By Emily McCord
It is hardly original to bemoan the fading past order. During the 2016 election cycle, however, voters, politicians, and pundits alike have been startled more than ever by the dramatic discrepancy between their assumed image of their country’s citizenry and the ballot-demonstrated reality.
There are many layers to the conversation about the apparent stratification of American workers and classes, but one thing is certain: the lower socio-economic tiers of American society are in crisis, and the crisis is much more severe than anyone expected.
Recently, a number of writers (three of whom this piece will specifically reference) have addressed this issue thoughtfully and candidly.
In the Atlantic, Alec MacGillis reflects on the economic and moral unraveling of the poor, (mostly white, mostly rural) America. MacGillis, through his reflection and review of two recent books on the American poor white class, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, makes the point that, really, America should have seen this moment of fracturing coming, should have seen the resentment that inevitably builds up under an inherently unfair welfare system that rewards apathy and penalizes – or at least ignores – those are attempting to raise themselves. He points out that, no matter how much a country benefits from two decades of rapid technological advances, an economy that rapidly leaves behind their manufacturing base also inevitably leaves behind the communities who depended on that base for subsistence.
In City-Journal, Aaron Renn also explores Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and its exploration of the interplay of responsibility and circumstance in the lives of America’s poorest. Renn is sensitive in his analysis and draws on his personal upbringing (similar in many respects to Vance’s). He points out that circumstances beyond their control have damaged the poor rural white communities in America (and, in similar ways, the urban black communities) in ways that have crippled both the drive and economy of those areas.
Renn however also acknowledges that the cultural and moral responses of those communities in recent decades has paved the way for disaster. Why else the rapid rise in the use of opioids, heroin, and the plummeting life expectancy of women in their prime among those in the lower socio-economic brackets? Renn warns that unless both aspects of the issue are addressed, the stark outlook of the lower economic classes of America will only become bleaker.
A fitting bookend to these pieces, Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today, dissects the glaring takeaway from this election cycle. The rise of a candidate that no one saw coming was fueled by the socio-economic turmoil taking place among the lower, mostly white classes of American workers. Donald Trump gave a voice to the communities that many pundits and politicians have forgotten. The communities struggling economically, self-destructing through epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse, and further undermined by the chaos inevitably flowing from a majority of single-parent homes, found an advocate who spoke their language and understood their plight.
McGill phrased it well:
“Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities.
The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.”
A path forward will take discernment and these pieces leave us with no clear solutions, only a deep sense of collective responsibility for America’s poorest. “The poor you will always have with you” Jesus warned. A democracy that will thrive must diligently work to provide pathways forward for both ends of the economic spectrum.
If America is to overcome the sort of destructive class fracturing evident in this election cycle, politicians and citizens alike must open our eyes to the communities who are being left behind.