has spent his life getting away with everything. It doesn’t even take immense wealth to create this kind of a spoiled man-child. I live in a town with plenty of well off professionals in the medical field, living the good life even if not filthy rich like the Trump family. Yes, most of them are white but more importantly they have money as part of an upper class identity. As a parking ramp cashier, I’ve experienced many people get upset. This has included a wide variety of people, including minorities. Yet of those who have exploded into full tantrums, I must admit that most of them are wealthier whites.

In dealing with such tantrums of privilege, does it help that I’m a white guy? Not that I can tell. Their sense of privilege is in no way checked because of our shared whiteness, as they are upper class and I am not. The only thing I have going for me is that I have the authority of the government behind me, as a public employee. I can threaten to call the police and make good on that threat, for the police will come. I’ve done that before on a number of occasions.

I remember dealing with an upper middle class white lady who simply wouldn’t cooperate in any kind of way, while a long line of cars piled up behind her. You’d think that she’d be better behaved because she had young kids in the car, but maybe that was all the more reason she felt a need to demonstrate her sense of entitlement in getting her way. Still, I wouldn’t budge and I eventually gave her an ultimatum, with my calling the police being one of the options. She went batshit crazy and it amused me to no end, although I remained outwardly professional. I’m sure she contacted my boss later and maybe even demanded I be fired. Fortunately, I’m a union member which offers some small amount of protection. If not for that protection, my whiteness wouldn’t have saved me.

Many upper class people don’t think the same rules apply to them that apply to everyone else. I’m sure that is even true of many upper class blacks. Does anyone honestly think that Obama or Oprah would accept being treated in the way poor whites are treated in this country? I doubt it. Just imagine if a wealthy black was having a tantrum in a parking ramp and a poor schmuck like me threatened to call the police on them. Do you think that they would act with submissive deference just because of some kind of supposed white privilege? I also doubt it. To return to the original example, I simply can’t imagine that the Obama daughters when they were children huddled in anxious obedience around their mother when they were at the bank.

None of this lessens the harsh reality of racism. Even so, there is an even longer history and entrenched legacy of class hierarchy. It’s easy forget that poor whites were the original oppressed race in European society, when race first developed as a scientific concept during late feudalism. Racialized slavery replaced feudalism, but it didn’t eliminate the ancient prejudices of a class-based society. No matter how racially biased is our society, that doesn’t change the fact that whites represent the majority of the poor, the majority of those abused by police, and the majority of those in prison.

As with blacks, whites aren’t a monolithic demographic with a singular experience. Most Americans, if given the choice, would take being a rich black over being a poor white. To put it more simply, most Americans would rather be rich than poor, whatever other details were involved. A large reason racial order has so much power is because it is overlaid upon and conflated with the class-based hierarchy, as blacks are disproportionately of the lower classes. That is an important detail, but the point is what makes being black so tough is that for so many it has meant being condemned to poverty for generations. Nonetheless, this is true for many whites as well, as a large part of the white population in the US has continuously been poor for longer than anyone can remember, going back to a time prior to slavery.

Strict parenting among the poor, black and white, is a central part of the maintaining the social order. There is a good reason why poor parents willingly participate in this system of control. After all, the consequences are very much real, if their children don’t learn to behave accordingly. There are many dangers in poverty, not just from the violence of poor communities but more importantly from the power of authority figures. This is why poor people, black and white, less often have tantrums in dealing with parking ramp cashiers for they have no desire to deal with the police nor any expectation that police would treat them leniently.

Race as Lineage and Class

There is an intriguing shift in racial thought. It happened over the early modern era, but I’d argue that the earliest racial ideology is still relevant in explaining the world we find ourselves in. Discussing François Bernier (1620-1628), Justin E. H. Smith wrote that (Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference, p. 22),

“This French physician and traveler is often credited with being the key innovator of the modern race concept. While some rigorous scholarship has recently appeared questioning Bernier’s significance, his racial theory is seldom placed in his context as a Gassendian natural philosopher who was, in particular, intent to bring his own brand of modern, materialistic philosophy to bear in his experiences in the Moghul Empire in Persia and northern India. It will be argued that Bernier’s principal innovation was to effectively decouple the concept of race from considerations of lineage, and instead to conceptualize it in biogeographical terms in which the precise origins or causes of the original differences of human physical appearance from region to region remain underdetermined.”

This new conception of race was introduced in the 17th century. But it would take a couple of centuries of imperial conquering, colonialism, and slavery to fully take hold.

The earliest conception of race was scientific, in explaining the diversity of species in nature. It technically meant a sub-species (and technically still does, despite non-scientific racial thought having since diverged far from this strict definition). Initially, this idea of scientific races was entirely kept separate from humanity. It was the common assumption, based on traditional views such as monotheistic theology, that all humans had a shared inheritance and that superficial differences of appearance didn’t indicate essentialist differences in human nature. Typical early explanations of human diversity pointed to other causes, from culture to climate. For example, the belief that dark-skinned people got that physical feature from living in hot and sunny environments, with the assumption that if the environment conditions changed so would the physical feature. As such, the dark skin of an African wasn’t any more inherited than the blue-pigmented skin of a Celt.

This millennia old view of human differences was slow to change. Slavery had been around since the ancient world, but it never had anything to do with race or usually even with ethnicity. Mostly, it was about one population being conquered by another and something had to be done with conquered people, if they weren’t to be genocidally slaughtered. The wars involved nearby people. Ancient Greeks more often fought other Greeks than anyone else and so it is unsurprising that most Greek slaves were ethnically Greek. Sure, there were some non-Greeks mixed into their slave population, but it was largely irrelevant. If anything, a foreign slave was valued more simply for the rarity. This began to change during the colonial era. With the rise of the British Empire, it was becoming standard for Christians to only enslave non-Christians. This was made possible as the last Pagan nation in Europe ended in the 14th century and the non-Christian populations in Europe dwindled over the centuries. But a complicating factor is that Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa included a mix of Christians and non-Christians. Some of the early Church Fathers were not ethnically European (e.g., Augustine was African). As explained in a PBS article, From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery:

“Historically, the English only enslaved non-Christians, and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as “white” or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.”

What initially allowed West Africans to be enslaved wasn’t that they were black but that they weren’t Christian, many of them having been Islamic. It wasn’t an issue of perceived racial inferiority (nor necessarily cultural and class inferiority). Enslaved Africans primarily came from the most developed parts of Africa — with centralized governments, road infrastructures, official monetary systems, and even universities. West Africa was heavily influenced by Islamic civilization and was an area of major kingdoms, the latter not being unlike much of Europe at the time. It wasn’t unusual for well educated and professionally trained people to end up in slavery. Early slaveholders were willing to pay good money for enslaved Africans that were highly skilled (metalworkers, translators, etc), as plantation owners often lacked the requisite skills for running a plantation. It was only after the plantation slave system was fully established that large numbers of unskilled workers were needed, but even many of these were farmers who knew advanced agricultural techniques, such as with rice growing (native to West Africa, as it was to China) which was a difficult crop requiring social organization.

We’ve largely forgotten the earlier views of race and slavery. Even with Europe having become Christianized, they didn’t see themselves as a single race, whether defined as European, Caucasian, or white. The English didn’t see the Irish as being the same race, instead portraying the Irish as primitive and ape-like or comparing them to Africans and Native Americans. This attitude continued into the early 20th century with WWI propaganda when the English portrayed the Germans as ape-like, justifying that they were racially ‘other’ and not fully human. There is an even more interesting aspect. Early racial thought was based on the idea of a common lineage, such that kin-based clan or tribe could be categorized as a separate race. But this was also used to justify the caste-based order that had been established by feudalism. English aristocrats perceived their own inherited position as being the result of good breeding, to such an extent that it was considered that the English aristocracy was a separate race from the English peasantry. As Americans, it’s hard for us to look at the rich and poor in England as two distinct races. Yet this strain of thought isn’t foreign to American culture.

Before slavery, there was indentured servitude in the British colonies. And it continued into the early period of the United States. Indentured servitude created the model for later adoption practices, such as seen with the Orphan Trains. Indentured servitude wasn’t race-based. Most of the indentured servants in the British colonies were poor and often Irish. My own ancestor, David Peebles, came to Virginia in 1649 to start a plantation and those who came with him were probably those who indentured themselves to him in payment for transportation to the New World see: Scottish Emigrants, Indentured Servants, and Slaves). There was much slavery in the Peebles family over the generations, but the only clear evidence of a slave owned by David Peebles was a Native American given to him as a reward for his having been an Indian Fighter. That Native American was made a slave not because of a clearly defined and ideologically-determined racial order but because he was captured in battle and not a Christian.

More important was who held the power, which in the colonial world meant the aristocrats and plutocrats, slave owners and other business interests. In that world as in ours, power was strongly tied to wealth. To have either indentured servants or slaves required money. Before it was a racial order, it was a class-based society built on a feudal caste system. Most people remained in the class they were born into, with primogeniture originally maintaining the concentration of wealth. Poor whites were a separate population, having been in continuous poverty for longer than anyone could remember and to this day in many cases having remained in continuous poverty.

A thought that came to mind is how, even when submerged, old ideas maintain their power. We still live in a class-based society that is built on a legacy from the caste system of slavery and feudalism. Racial segregation has always gone hand in hand with a class segregation that cuts across racial divides. Poor whites in many parts of the country interact with poor non-whites on a daily basis while likely never meeting a rich white at any point in their life. At the same time paternalistic upper class whites were suggesting ways of improving poor whites (forced assimilation, public education, English only laws, Prohibition, War on Poverty, etc), many of these privileged WASPs were also promoting eugenics directed at poor whites (encouraging abortions, forced sterilizations, removal of children to be adopted out, etc).

Even today, there are those like Charles Murray who suggest that the class divide among whites is a genetic divide. He actually blames poverty, across racial lines, on inferior genetics. This is why he doesn’t see there being any hope to change these populations. And this is why, out of paternalism, he supports a basic income to take care of these inferior people. He doesn’t use the earliest racial language, but that is essentially the way he is describing the social order. Those like Murray portray poor whites as if they were a separate race (i.e., a separate genetic sub-species) from upper class whites. This is a form of racism we’ve forgotten about. It’s always been with us, even as post-war prosperity softened its edges. Now it is being brought back out into the open.

Class Confusion and Its Uses

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that perfectly, albeit unintentionally, captures a common variety of confusion in American thought. The piece is “The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970” by Reuven Brenner. The premise is that in Eric Hoffer’s 1970 essay, Whose Country is America?, he “eerily anticipated not only the political events of 2016 but the tone and language of last year’s campaign and the anti-Trump hysteria since Election day.” Brenner then goes on to blame ‘intellectuals’ for everything

It is completely idiotic. And it’s a propaganda piece. I would simply dismiss it, if not for the fact that the influence of such propaganda is all too real. Because it is pushed by corporate media, it is worth analyzing.

Keep in mind that Brenner is an employee of the Koch-funded Cato Institute, originally called the Charles Koch Foundation, one of the most powerful and influential right-wing think tanks in the world. He also has done work for the Koch-funded Fraser Institute and Shell corporation. Think tank employees are regularly given a platform on corporate media. But beyond that, the ignorance of the piece is maddening. And worst of all, I suspect the author to some degree believes his own bullshit or else believes that pushing such bullshit onto others is good for his personal and professional agenda, which is to say for the agenda of the likes of the Koch brothers and Wall Street Journal. He is apparently a highly sought after intellectual-for-hire, an intelligentsia mercenary.

About Brenner’s assessment quoted above, other people would strongly disagree. Al Hackle wrote that, “If a desire for decency and honesty equates to elitism, if billionaires are the common people — and if someone writing in 1970 to bash the hippy youth, etc., of that era from a pretentiously anti-intellectual (but highbrow!) standpoint was actually foreshadowing the politics of 2016-17 — then this article makes perfect sense.”

I wasn’t familiar with the particular Hoffer essay in question. Brenner begins with this quote from it: “Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of the common folk.”

That is plain bizarre on multiple levels, according to the normal definition of ‘intellectual’ (i.e., someone focused on intellectual activity as a career, lifestyle, or identity). I’ll have more to say about this further on, as the usage is apparently highly idiosyncratic. Also, one might suspect, as Matthew Watkins argued, that “I felt like the quoted passages were pieced together to validate the author’s anti-intellectual take on the election.” Well, Hoffer wrote those words almost a half century ago and so probably wasn’t attempting to predict distant future political events. But for the moment, let me take it at face value, in the way Brenner is treating it.

Hoffer is a famous American intellectual, even though he was of the self-taught working class variety (so he claimed; more about that below). This is nothing unusual, considering America has a long history of working class intellectuals. For that reason, it’s strange to hear anti-intellectualism from an intellectual, as if Hoffer worried that there is some kind of shame to being an intellectual and that he wants to defend against any accusation that he too is an intellectual, however he defines it. Stranger still is the fact that this is being quoted by Brenner who has made a long, successful career out of being a professional intellectual, and it’s quoted in an article written for a conservative newspaper that styles itself as highly intellectual (Wall Street Journal not being a low brow publication for the dirty masses). As one commenter put it (Patrick McCafferty), “Define irony: An intellectual essay complaining about the influence of intellectuals and their essays.”

Somehow, these ‘intellectuals’ are all of those other people to be dismissed, presumably the elite left-wingers aspiring to rule the world, bias the media, and propagandize the children. It turns intellectuality into some foreign danger invading the body politic and threatening the Real America of Real Americans, and accordingly this is why Real Americans (what right-wing culture warriors used to proclaim as being the “moral majority”) supposedly voted for and gave a political mandate to Trump. This portrayal of intellectuals, along with the portrayal of the American public, is a caricature in the demented fantasies of right-wing rhetoric. It’s amazing that this attack on intellectuals so often comes from intellectuals themselves, although less surprising when those intellectuals work for right-wing think tanks. One might suspect they are being disingenuous. Anyway, the average non-intellectual doesn’t read either Hoffer or Brenner. These intellectuals attacking other intellectuals, one might argue, are projecting their own sense of disconnection from the rest of the population. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic, specifically in the case of Brenner (as for Hoffer, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, since his words are being used for someone else’s purposes).

Let me break down Brenner’s argument:

Hoffer started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is the baby boomers. “They have become more flambouyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”

Similar accusations had been made toward prior generations of youth, specifically the generations born into the emerging America of industrialization and growing middle class, from the Lost Generation born into consumerism and violence to the Silent Generation born into affluence and a pampered childhood. How can any reasonably informed person not know this? How can such historical amnesia have such persistence?

This lack of basic knowledge is all the more shocking when it comes from intellectuals. Maybe that is what one gets when an intellectual dismisses intellectuality. An anti-intellectual intellectual is a confused person. I might be able to excuse Hoffer because he was a working class autodidact and so his self-education was maybe more random than thorough, just some guy voicing his opinions after reading some books (like me). Brenner, on the other hand, has gained wealth and respect as a formally educated public intellectual. Worse still, Brenner is the elite of the elite, not only a respected thinker promoted and read by the elite but also a college professor and published academic. Even if Hoffer didn’t know better, Brenner should.

A bit further on, Brenner writes that,

The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”

Actually, the sharp increase in college enrollment began in the 1940s, initially because of the GI Generation returning from war and taking advantage of the cheap college education offered through the GI Bill. Besides that, there were other reasons. The college students from the late 1930s to the mid-to-late 1960s were mostly of the Silent Generation, depending on the years defining that generational cohort. The earliest wave of Boomers hitting colleges didn’t happen until 1964 and it would only have been in the following years when they would have become the majority on campuses. The Silents were the first generation to receive universal public education (it having been made compulsory in the early 1920s) and so the first generation with high rates of high school degrees, a requirement for enrolling in college. They were extremely protected in childhood and, upon reaching adulthood, never had to fight in any major war. Because of the peace and prosperity of the times, more of them were able and could afford to go straight from high school to college.

It’s possible that Hoffer was directing his antagonism more at the Silent Generation than any other. They fit the description of what he was complaining about, as they were the rising vanguard of intellectuals, radicals, activists, and leaders that brought on the tumultuous 1960s — having included such figures as Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and Wavy Gravy.

Hoffer was of the Lost Generation (according to the birthdate he gave), the generation before the GIs. They were one of the most criticized generations in modern history (the earlier equivalent of Generation X), although largely forgotten now as a cohort. Unlike the Silent Generation, they were not pampered and instead were latchkey kids.

The Lost Generation was known for growing up quick because they had little choice, having been born into a world of mass industrialization and urbanization, of absent parents and broken communities. Most of them spent their childhoods working, rather than in school, and they experienced little parental oversight. They were a precocious lot, the first generation of mass consumers, and possibly the most violent generation America has ever seen. The world they knew as children was rough and chaotic. They were notorious for forming youth gangs in the cities rapidly becoming overcrowded (think of the movie “Gangs of New York” which, although portraying an earlier generation from the mid-19th century, was based on a work written by someone of the Lost Generation, Herbert Asbury). Later on, they were the veterans of WWI who experienced the larger world and came back not just with a cosmopolitan woldliness but also suffering PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction. They were among the most famous gangsters and bootleggers, not to mention among the most famous artists and writers: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Nucky Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, George Gershwin, etc (some of the Elliot Ness’ Untouchables were of the same generational cohort). This generation made itself known and notorious during the Roaring Twenties, as I previously described them:

The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.

These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized.

Of course most of that generation were forgotten members of the nameless working class. But even among the working class, radicalism was in the air and the many workers organized to confront the powers that be, sometimes with violent results which usually meant workers getting hurt and killed by the agents of corporate and political power. For example, Hoffer belonged to the militant leftist ILWU that was formed following a 1934 bloody strike and was headed by Harry Bridges, another member of the Lost Generation. The mostly unknown men in that and many other strikes made sacrifices that would benefit the workers who followed them. The good life of later generations, including that of Brenner’s Boomer Generation, was built on their backs. And sadly all that many in the Lost Generation got for their sacrifices was high rates of poverty and short lives. But they paved the way for the better life that would follow in the post-war Boom era.

Interestingly, Hoffer speaks of “alienated intellectuals”. The odd thing is that he gives voice to the alienated intellectual, apparently perceiving himself as a thinker alienated from a new generation of thinkers, which is the source of his complaint. The largely uneducated Lost Generation is famous for its alienated intellectuals. They were also highly critical of American society.

The protests of the 1960s was child’s play compared to the violent rampage of the Lost Generation, a complete overturning of the social order at the beginning of the 20th century. They didn’t just have race protests. They went so far as to have race wars that involved WWI veterans fighting military-style battles on American streets, sometimes leading to hundreds injured and killed along with bombings and the burning down of neighborhoods. That was the origin of the Civil Rights Movement. The labor organizing of that era, not just on the docks where Hoffer worked but also in Appalachian mining communities, was the most ferociously combative in American history. And when the Lost Generation wasn’t involved in that kind of ideological violence, the most dangerous troublemakers among them were committing gang violence and sometimes fighting federal agents. Social conflict at such extremes and violence at such high rates hadn’t been seen at that time since the Civil War. And holy shit were their politics radical, rooted in left-wing ideologies of a working class variety: trade unionism, syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism, communism, socialism, etc. The Lost Generation were extremists in so many ways, particularly on the political left but also on the political right, including some drawn toward fascism.

Maybe more than any other generation, they helped create what modern America has become. Or at the very least, they most starkly represented the societal change that transformed America and the world, whether they are considered a cause or a product of that change.

Continuing his ‘analysis’, Brenner makes further use of Hoffer’s writing:

The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”

That is rich. If the likes of Brenner (and presumably Hoffer) had no desire to influence or feel that their existence mattered in the slightest, why all the writing directed at an audience consisting mostly of the educated? It has been mostly intellectuals like Brenner who have read intellectuals like Hoffer. These arguments aren’t to any great degree reaching the lower classes, not that they were ever the intended audience.

Once again, what is most irritating is the historical amnesia. It was the Lost Generation, especially later in life, that did so much to promote big government in throwing large sums of tax money at problems, such as helping to create Social Security and universal public education that helped following generations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was immensely popular among the that generation and that was decades before the 1960s. And that public spending was funded with the highest tax rate the country had seen before or since.

Many in the Lost Generation, for all the deserved or undeserved blame they got, didn’t want others to have to suffer what they suffered. And because of their sacrifices, they were the last generation of uneducated child labor. They worked hard to ensure their own children and grandchildren could get educated and get good jobs. I doubt many felt nostalgic and morally righteous about their own brutally deprived childhoods. Quite a few of them for damn sure believed in the role of collective action, through government and unions, in ensuring the public good. This is how the American Dream was created, with rise of economic mobility and growth of the middle class promoted through immense government funding for public infrastructure and public programs, World War II vets benefiting most of all in a way that World War I vets never experienced, although life did improve for those of the Lost Generation who lived long enough.

Hoffer, having lived into the 1980s, was a beneficiary of this government funding and progressive economic policies, this political activism and labor organizing. His self-education and writing career was made possible from the high paying job and plenty of free time ensured by the labor union, having been a member of the most powerful leftist union at a time when unions were at their height of power. His retirement was supported through social security along with a union pension. Although he claimed to have wanted neither, he actively sought out filing his application for social security when he was around 40 years old and as a longshoreman he was an actively involved union member.

At an earlier point in his life when he was unemployed and homeless, a police officer directed him to a federal work camp. He spent a month there getting back on his feet. Observing his fellow tramps, his thinking was split between judgment and praise of these lowest of the low, but he had one moment of clarity in realizing that modern capitalism couldn’t do much for these impoverished men in stating that, “less than half the camp inmates (seventy normal, plus ten youths) were unemployed workers whose difficulties would be at an end once jobs were available. The rest (60 per cent) had handicaps in addition to unemployment.” But he didn’t seem to follow this line of thought to explore its implications for the larger society.

Also, he was proud of having made use of public libraries in his self-education, which is to say his supposed self-education was publicly funded. Besides, there are reasons to question the account he gave of his past, as no one has been able to confirm most of it. This is detailed by Thomas Bethell in his book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher. Hoffer could speak English, German, and Hebrew. Also, he was familiar with German textbooks on botany and Chemistry. He claims to have taught himself much of this while living in poverty on skid row in Los Angeles. Bethell concludes in one article, “That is hard to believe” (The Mystery of Eric Hoffer). More plausible is that he had received an education at some point and for unknown reasons wanted to keep this past a secret, one explanation being that he was an undocumented immigrant from Germany. As Aram Bakshiam explains, in “The Ultimate Self-Made Man“:

While we will probably never know the true details of his birth and childhood years—most of what he wrote about them was contradictory or unsubstantiated—he clearly was immigrant stock, and quite possibly an immigrant himself. Until his dying day, he spoke with a particular type of thick German accent: southern “Low German” characteristic of Bavaria and Austria, although he claimed that his father was a cabinet maker from Alsace-Lorraine who had settled in the Bronx. No records exist to that effect. His dramatic accounts of childhood blindness, benevolent nurses, and the early deaths of both parents are also unsubstantiated. Indeed, the first documentation of Hoffer himself is his application for a Social Security account, filed in Sacramento, California, on June 10, 1937, when he would have been 38 years old. His pre-California life is thus a matter of speculation, and it is possible—even likely—that he was born in Germany, received some primary and secondary education there, and emigrated to America on his own as a young man, “jumping ship” without papers and heading pretty quickly to the West Coast.

Despite his expressed anti-intellectualism and attacks on the more educated younger generation, the same year he wrote “Whose Country is America?” (1970) he also “endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley” (Wikipedia). And that was at a time when Berkely was almost entirely funded by government, as compared to only 14% public funding today.

So, it’s not clear who were the intellectuals he was attacking. He had weird notions about intellectuals. This is made clear by reading his 1970 essay, Whose Country Is America? Having not read it previously, I gave it a perusal. I can see why Brenner decided to use it. The piece is still relevant, although for reasons Brenner doesn’t understand or for reasons Brenner would rather others not understand. The same confusion that Hoffer espouses remains common to this day among too many Americans. Still, it’s quite telling in the ways that Brenner misreads and falsely portrays Hoffer’s views. In the last half of Brenner’s article, he explains what he considers to be Hoffer’s accurate prediction:

It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.

That is a highly deceptive paraphrasing of the original argument. It is true that Hoffer targets affluence as problematic. But what a plutocratic apologist like Brenner won’t acknowledge is that Hoffer was aiming his sights on the plutocracy. In Brenner’s conclusion he quotes Hoffer as concluding that, “We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.” What is left out is that he is talking about the moneyed elite, not just the educated elite, Hoffer having intentionally conflated the two in his argument. The elite that is being referred to is the aspiring technocrats of inherited wealth who, in seeking global influence (specifically referring to foreign aid), “hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc.” It’s a vision of industrialized corporatism. Today we would see in this the agenda of neoliberal globalization and neocon imperialism, the kind of thing Brenner fully supports.

Brenner is a joke. There is no need to take his ideas seriously, even as his intentions are deadly serious. He isn’t making an honest argument. But Hoffer is more problematic for his argument is earnest in its honest attempt at persuasion, genuinely believing what he is expressing. Still, I want to be clear that the moral faults of Brenner shouldn’t be projected onto Hoffer. The latter hated the likes of the former. There is good reason to doubt there would have been any friendship or kindness between those two, if they had ever met. Now I want to take Hoffer on his own terms, considering where he was coming from in his views and exploring what he meant by ‘intellectuals’.

It’s not clear what were Hoffer’s ultimate political commitments. In his writings, there are many thoughts expressed, not all of them fully articulated or consistent. But I feel confident that, for all of his complaints about what some might call the liberal class or bourgeoisie, he was far from standard American conservatism. As someone who personally preferred lovemaking to marriage, he stated in no uncertain terms that, “Lovemaking is radical, while marriage is conservative.” And he was equally clear about religion: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” He was no culture warrior seeking to defend religious morality and family values.

About ‘intellectuals’, it was simultaneously more narrow and more broad than how most Americans would use the word, at least in present usage. He wrote that, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Yet, speaking of himself a couple of year before his death, he referred to himself as learned: “I have written learnedly on the nature of creative milieus” (Last Notebook, September 25, 1981; quoted in Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell, p. 248). So, who exactly are the ‘learned’? It’s not entirely clear, since being learned apparently can be either a good or bad condition. Otherwise, we must assume that he was criticizing himself in his old age, implying that in having become learned he had found himself “beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” That latter interpretation is a real possibility. There is a note of nostalgia in some of his writing.

As he distinguishes being a learner and being learned, he doesn’t see all of intellect and intellectual activity as the sole proprietorship of the intelligentsia. Taken from an interview by Calvin Tomkins published in New Yorker, Penn Kemble offers this quote by Hoffer (On Eric Hoffer): “Every longshoreman thinks he could write a book if he tried—and it is true, he probably could… Every intellectual thinks that talent, that genius is a rare exception. Talent and genius have been wasted on an enormous scale throughout our history; this is all I know for sure.” This could be taken as humility. After all, he was a longshoreman who thought he could write a book if he tried and successfully did so. Still, it is an exaggeration. It is highly improbable that many longshoreman ever have such thoughts. As far as I can tell, most people in general have no aspiration to write a book, not even as a casual possibility.

Hoffer was just making a point, basically declaring the intelligentsia to be condescending. And no doubt this would accurately describe some of those in the intelligentsia, especially at a time when being an intellectual meant being part of a clearly defined and confined class. But these days, it sounds strange. Intellectuals are dime a dozen in the world right now, most of them not being part of the upper classes, much less a real or aspiring ruling elite. I live in a town where large proportion of the working class is ‘learned’, in that they have college degrees. When Hoffer was a young man, having a college degree meant a lot more than it means now.

It still seems strange. All of his writings were written fairly late in his life, his first book True Believer having been published in 1951 which was more than a half century after his birth in the late 19th century. His strident harping on intellectuals came in the following decades. The piece that Brenner quotes was written by Hoffer as an old man in his 70s. In those decades of his late life writing career, college education was becoming more common and far from being limited to the economically well off. He lived to see a large portion of several generations having moved from working class to middle class by going to college. Even though he acknowledged this new affluence as a key factor in what he perceived as fraying the moral fiber of society, he continued to think of higher education in purely class terms, as if most college students were still the children of the plutocracy. His observations and condemnations lagged behind changing realities.

Something just occurred to me. He is giving voice to the complaints that were made during his own childhood and young adulthood, although a slightly different context. Jackson Lears discusses this in Rebirth of a Nation, the relevant passage to be found in a post of mine from a few months ago (Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). As rural life came to an end and a new generation was being urbanized, there was a sudden fear about the loss of rites of passage that were supposedly provided by farming, fishing, and hunting. It was a fear of immaturity and emasculation, that boys wouldn’t grow up to be real men (nor girls real women). As Lears put it, “for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease.” This seems to be what Hoffer means when he speaks of ‘intellectuals’, the anxious transition toward deindustrialization having followed closely after the anxious transition toward post-rural industrialization. In “Whose Country is America?”, he writes:

In the past, breakdowns of value affected mainly the older segment of the population. This was true of the breakdown of the Graeco‐Roman civilization, of the crisis that gave birth to the Reformation, and of the periods of social disintegration that preceded the French, the Russian and the Nazi revolutions. That our present crisis particularly affects the young is due partly to the fact that widespread affluence is robbing a modem society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize line attainment of manhood. Never before has the passage from boyhood to manhood been so difficult and explosive. Both the children of the well‐to‐do and of families on welfare are prevented from having a share in the world’s work and of proving their manhood by doing a man’s work and getting a man’s pay. Crime in the streets and insolence on the campus are sick forms of adolescent self‐assertion. The young account for an ever‐increasing percentage of crimes against persons and property. The peak years for crimes of violence are 18 to 20, followed by the 21 to 24 age group.

He talks about this as if it were a new phenomenon or else a new phase in an ongoing phenomenon. I wonder if was unaware that these exact same charges were made against his own generation. This shift had been going for centuries as urbanization progressed, but the same complaints were probably heard in the first city-states millennia ago. Certainly, there was rising crime rates centuries ago when, because of land enclosure, unemployed landless peasants crowded into cities. And there was a severe spike of youth violence in Hoffer’s own generation at the beginning of the 20th century, caused by rapid urbanization, mass immigration, and high rates of childhood lead toxicity. But overall violence and crime had been decreasing across history, as Steven Pinker pointed out with the Moral Flynn Effect. Nonetheless, I will give Hoffer credit for understanding that there is a larger historical context that needs to be considered, for a few paragraphs on he adds:

THE contemporary blurring of childhood is not unprecedented. During the Middle Ages, children were viewed and treated as miniature adults. Nothing in medieval dress distinguished the child from the adult. The moment children could walk and talk they entered the adult world, and took part in the world’s work. In subsequent centuries, the concept of childhood became more clearly defined. Yet even as late as 1835 schoolbooks in this country made no concession to childhood in vocabulary or sophistication. Child labor, so widely practiced in the first half of the 19th century, and which we find abhorrent, was not totally anomalous in a society that did not have a vivid view of childhood as a sheltered, privileged age.

To counteract an old man’s tend ency to snort at the self‐important young, I keep reminding myself that until the middle of the 19th century the young acted effectively as members of political parties, creators of business enterprises, advocates of new philosophical doctrines and leaders of armies. Most of the wars that figure in our history books were fought by teenagers. ‘There were 14‐year‐old lieutenants in Louis XIV’s armies. In one of his armies the oldest soldier was under 18. The middle aged came to the fore with the Industrial Revolution. The experience and capital necessary to make an industrialist required a long apprenticeship. One might say that from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century the world was run by and for the middle‐aged. The post industrial age seems to be groping its way back to an immemorial situation interrupted by the Industrial [Revolution?].

That is a thousand more times interesting than how Brenner filters the argument down into simplistic ideological rhetoric. It reminds me of a number of things. Daniel Everett observed that the Amazonian Piraha lack any extended childhood and adolescence with no stage of life involving tantrums or rebellion, just a straight and immediate transition into adulthood following toddlerhood. Research has found that, under stressful conditions, biological including neurocognitive development happens at a faster rate (related to this, Adam Smith argued for universal public education precisely for the reason that he predicted repetitive labor would stunt cognitive development, which is confirmed by this research showing stress-related premature development correlates to constrained development, meaning that earlier maturation comes at the cost of human potential). That is surely the case with the Piraha with the dangerous environment they live in and the corresponding high rate of child mortality, such conditions demanding early maturity which Everett noted in the greater physical ability of Piraha children. The same would have been true for childhood prior to modern public education and health concerns. For most children in the Western world until the GI Generation, they had to grow up fast often for the sake of survival. A kid who didn’t mature rapidly would have a low survival rate while working on a farm, in a mine, or in a factory. That was the reality for most children until child labor laws.

Hoffer doesn’t make it clear, but the issue of concern isn’t merely ‘intellectuals’. The comfortable intellectual class along with college students are symbolic in his mind of the growing affluence of society in general and so indicative of the worsening anxiety about what the changes mean. That said, his claim is absurd in arguing that the younger generations are acting out delayed adolescence in fighting for basic human rights. There is an element of truth that affluence makes social progress possible. The desperately poor and disenfranchised often have a harder time challenging entrenched power. The American colonists, for example, were able to successfully revolt partly because they were one of the most free and affluent populations in the world at that time. It takes immense resources (human, economic, and natural) to support such a collective action against centralized authority, even when it was as distant as was the seat of British imperial power. But it is pointless and unfair to complain about people who choose to seek betterment for themselves and their society when the opportunity arises. This is particularly the case for someone like Hoffer who took advantage of such a time of affluence, fought for by others, that allowed him to work shorter hours for greater pay in order to have the freedom to write and get published such intellectual arguments.

I find it hard to follow the line of his thought. He sees a modern industrial society as inevitably aligned with the middle class. But he doesn’t seem to mean the struggling and aspiring lower middle class of the upwardly mobile American Dream, many having been of the working class not long before. Maybe he is primarily speaking of the upper middle class professionals, the segment of the middle class that had been fairly stable for many generations at that point. Such stability is what is required for an intelligentsia to form, what he simply refers to as ‘intellectuals’. The argument, from what I can tell, is that affluence has made this upper middle class too stable and secure, and so utterly disconnected from the working class that they look down upon. There is some kind of loss of what originally motivated the middle class and fueled the Industrial Revolution, as a post-industrial age takes over and indeed in that 1970 piece he already saw America as becoming post-industrial, whatever that meant to him at that time.

It’s as Hoffer continues with his piece that he goes from being a crotchety old man to a mad visionary of fevered dreams. Listen to him here:

In this country, the coming of the postindustrial age may mean the loss of all that made America new—the only new thing in the world. America will no longer be the common man’s continent. The common people of Europe eloped with history to America and have lived in common‐law marriage with it, unhallowed by the incantations of “men of words.” But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride

What the fuck! It’s an amusing image, but it’s plain nonsense. When did the common man control all of American society? When the Constitution was put into place, only a few percentage of Americans could vote, hold public office, or participate in any way. Most blacks were enslaved, Native Americans were still experiencing genocide, most women didn’t even have the most basic rights, and even the vast majority of white men were disenfranchised. This has always been a country of a ruling elite, even as some Americans were always seeking to escape to the frontier to get beyond their reach.

What Hoffer probably had in mind was the sweet deal he had in one of the rare highly democratic labor unions in the country where workers had control over their own fates. As for most other Americans at the time, they had little control at all and neither did their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. In America, when the common man fought the elite, I can promise you the common man rarely won that fight. Legalized slavery through chain gangs, oppression in diverse forms, and political disenfranchisement continued well into the 20th century. Hoffer’s latter years were spent in one of those rare places and times in American history, far from being representative of what most Americans had experienced. And the freedom that Hoffer was given freely by his fellow union members was bought for with generations of their sweat, blood, and tears. It was a heavy price to pay for that small amount of freedom for a small part of the population and even that would be lost as unions came under attack near the end of his life. He took a lot for granted.

He continues:

The phenomenal increase of the student population is shaping the ‘attitudes and aspirations of the young. There are now more students in America than farmers. For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image. The young’s sympathy for the Negro and the poor goes hand in hand with an elitist conceit that pits them against the egalitarian masses. They will fight for the Negro and the poor, but they have no use for common folk who work and moonlight to take care of their own. They see a free‐wheeling democracy as a society stupefied by “the narcotic of mass culture.” They reserve their wrath for the institutions in which common people are most represented: unions, Congress, the police and the Army. Professor Edgar Z. Friedenberg thinks that “elitism is the great and distinctive contribution students are making to American society.” Democracy is for the dropouts; for the elite, an aristocratic brotherhood.

Holy fuck! What was this guy smoking? He seems to think being educated is a bad thing, the doom of America. Besides, it’s not like students killed all the farmers and feasted upon their blood. Many of those first generation of college students had been raised on farms. Their uneducated parents wanted them to get a college degree and do better. Considering that Hoffer comes off sounding like an alienated intellectual, his whole ranting jeremiad is rather misguided.

Even more unforgivable, he dismisses everyone who is not like him as being allowed membership into the “common folk”. Minorities aren’t common folk. The poor aren’t common folk. The young aren’t common folk. And anyone who aspires above the most basic manual labor isn’t common folk. I guess only older whites with little education but well paid unionized workers like Hoffer who hate mass culture are common folk. If so, these idealized common folk aren’t all that common. It’s disturbing to learn that all of the major institutions of American society (unions, Congress, the police and the Army, not to mention democracy itself) don’t represent minorities, the poor, the young, the educated, dropouts, the elite, or anyone else who doesn’t precisely share Hoffer’s demographic profile. I suppose I’m fine with excluding the aristocrats, but I don’r run into too many of them these days.

He preaches that, “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.” As he wrote those words, poor minorities were being ghettoized, working class white communities were falling into poverty and despair, an entire generation was once again being poisoned with lead toxicity, the police were being militarized to target the lower classes, his beloved unions were under attack, the government was destroying grassroots movements with oppressive COINTELPRO, a hopeless war in Vietnam was being fought and pointlessly killing so many in the process, several inspiring leaders had been assassinated, and one of the most corrupt leaders in US history was president. All he had to do was open his eyes and clean the wax out of his ears. His ideal society was in shambles.

He further lambasts the ‘intellectual’:

The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].

The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.

There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.

Martin Luther King, jr was an alienated intellectual. There were many people who had sought higher education to improve themselves and to better their life circumstances. That has always been a core element to American society, the aspiration for something more. Hoffer is correct in a sense that such people aspiring didn’t merely want to be left alone. They wanted freedom and opportunity to act. They wanted to be treated as full citizens as part of a functioning democratic society. They wanted to participate in civic society and to feel like they belonged. They wanted to be able to give their children what they had not been given. I doubt even Hoffer merely wanted to be left alone. His unionized job gave him far more than that. Most other Americans simply wanted what Hoffer had and took for granted. Getting a college education hardly gave most people entry into the intellectual elite. Hoffer sounds resentful of the younger generations for being given opportunities of higher education he had maybe been denied when he was younger, even though such new opportunities were still rather limited. The generations following his own were hardly living the high life. Most Americans of all generations continued to have rather basic lives, their greatest achievements maybe involved owning a house and affording to take vacations, no different than what was available to Hoffer.

It is odd that he felt so threatened by ‘intellectuals’. To this day, most people with higher education don’t have much power in our society. It’s the plutocracy of politicians and businessmen who go to Ivy League colleges and dominate American society. Even the average college professor or teaching assistant is far from being part of the ruling elite, especially as universities become increasingly dependent on private funding from wealthy benefactors and corporate interests. Sure, intellectuals could express their dissent and lend their voice to protest movements, but the intellectuals of recent history ended up having less impact than the intellectuals from earlier in our country’s history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The only way intellectuals can gain power is to become part of the political class or get hired by a corporate think tank, as did Brenner. Obviously, Hoffer had no idea where the country was heading, from his limited vantage point from a half century ago.

A bit further on, his tirade goes into yet more strange territory:

AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed [by?] the rich.

I didn’t know that present-day intellectuals lacked animus toward the rich. Apparently, there were quite a few intellectuals who weren’t told about this. Besides inspiring leaders like MLK, there were college-educated radicals such as Fred Hampton and academics such as Chomsky. There has been a long tradition of American intellectuals with less than friendly attitudes toward the problems of concentrated wealth and plutocracy. That has been a major driving force of a strain of American intellectuality over the centuries and directed at diverse guilty parties: British monied interests, Southern aristocrats, wealthy slaveholders, war profiteers, large landholders, those of inherited wealth, Robber Barons, etc. These intellectual critics of the rich have come from diverse backgrounds, from various degrees of education to various levels of socioeconomic class.

It’s extremely hard to figure out what Hoffer is going on about. Who are these “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold”? If these plutocrats and moneyed interests aren’t in any aspect of government or business, then what are they doing and where did the wealth come from? He is being intellectually vague and evasive. The target of his ire appears to be an apparition of his imagination. What the heck is a revolution financed by the rich who aren’t involved in either the public sphere or the private economy? Is he suggesting that the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, Black Panthers, etc are all being secretly funded by a plutocratic conspiracy against the middling but uneducated common folk? And what is this radicalism that he speaks of? Is he not including the labor union he belonged to, one of the most radical in US history? Why is the radicalism that has benefited him personally not included in his criticisms?

More along these lines, he explains this radicalism:

Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.

I don’t know of many in the New Left that came out of wealthy elite. There were many radicals and activist that came out of the middle class, including the lower middle class. That has always been true, partly because the middle class have more time and resources for political involvement. Still, it would be false to say that the working class weren’t involved as well. He seems aware of this when in this same piece he wrote that, “affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor,” unless he is arguing that the working class and the working poor are two separate groups with the latter somehow being radically aligned with the plutocracy, which would be a kooky argument to make. I’m not sure how affluence radicalizes the lowest poor who lack affluence more than anyone else. There is absolutely no logical consistency and coherence to this meandering line of thought. His mind is all over the place.

Let me get at some specifics. Even where it’s clear what he means, it is far from justified. Take his claim that, “The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground.” That is patently false. I don’t know the background of all the members of the Weather Underground, but some of them were from the working class, such as Terry Robbins having been raised by a single father who was a factory worker and Naomi Jaffe having grown up on a small family farm. The New Left, like the Old Left, included many from the working class. As with MLK, the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton sought to organize the working class of all races and ethnicities in what was called the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton reached out to the working class white groups such as the Young Patriots, the kind of people who didn’t have the protection and representation of labor unions as did Hoffer. These working poor whites felt immense gratitude in being acknowledged and included by the Black Panthers, as they had been ignored and dismissed by mainstream society.

Like so many other respectable people at the time, Hoffer shows little understanding of these people and this is in spite of his once having had known poverty. His own words make clear the disconnection from the common folk that he projects onto supposedly wealthy intellectuals. In his comfortable older age made possible by the working class activism of his labor union, he forgot what it meant to be poor. He makes the odd assertion that, “It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.” Well, he must not have been talking to many common folk when he wrote those words in 1970. Yet he occasionally comes close to understanding, before flitting away back to his perch of middle class identity:

The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.

What is left out is the large numbers of working poor. This population was the majority for most of American history. The middle class did briefly grow larger, but the working poor have never been small in number and they are returning to their predominance in our society. Hoffer doesn’t seem to realize the highly unusual and precarious nature of the temporary economic boom that made a large middle class possible after World War II. He acts like the working poor have disappeared from the world, based on an assumption that the only poor people remaining are those unable or unwilling to work. Yet most poor people continued to work what jobs they could find, although it is true that some turned to the black market for a source of income. Heck, when Hoffer was poor, he also turned to the black market of odd jobs. How did he come to lose this awareness of the lives of the working poor? Talk about disconnection of an extreme variety.

After imagining the working poor out of existence, he goes back to his routine of blaming the ‘intellectuals’:

I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.

He says this about the union he belonged to, the ILWU. What made it unique is that it broke free from another union that the workers perceived as corrupt. They formed the ILWU to be more democratic with little hierarchy to separate the union leaders from the union members, such as disallowing high salaries. Those supposed intellectuals had spent their lives making sacrifices and had participated in bloody strikes. These union leaders and activists were far less disconnected from the realities on the ground than apparently was Hoffer. And where does his moral high ground come from? He was an active member of the union, but he never sought a leadership position or to volunteer on behalf of his fellow workers. No one was keeping him from being more involved and having greater influence. Instead, he chose to spend the freedom that the union made possible to pursue his intellectual ambitions. That is as it should have been. The freedom given to him was a good thing. But maybe he should have shown more appreciation and gratitude.

Like his definition of an intellectual, his view on socioeconomic classes was a bit unusual. But the confusion is maybe more common than in a country like this. The class order has been constantly shifting for the entirety of American history. So, I’m not sure what to think of Hoffer’s ideas about class. Seven years earlier in 1963, he wrote another piece titled The Role of the Undesirables. He uses a similar class breakdown and yet his conclusion has a slightly different emphasis compared to his 1970 analysis.

In both cases, 1963 and 1970, he seems to conflate the working class with the middle class, portraying the extremes at the top and bottom as something else entirely. But in the 1963 piece, he refers to them as the best and the worst, which I guess portrays the amalgamated working-middle class as mediocre — stating that the “inert mass of a nation is in its middle section” and that, apparently in an inert state of impotence or apathy, “are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both extremes: the best and the worst.” He is uncertain about whether he should blame or praise the broad middle section of workers, even though he idealizes the work that he claims that only they do, the very work that supports and pays for all of society including the lifestyles of the presumably nonworking rich and poor. Yet as he argues in 1970, the affluence has made the middle class flabby and indolent. Does this mean the affluence has lifted them up into the lazy upper class? As for intellectuals, he never is clear about whether to entirely blame them on the upper class or to share some of the blame with the middle class. Where else are the increasing number of college students to come from other than the growing middle class?

In Hoffer’s vision of class order, specifically as it relates to the moral order, inertness is the rhetorical opposite of action. He often speaks of men of action. Like so much else in Hofferian thought, it’s not clear about the quality or value of such things. Businessmen and politicians are often portrayed as ultimate men of action, but also leaders of mass movements (True Believer, p. 115). On the other hand, the rich and intellectuals are defined as being men of leisure, no matter how much they may long for power over others. You’d think that this is praise of capitalist system where men of action dominate, but his take on capitalism is nuanced:

It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
(“Thoughts of Eric Hoffer, Including: ‘Absolute Faith Corrupts Absolutely,'” in The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 1971, p. 50)

Now that is a unique view of capitalism. There is an implied corollary conclusion: Capitalism is at its liberating worst in a capitalist environment. That is to say that capitalism only leads to freedom when it doesn’t dominate. So, one would think that the moment one is free capitalism should be quickly limited and powerfully regulated, lest it becomes a new force of corruption. Just because the businessman avoids the moral failing of leisure and laziness doesn’t mean that being a man of action necessarily leads to moral worth and excellence. Men of action are only made worthy in their capacity to build and contribute, even the most lowly men forced into action by circumstances. As a writer and an intellectual, Hoffer still sought his identity as a manual laborer, one who does productive work. Any other kind of action was suspect. So, the worker needed to distinguish himself from the intellectuals, including the intellectuals in union leadership, even when those intellectuals had worked their way up from mere laborers. And workers as men of action are in opposition to managers as men of action, when their action was merely to manage workers doing the real work. It’s an almost left-wing idealization of the worker minus any clear left-wing ideology.

Penn Kemble, in On Eric Hoffer, offers this quote:

To the eternal workingman management is substantially the same whether it is made up of profit seekers, idealists, technicians, or bureaucrats. The allegiance of the manager is to the tasks and the results. However noble his motives, he cannot help viewing the workers as a means to an end. He will always try to get the most out of them; and it matters not whether he does it for the sake of profit, for a holy cause, or for the sheer principle of efficiency. . . . Our sole protection lies in keeping the division between management and labor obvious and matter-of-fact. We want management to manage the best it can, and the workers to protect their interests the best they can. No social order will seem to us free if it makes it difficult for the worker to maintain a considerable degree of independence from management. The things which bolster this independence are not utopian. Effective labor unions free movement over a relatively large area, a savings account, a tradition of individual self-respect—these are some of them.

Management is to be kept in its place, serving its limited role and leaving workers alone. That describes how his labor union operated, as employment and specific work opportunities were directly controlled by the union, not management. He has the left-wing mistrust of management. And he goes so far as to see business as a corrupting force. Yet it is the intellectual who is most easily corrupted. In a 1967 interview by CBS’s Eric Sevareid, Hoffer explained:

First of all, I ought to tell you I have no grievance against the intellectual. All I know about the intellectuals is what I read in history and how I saw them perform. And I’m convinced that the intellectual, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals.

Here is how I make sense of this. Men of action have the power to corrupt. But it is men of leisure who are prone to corruption. I presume that is the fear of the middle class transitioning from a bourgeoisie working class to a bourgeoisie leisure class. And I presume that is why colleges are to be seen as potential sites of corruption, for that is where a new generation of wealthier intellectuals is born out of the middle class. Or something like that. As such, the only saving grace of society is the work of the working class, which he calls the middle class. This is why he argues for work being instated as a rite of passage for the young generation, to ensure they turned into proper adults, rather than lingering in extended adolescence. The proposal in question seems to be some kind of work program for social uplift, by keeping the middle class grounded in the working class out of which it emerged. Yet he acknowledges this situation was a creation of a middle class industrialized society and so the fate of a post-industrial society is far from hopeful.

I’m attempting to clarify what Hoffer himself never quite made clear. His thought had too many loose strands. Like his mysterious past, his criticisms of society and his moral vision maybe doesn’t quite add up. It feels like he is attempting some kind of balancing act with no specific point of balance. The poor and the rich don’t work. But the middle class that is the working class has become inert and is in danger of no longer producing men of action. These men of action are needed, even as they are inevitably corrupting. They are still better than the men of inaction who are simply corrupted. The problem is that action is motivated by work toward affluence, but that affluence undermines society. Everything is constantly under threat of becoming something else and so the whole precarious order breaks down. His intellectual philosophizing was formed out of and made possible by the radical activism of trade unionism, even as he denigrated both intellectuality and radicalism. Praise becomes criticism and criticism becomes praise. His thoughts go round and round without quite cohering into a whole.

All of this makes it easy to cherrypick quotes from Hoffer’s decades of writings and take his life experience out of context. His lack of clarity is a product of our confused society. And so it makes for useful fodder in justifying the muddled rhetoric about the social order, as long as one ignore the inconvenient parts of his thought. That is how such an odd thinker can end up being used by a think tank intellectual in a Wall Street Journal propaganda piece.

* * * *

The Right’s Working-Class Philosopher
by Peter Cole, Jacobin

He was a frequent guest on network television, often praising conservative politicians like then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In his first and most influential book, The True Believer, Hoffer criticized mass movements of all stripes, especially communism, and lauded the government’s containment policy.

Yet Hoffer was a walking contradiction. Despite his rightist politics, Hoffer belonged not just to the country’s most powerful leftist union, the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), but its most militant local, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Local 10.

The central paradox of Hoffer’s life is even more striking because it was precisely the left-wing militancy of the ILWU that provided him the good fortune (yes, fortune) and time to write nearly a dozen books and hundreds of articles condemning radicalism, civil rights, and the social advances of the 1960s. […]

In a real sense, sailors and dockers were the world’s first proletarians, toiling under corporate-controlled shipping lines in the first global industry. And like some of the pirates of yesteryear, the ILWU had created a system that spread the wealth among all its members.

In addition to this largesse, Hoffer also benefited from the tremendous flexibility ILWU members had won. In essence, rank and filers could decide when — and if — they wanted to work on a particular day. He also had the advantage of location: While there were no guarantees of a ship to work, San Francisco had long been the largest and busiest port on the coast.

All Hoffer had to do to maintain his union membership was report to the hall a certain number of days each quarter, attend monthly meetings, and pay his union dues. Thus, the “longshore philosopher” could work three days a week, write the other days, and know that he would get dispatched when he showed up at the hall. Or, he could work six straight days and take a week off to think and write, as he often did. And if that didn’t provide him enough latitude, union members like Hoffer could decide that they wanted to work in another ILWU-controlled port.

It was into this union that Hoffer stumbled, making (for a writer) an incredibly soft landing. He then proceeded to lambast the politics of the Left that had made his life so rich in money, safety, and workplace power.

Hoffer deeply appreciated the working conditions created by his powerful union, calling them “millennial” on numerous occasions. Yet he refused to praise the union and its leftist leadership, including President Harry Bridges. Bridges and the ILWU membership were highly critical of US foreign policy, especially its military interventions in Asia.

As a result of their politics, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of ILWU members were investigated for “communist sympathies.” Bridges himself was likely the single most persecuted labor leader during the McCarthy era — both by the government and a rightward-shifting CIO, which expelled the ILWU in 1950. However, he survived due to the tremendous loyalty of ILWU members, most of whom were not communists but almost all of whom loved what Harry and the other “’34 men” had done to create such a great job for working people.

Even in his private journals, some of which later were published, Hoffer rarely credited the union, and never Bridges. Though the man wrote constantly and voluminously, he rarely wrote about the union that made the selfsame writing possible.

He occasionally commented in his journals on the work he did — unloading transistor radios for eight hours at Pier 34 or working with a Portuguese partner while talking about his family. But the “longshoremen philosopher” never seemed to reflect deeply on the ILWU nor his role in it. For a while he became interested in automation and its impacts on workers, but largely was sanguine, hopeful, and arguably naïve about the benefits of capitalism for ordinary people.

The man lived a rich life of the mind — reading on the job during breaks, taking half-day walks to ponder particular intellectual conundrums, journaling fastidiously, and writing for publications. However, he never changed his views that politicians like Nixon and, especially, Reagan (first as governor, later as president) were noble and his union leaders dupes, “true believers” of false idols who demonstrated their own lack of self-confidence by joining a mass movement. Based on the limited record, Hoffer never spoke at meetings, never ran for any union office, and never volunteered in the union to help his fellow workers.

Ironically, the best-known working-class American of the Cold War era was a conservative who was lucky enough to find a job represented by the most powerful leftist union in postwar America. As such, his life represents the cognitive dissonance of many working Americans today: profiting from — albeit less so than in the past — the great gains of the labor movement yet unwilling to become union advocates.

Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

I was looking back at data related to the past presidential election. The demographic of Trump voters is multifaceted. First, I’d point out the demographics of Republicans in general, specifically as compared to Democrats. In recent history, Republicans have done best with the middle class. They get disproportionate votes from those with average income, average education, average IQ, etc. It’s Democrats that typically draw more from the extremes and less from the middle, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure how much this dynamic changed this election. There were some typical Democratic voters who switched parties to vote for Trump. And some other voting patterns shifted at the edges. But I don’t get the sense that any of this was a major issue, at least in determining the election results. The deciding factor in the swing states often had more to do with who didn’t vote than who did. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump lost fewer votes compared to past Republican candidates than Clinton lost compared to past Democratic candidates. So, Trump won by losing less. But it was different in another key state, Florida, where Trump won strong support among certain minority groups that helped push him over the edge; specifically, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans. So, there were many complications. But it’s not clear to me that this election demographically veered that far away from a typical election for Republicans.

Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).

Also, keep in mind that Trump did surprisingly well among minorities, considering the rhetoric of his campaign: 29% of Asians voted for him, 29% of Hispanics, and 8% of blacks. Those aren’t small numbers, enough to have helped him win… or if you prefer, enough to cause Clinton to lose, as the percentages might have to do more with the decreased voting rate this election among particular minority populations. Trump did better among older minorities and rural minorities, at least that was true with Hispanics as I recall, which seems to indicate a similar economic pattern of those who are feeling less hopeful about the future, although I’d point out that most of Trump voters were urban and suburban. Trump specifically beat Clinton in the suburbs and also got more than a third of the votes in cities. But because of how our system is designed votes in low population rural states are worth more than votes in high population urban/suburban states, the reason Wisconsin turned out to be so important.

I would make some additional points. Poor people in general, white and non-white, vote at lower rates. The poorest are rarely ever a deciding factor in any national election. As for the working class more broadly, Trump had some of his strongest support from places like the Rust Belt in the urban Midwest, although it is fair to point out that Clinton lost some progressive strongholds in what once was the New Deal territory of the Upper South that had been loyal Democrats for a long time (in one county in Kentucky, having been won by Trump, the majority voted for a Republican for the first time since the Civil War). Even in the Rust Belt, it wasn’t that Trump gained white working class votes but that Clinton lost them. There was simply fewer people voting in places like that, preferring to vote for neither candidate, some combination of not voting at all and voting third party.

All in all, it’s hard to tell what the demographics indicate, as there is so much left out of the data such as there being more to economic class than mere household income. For example, income inequality isn’t the same as wealth inequality, as the latter has to do with savings and inheritance, most wealth in the US being inherited and not earned. The lower middle class has lower rates of savings and inherited wealth. As for the changes from past elections, it probably has more to do with the drop in the number of voters in key places, but that surely is caused by more than just economics and related factors. Anyway, I’d argue that it really was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning. That is my sense, but I could be wrong. I’m hoping that a detailed book-length analysis of demographics comes out in terms of recent politics and the population in general.

This was my rethinking over what happened. I’ve already written about this many other times, but I thought it might be useful to emphasize the role of the middle class in this election. It’s interesting that the middle class has received a lot less attention this past year, even though for a couple decades the middle class had become an obsession of media and politicians. I’ve often thought that much of what gets called the middle class is actually working class, something pointed out by Joe Bageant. One could make that argument for the lower middle class, in particular. In the past, middle class was more of a social attitude based on economic aspiration, during a time when upward mobility was common and the middle class growing.

My grandfather who was a factory worker probably never identified as middle class, but along with my grandmother working as a secretary they had a fairly high household income which allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle in many ways: owning a house, buying new cars, regular vacations, saving for retirement, sending his children to college, etc. Downward mobility, along with worsening mortality rates for whites, has changed demographic and voting patterns, along with how people identify themselves and how they are perceived by others. The upwardly mobile working class a half century ago was more hopeful and progressive than the present downwardly mobile lower middle class. I might add that my grandfather voted Democrat his whole life, but if he were around today he almost certainly would have voted for Trump and it wouldn’t have been for economic reasons — more that Trump is perceived as a straight talker and that he uses old school progressive rhetoric. His children, my mother and uncles, are all over the place in terms of life experience, economic class, social and political ideology, and voting tendencies.

Demographics shift greatly from one generation to the next, often even within families. That is magnified by the larger shifts in entire populations, as the politics of individuals is strongly shaped by what is going on in the world immediately around them. And obviously more is changing in the world than is remaining the same. The United States is a far different place than it was when my grandparents were born a hundred years ago.

By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.

Don’t blame the poor for everything, whether poor minorities or poor whites. In a country like the United States, the lower classes have very little political power, economic influence, and activist engagement.

* * *

Here is some of what I was looking at while writing this post. The following presents various data, analyses, and conclusions.

Election 2016: Exit Polls
Produced by Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, & K.K. Rebecca Lai
The New York Times

The myth of Donald Trump’s upper-class support
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Week

Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory
by Jeremy Slevin
TalkPoverty.org

The Myth of the Trump Supporter: They Are Not Predominantly White Working Class but Rather Anxiety-Ridden Middle Class
by Theo Anderson
Alternet

Trump and the Revolt of the White Middle Class
by Stephen Rose
Washington Monthly

Angry White, Rich, Educated Men? Trump Voters Are Smarter And Richer Than The Average American
by Tyler Durden
ZeroHedge

Trump supporters are not who the media told you they were
by Ben Cohen
American Thinker

High Homeownership Counties Were Twice as Likely to Vote for Trump
by Derek Miller
SmartAsset

Financial Insecurity and the Election of Donald Trump
by Diana Elliott & Emma Kalish
Urban Institute

The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt
by Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr
Slate

Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?
by Myriam Renaud
The University of Chicago

About the Stereotype Busting High Median Incomes of Trump Voters
by Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

Class Divide and Communication Failure

There is a class divide that makes communication almost impossible.

If you are part of the population that is upwardly mobile and/or economically stable (mostly upper middle class and above), you aren’t feeling desperate and any political concerns are rarely immediate threats to your life, your family, or your community. Such people live in relative comfort, security, and privilege. They may not be super wealthy and still have problems like anyone else, but none of it is overwhelming most of the time.

It is far far different for the rest of the population, the downwardly mobile and economically precarious, struggling working class, the poor, and the unemployed. These people know in their personal experience that society is dysfunctional, that the economy is rigged, and that the government doesn’t represent them. They directly and personally feel what it means to mistrust and sometimes even fear one’s government, to know that they are on their own with little to save them if everything goes wrong.

These two classes live in separate worlds. The minority who are doing fairly well or, for some, doing great have absolutely no clue what is going on with majority of the population. It is a total disconnect. They don’t understand what it means to feel desperation, anger, outrage, and outright fear, verging on paranoia at times. In the middle-to-upper class defending the status quo, the lower classes unsurprisingly see them as part of the problem, even though the reality is most comfortable people are simply ignorant and only complicit to the degree that ignorance is willful, but mostly it is passive ignorance.

Most Americans no longer trust the government. Most Americans no longer think there is a functioning democracy. Yet the middle-to-upper classes are still acting as if nothing has fundamentally changed, just some reform needed, maybe an occasional signing of a petition or the joining in a march, but just keep on voting for the lesser evil. This is why Trump has been such a shock. Some of the comfortable people are suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable, a feeling that the lower classes have been feeling for a long time.

Will we finally get to a point where the class divide breaks down? Will the comfortable finally start paying attention, instead of remaining selfish assholes seeking to maintain the status quo? Will those on the bottom of society finally realize the average middle class professional is not the ultimate enemy and instead is simply a clueless ignoramus who, in reality, is no more represented by government than the poor? Will the American public, across all divides, finally see that the problems we face are shared concerns?

On Being a Bachelor

My dad told me that I live like a bachelor. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that. But I suspect he really wasn’t talking about my marital status or rather lack thereof.

Partly my lifestyle is different because I’ve spent around three quarters of my life severely depressed along with some cognitive deficits (e.g., learning disability). That relates to my having dropped out of college and now have a working class job, even though I’m smart enough to do a higher-skilled job. In thinking about the bachelor lifestyle, my dad might have been talking more about class. I’m fairly sure that, if I were either a rich bachelor or a poverty-stricken bachelor, I’d be living a far different lifestyle than I do as a working class bachelor with a unionized government job. Other than my inhabiting a small apartment, the way I live is probably more similar to the average working class married couple than to bachelors as a general category.

My parents grew up in working class communities. They spent their early years in smaller houses that weren’t up to middle class standards, which is to say a bit cluttered and not pristinely clean. As my parents moved up into the world, they both sought to escape the world they grew up in. I’m not sure what it is, maybe a slight sense of shame of where they came from. I know my mom was embarrassed to bring childhood friends home because of the condition of her family’s house.

I, on the other hand, grew up middle class. My childhood house, because of my mother, was always perfectly clean. And some of the family houses from my younger years were fairly nice, such as our South Carolina home (built for a judge) which was a stately two-story brick structure with a large front porch, balcony, and walled garden. My parents have gone to great effort to become not just middle class but upper middle class, and they’ve succeeded.

For whatever reason, I haven’t exactly inherited this upward mobile aspiration of good living and class respectability, although my brothers are more middle class in their sensibilities. I dress working class and my living space would look working class, if not for the walls being covered in shelves of scholarly and literary books. I have no desire to act or appear middle class. Despite raising me middle class, my mom instilled in me a working class attitude about life and apparently I took it to heart.

Class is such a strange thing. As my dad’s comment implied, class is often spoken of indirectly. More than anything, class is an attitude. If it was important to me, I could dress middle class, act middle class, and maintain a house to a middle class standard. I’m not poor and I’m intimately familiar with what it means to be middle class (proper manners, how to set a formal table, etc). I just don’t care to try, maybe simply because of depression or whatever. I’m content being working class, as it’s a simpler and more comfortable way of living. For example, I like my Carhartt clothing because it’s practical and, on a basic level, I’m all about practical (as my mom raised me). I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a factory town. I’ve never gone hunting, much less owned a gun, and I’ve never driven a pickup truck. I just look like that kind of person.

Here is where the issue of marriage vs bachelorhood fits in. It used to be that marriage was most closely identified with working class. But that has changed. Marriage rates are now higher with the middle class or what is left of the middle class. As the economy has gotten harder, there have been fewer advantages for the working class to get married and more stress driving working class marriages apart.

In the past, it was common for a man to have a good farm, factory, railroad, or mining job. This might even have included job security and good benefits. This often paid well enough that his wife didn’t have to work, instead her staying at home taking care of the house and kids. It was the traditional American family and, for generations, it was standard for the working class. But hard economic times, along with more opportunities, caused an entire generation of working class women to look for employment to help offset costs.

The traditional family came to have less value, as people had less time to spend with family and were less economically dependent on one another. Being married has increasingly become a luxury of class privilege. For the working poor, it can be cheaper for an individual to live alone or easier to get on welfare, especially in poor communities where most potential spouses are unemployed. The incentive structure at the bottom of the economic ladder doesn’t encourage marriage, as it once did.

So, bachelorhood and bachelorettehood, along with single parenting, has become more common among the lower classes. It’s a survival strategy or simply a hard fact of life. If you’re poor with a job, you have little reason to marry a poor person without a job. And if you are a poor person without a job, there is little reason for someone with a job to marry you. As for two unemployed poor people, even if they weren’t feeling desperate and with no future prospects, marriage would have little meaning or purpose, not even offering comfort in sharing misery with another. In communities with low employment rates, marriage has become rather pointless.

Being a lower class single person has a similar stigma to being lower class single parent, just without the kids. If I were rich and someone said I had a bachelor lifestyle, they’d mean I was living in a large empty mansion or upscale penthouse, living the high life involving vacations and traveling the world, parties and dating beautiful women who presumedly wanted me for my money, not to mention a maid to clean my house. But if I were a severely poor unemployed bachelor, my lifestyle would likely involve at best living in a single bedroom eating Ramen noodles and at worst living under a bridge drinking myself to an early grave. As I’m not either of those extremes, that isn’t what my dad meant when he brought up my bachelor status. But the implication was that my lifestyle was closer to the latter than to the former.

My aspiration is to one day live under a bridge. And with the economy going as it is, my dream may eventually come true. Maybe I’ll meet a nice homeless lady to shack up with and keep me warm at night. Oh, to dream…

Size Matters

“If you owe the bank ten thousand dollars, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank a million dollars, you own the bank.”
~ attributed to various people

And other variations:

“If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy. If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy.”

“If you owe the bank $100 that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

* * *

“a TEN-YEAR-OLD lad in Indianapolis who was arrested for picking up coal along the side of railroad tracks is now in jail. If the boy had known enough to steal the whole railroad he would be heralded as a Napoleon of finance.”
~ Mother Jones

And another version, also attributed to her:

“I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.”

Or related variants, often misattributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

“The illiterate robs a freight car; the educated thief steals the whole railroad.”

“An uneducated thief will steal a ride on a railroad train. An educated thief will steal the whole railroad system.”

“If a man steal a ride on a railroad, he is called a “hobo;” If he steal the whole railroad his name is emblazoned in history as a financier.”

“Steal a ride and you are a “hobo,” liable to be shot. Steal a whole railroad and you are a financier, eligible to the United States Senate.”

“if a man steals a ham from a freight car, he goes to jail; while if he steals the whole railroad, he goes to the United States senate.”

* * *

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
~ usually misattributed to Stalin

Along with numerous variations:

“The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!”

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

“One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero.”

“Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

“If you shoot one person you are a murderer. If you kill a couple persons you are a gangster. If you are a crazy statesman and send millions to their deaths you are a hero.”

American Class Bigotry

“The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
~ Cornel West

American society is divided by class and, ideology and parties aside, united according to class. Class identity and class conflict are the defining features.

That is because the lives of Americans are determined by class more than anything else, more than even race. Poor whites and poor blacks have more in common than either has with wealthy whites and wealthy blacks. This is seen in the most basic aspects of lives. The poor are more likely to live next to, work with, attend school with, be friends with, or even marry a poor person of another race than they are to do any of those things with a wealthy person of the same race. The class social order creates entirely different realities that Americans live within.

Racial animosity among the poor is often a result of proximity, not distance. But even then race is rarely the most important issue in the average person’s life. Most people simply worry about daily concerns of life, of getting by and making ends meet. It’s primarily the more economically privileged who have greater ability to racially segregate themselves by living in suburbs, gated communities, and gentrified neighborhoods, by attending elite colleges and sending their kids to private schools.

It is the middle-to-upper classes, a minority of the population, that hold not just most of the wealth but also most of the power and influence along with the privileges, opportunities, and resources that go with it. They don’t tend to worry about their next pay check, medical bills, paying rent, factory closings, home foreclosures, etc. In their greater luxury, these people are free to concern themselves about political galas, partisan campaigning, fundraising events, party primaries, political activism, identity politics, and culture wars. The rest of the population is mostly too busy living their lives and too disenfranchised from the system to worry about what concerns the economically well off.

It’s only the political class, not the majority of Americans, that are divided or like to pretend to be divided. But when it comes to issues of real political power and social privilege, most Republicans and Democrats of the political class are equally neocons and neoliberals. The political rhetoric that is used to create a mood of melodrama and divisiveness is rather superficial and misleading. Most Americans agree about most issues. Most Americans are for BOTH gun rights AND gun regulations, for BOTH abortion rights AND abortion limits, etc. Yet the divide and conquer strategy is quite effective, if only in terms of a sleight-of-hand diversion. It’s easy to rile people up momentarily or simply to demoralize them with the media-propagated sense of conflict.

There is a cynicism in how the political and media elite use these kinds of issues. They create an image of public opinion that doesn’t match the reality of public opinion. The ruse would be shown for what it is, if more of the population were to vote or revolt. It works so effectively because each individual realizes that the media-portrayed reality doesn’t match their own positions and experiences, which makes them feel disconnected from others and alienated from mainstream society, never realizing that people like them are the majority. It’s a highly developed form of social control, since it’s much easier for an elite to rule if the majority doesn’t realize they’re a majority.

The elite have a superior and often condescending attitude toward the rest of society. This expresses itself in many ways, from smug paternalism to righteous judgment, from fear of the dirty masses to opportunistic manipulation. You find it in how politicians of both parties act and in how the media talks. Listen to what Charles Murray says about poor whites in Fishtown, how Thomas Sowell talks about redneck culture, J.D. Vance’s admonishments of hillbillies, Bill Cosby’s criticisms of inner city blacks, etc. And that is just from the political right. The liberal class is known for this as well, specifically among the Clinton New Democrats and the mainstream media that is aligned with them. Smug liberalism was particularly bad this past campaign season and the arrogance of the liberal media was breathtaking.

Speaking of an elite can be misleading, though. The class divide can be remarkably slim at times. With economic troubles increasing and economic mobility decreasing, it’s getting easier and easier for the  upper class to slip down to the middle class and the middle class middle class to slip down to the working class while the working class itself falls further behind. But class identity maintains itself long after such changes occur, because as the entire class spectrum shifts downward almost everyone maintains their relative position within the hierarchy. It’s easy to forget how many Americans are on the bottom of society and how little it takes to gain a bit of class privilege.

The perceived or self-identified elite isn’t always extremely distant, either economically or geographically. Most Americans are working class without a college education. So, simply getting a college education leading to even the most minimal of professional jobs makes one a class above most of the population. It doesn’t matter that the public school teacher or county naturalist may make less money than someone with a good factory job. Class is ultimately an identity and having a college education can give someone a sense of superiority, no matter how slight it can sometimes be in economic terms.

What the college education can give an individual is potentially a position of authority, as even the most lowly of professional jobs can offer. A public school teacher can speak with authority to parents and the county naturalist can speak with authority to small farmers, and in both cases they have government backing their authority, even if that authority has little real force of power. It’s still a greater social position within the social hierarchy and that comes with certain privileges that are easily seen by those further down the ladder of respectability.

This is even seen in some traditionally working class jobs. Someone I know recently got a college degree and was hired on with the city department of parks and recreation. The previous head of the department liked to hire people who grew up on farms as they have practical knowledge about machinery, tools, etc. But the new head of the department prefers to hire college grads who have professional training as naturalists and so have expertise in forestry management, prairie restoration, controlled burns, etc. So, the newly hired employees are treated with more respect in the department and likely they’ll be promoted more quickly and paid more than the older workers. Working class experience and abilities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and of less economic value, hence of less social value. This person, simply by going to college, is now in a better position than most Americans. That certainly creates conflict in society and in the workplace.

It isn’t just that someone goes to college. It’s also what makes that possible. This person was raised upper middle class by college-educated parents. They made sure he took college preparation classes in high school, always encouraged him to go to college, and were willing and able to pay part for his college education. Plus, they modeled certain behaviors for him and helped him in school when asked. Most Americans never get these kinds of advantages that are the norm for middle-to-upper class families. At the most basic level, this is a very real class privilege, even when it is far from being part of the ruling elite.

I know many liberals who didn’t spend most of their lives in big cities in coastal states. They have all resided more years in rural farm states than anywhere else, but that has included living in liberal places like this Iowan college town. This creates a different mentality from someone in the same state who grew up on a farm or in an industrial town and who never went to college or lived in a college town. There are many college graduates in this liberal college town with working class jobs, but it is nothing like being working class in most places in the country working at some crap job like McDonald’s or Walmart.

I see how this different mentality effects people. Many of the people I know are good liberals. None of them are wealthy, often only a generation from working class, and yet they tend to have a strong sense of class identity, not unusually looking down on the poor. One liberal I know has made fun of coworkers for missing teeth. And another refuses to let his daughter play with the poor white children in the neighborhood. They dismiss poor whites as methheads and talk about tweakers for Trump. This also includes some fear and judgment of poor minorities, perceived as moving in from Chicago. It’s a strong sense of those other people being somehow inferior and unworthy, sometimes simply condescension but not unusually mockery. It’s not that they would openly be cruel toward the poor, but the attitude of superiority has to leak out even if unconsciously and I’m sure others pick up on it.

Some of that class consciousness was probably inherited from the larger society, learned from the behavior of older generations and absorbed from the media. That still wouldn’t explain how it came to be expressed so strongly in those who one might think, as liberals, shouldn’t be prone to class bigotry. Maybe it’s because many people I know, as with many of our generation, haven’t done as economically well as the previous generation. This creates class anxiety which is clear in many people having economic worries. The one thing they’ve got going for them is a college education. It’s what they have to prove their worth in the world and they hold the class attitude of seeing the lower classes as ignorant. Many of these people are of the liberal class of professionals, even if only barely.

This isn’t limited to liberals, of course. It’s just that I’ve become more aware of it among liberals. And it somehow seems worse when I observe it in liberals, as it contradicts how liberals see themselves. Many conservatives see no shame in class bigotry, as it is part of the conservative worldview of meritocracy and Social Darwinism. But in liberals, it feels particularly hypocritical.

For liberals, this also mixes up with identity politics. I’ve heard Democrats try to dismiss Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters by invoking what, to the liberal mind, are supposed to be protected groups. It was assumed that minorities, women, and LGBTQ people all supported Hillary Clinton. This was total bullshit, but it’s how a certain kind of liberal sees the world. In reality, Sanders won the majority of young and the poor, including among minorities and women and probably the LGBTQ as well. Then some of these people apparently went over to vote for Trump, as impossible as that seems to the liberal class.

This is an example of class disconnection. Economics doesn’t seem all that important when one has no serious and immediate economic problems. If you are of the liberal class, even on the lower end, most of the minorities and gay people you know are going to also be of the liberal class. This creates a distorted view of demographic identities. If you are a poor minority woman, Clinton’s middle class white feminism means little to you. If you are a working class gay man who lost his job when the factory closed, your most pressing concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage. Worrying about such things as transgender bathrooms is a class privilege.

For most lower class people, gender and sexuality issues are far down the list of priorities. Even among working class straight white males, they don’t particularly care about culture war issues. Democrats have been pushing social liberalism for decades and yet the majority of the white working class kept voting for them. It was economics, stupid. The white working class isn’t going to vote against their own interests. It’s just that this election they didn’t see a corporatist candidate like Clinton as being in their best interest, whether that meant they chose to vote for another candidate or not vote at all.

The response of the liberal class is a clueless class bigotry. And if they’re not careful, Democrats will become the new party of class bigots, protecting the interests of the shrinking middle class against the interests of the growing working class. That would be a sad fate for the once proud working class party. The working class would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves with no party that represents them. Then the class divide will be complete, as economic inequality becomes a vast chasm. And the further the divide grows, the worse conflict will become. We might see some real class war, of the kind not seen for generations.

Is the smug satisfaction of class bigotry worth the harm it causes? As the economy worsens, perceived class position won’t save anyone nor will a sense of superiority be much comfort. Instead of Americans turning on one another, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see their interests more in line with the lower class majority than with the wealthy ruling elite. Even the rich would be better off in a society with less wasteful divisiveness and greater benefit for all.

Data and More Data

Here is some data and analysis that caught my attention. It’s about demographics, class identity, social views, and party politics. One set of data is actually from the UK. It likely is similar to US data.

If I was feeling inspired, I’d look for some patterns across it all. But I’m not sure what to make of it. There is so much intriguing data I’ve come across lately. It makes me endlessly curious. It’s a lot of work sifting through it all looking for connections and patterns.

I figured I’d just throw it out there for now. Maybe later on I’ll have some commentary about it. But let me make one point while I’m thinking about it.

It particularly stands out that Clinton’s supporters are a bit more racist than Sanders’ supporters. It’s still not a majority, but the difference needs to be explained. It doesn’t make sense according to mainstream views.

Clinton is claimed to be the minority candidate, ignoring that Sanders won the majority of young non-whites. More importantly, Sanders has won the strongest support from the lower income demographic, including the infamous and supposedly racist white working class.

Yet “while Clinton’s supporters are less racist than Trump’s — no surprise — they are, on some measures, as racist (and in once instance, more racist) as supporters of Kasich and Cruz.” How does one make sense of that? Republicans are regularly stated as being racist.

Maybe Clinton’s having called certain people ‘superpredators’ wasn’t a mere gaffe. And maybe a significant number of her supporters agree with that assessment. But let’s be clear: This can’t be blamed on poor whites, a population that has no particular love for Clinton.

By the way, how did FDR’s party of the working class become the New Democrats, the party of the neoliberal professional class? On top of that, what does class mean these days, whether in terms of actual economics or social identity?

* * *

The Parties Invert
by Ronald Brownstein

In the history of modern polling dating back to 1952, no Democratic presidential candidate has ever carried most college-educated whites; even Lyndon Johnson fell slightly short during his 1964 landslide. (This analysis uses the American National Election Studies, a poll conducted immediately after the vote, for the elections from 1952 to 1976, and the exit polls conducted by a consortium of media organizations for the elections since.)

From 1952 through 1980, in fact, no Democratic nominee reached even 40 percent with college-educated whites, except Johnson. During that same period, no Democratic nominee failed to reach 40 percent of the vote with non-college whites, except George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Over these eight elections, every Democratic nominee except McGovern ran better, usually significantly better, among non-college-educated whites than among their college-educated peers. This was a world in which Democrats were the party of people who worked with their hands, and Republicans represented those who wore suits and worked behind desks.

But the period since 1984 has seen an accelerating reversal of that historic pattern. During his landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale ran slightly better among college-educated than non-college-educated whites. In the next three elections, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton ran almost exactly as well with both groups.

Since then, every Democratic presidential nominee has run better with college-educated than working-class whites. From Al Gore in 2000 through Barack Obama in 2012, the share of the vote won by the past four Democratic nominees among college-educated whites has exceeded their performance among non-college-educated whites by four to seven percentage points.