Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Review: Nancy Isenberg's, White Trash

This is a great book review, from Professor Jefferson Cowie, at Foreign Affairs, "The Great White Nope: Poor, Working Class, and Left Behind in America."

Here's the book, at Amazon, Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

And an excerpt from Professor Cowie's review:
Most Americans are optimistic about their futures—but poor and working-class whites are not. According to a recent analysis published by the Brookings Institution, poor Hispanics are almost a third more likely than their white counterparts to imagine a better future. And poor African Americans—who face far higher rates of incarceration and unemployment and who fall victim far more frequently to both violent crime and police brutality—are nearly three times as optimistic as poor whites. Carol Graham, the economist who oversaw the analysis, concluded that poor whites suffer less from direct material deprivation than from the intangible but profound problems of “unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope.” That might explain why the slogan of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump—“Make America Great Again!”—sounds so good to so many of them.

A stunning U-turn in the fortunes of poor and working-class whites began in the 1970s, as deindustrialization, automation, globalization, and the growth of the high-technology and service sectors transformed the U.S. economy. In the decades since, many blue-collar jobs have vanished, wages have stagnated for less educated Americans, wealth has accumulated at the top of the economic food chain, and social mobility has become vastly harder to achieve. Technological and financial innovations have fostered economic and social vitality in urban centers on the coasts. But those changes have brought far fewer benefits to the formerly industrial South and Midwest. As economic decline has hollowed out civic life and the national political conversation has focused on other issues, many people in “flyover country” have sought solace in opioids and methamphetamine; some have lashed out by embracing white nationalist rage. As whites come closer to becoming a plurality in the United States (or a “white minority,” in more paranoid terms), many have become receptive to nativist or bigoted appeals and thinly veiled promises to protect their endangered racial privilege: think of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and his invocation of an unspecified bygone era when the United States was “great,” which many white Trump supporters seem to understand as a reference to a time when they felt themselves to be more firmly at the center of civic and economic life.

Trump also loves to tell his audiences that they are victims of a “rigged” political system that empowers elites at their expense. On that count, the evidence supports him. Consider, for example, the findings of a widely cited 2014 study by the political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who researched public opinion on approximately 1,800 policy proposals (as captured by surveys taken between 1981 and 2002) and found that only those ideas endorsed by the wealthiest ten percent of Americans became law. This domination of politics by economic elites has produced the de facto disenfranchisement of everyone else—a burden experienced by the entire remaining 90 percent, of course, but perhaps felt most acutely by those who have fallen the furthest.

For poor and working-class white Americans, the profound shifts of the past few decades have proved literally lethal: beginning around 1999, life expectancy—which had been increasing dramatically for all Americans during the twentieth century—began to decrease for less educated middle-aged whites. Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who discovered this trend along with his wife and collaborator, the economist Anne Case, speculated that this demographic group is “susceptible to despair” because they have “lost the narrative of their lives.”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash aims to uncover the historical roots of this social calamity and explain its political effects. It’s an ambitious book that doesn’t quite succeed but that is nonetheless frequently revelatory...
Keep reading.