America’s working class: Wronged by the right and the rich

Dennis Phillips, The University of Sydney

Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War Melbourne, Scribe, 2007 (273 pp). ISBN 9-78192121-578-0 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Mark A. Smith, The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2007 (267 pp). ISBN 13 9-78069113-017-0 (hard cover) RRP $44.95.

There is a class war between rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated, going on in the United States and its victims include more than Blacks and Latinos. Slightly over half of all the poor people in America are white and most of them have jobs—sometimes two or more jobs to a family: ‘poor is poor, whether you have to work for your poverty or not’ (Bageant p. 9). These two books, marked by completely different writing styles, complement each other because they both concern what Joe Bageant calls ‘a working America gone downhill—churchgoing, hunting and fishing, Bud Light-drinking provincial America’ (pp. 2–3).

I wish I had written Deer Hunting With Jesus. I certainly lived it. Bageant and I are roughly the same age. He grew up in the small working class town of Winchester, Virginia where life is tough and ‘alcohol, Jesus, and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape’ (p. 4). I grew up in a string of similar towns in Texas. After high school, Bageant left Winchester ‘penniless and dumber than tree bark’ (p. 6). After attending a Texas state university where tuition was $US75 a semester, I joined John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps and spent two years working in Morocco.

Leaving Winchester changed Bageant’s life; leaving Texas changed mine. He went on to become a ‘modestly successful journalist and editor’ (p. 6). (I’d say very successful after this popular book hit the shops). I stumbled from one academic opportunity to another until I finished up, feeling ambivalent about it to this very day, as a university teacher. Along the way, we both acquired what many of our friends who have never strayed far from their original home would disdainfully describe as ‘liberal’ values.

As its title suggests, Deer Hunting With Jesus is written in a free-flowing, journalistic style without formal documentation but with considerable insight and impact. It is tempting to review Bageant’s book by simply stringing together some of his more entertaining prose. Standing in a checkout line at a low-rent supermarket chain store in Winchester, he observes that the customers around him are all cut from the same mould: ‘overweight, bad teeth, cheap clothing, and looking as though they’ve been shot and missed and shit at and hit’ (p. 7).

Bageant grew up in the small working class town of Winchester.

He describes in detail the life of ‘his people’ in Winchester—the ‘real Joe Six-pack/NASCAR’ (p. 65) working poor who face a lifetime in bondage to ‘God rhetoric, money, cronyism and the corporate state’ in this ‘ersatz democracy’ that claims everyone is equal (pp. 27–28, 65). Bageant explains the multiple ways the privileged class mugs the working poor. Those on top in the class war—the highly educated and relatively wealthy—do not concern themselves much with the increasing meanness at the heart of the nation as families too poor to own a home are forced to become ‘lifelong renters screwed, blued, and tattooed by a system in which property has far more rights than citizens’ (p. 38). The privileged ones—the busy doctors, lawyers, journalists, academicians, and others who can put on a sympathetic front when necessary—harbour a quiet disdain for working folks.

And in societies where you are what you own, this also includes the bankers, financiers, real estate agents and salesmen who promote the American (and Australian) dream of material success. Bageant’s book was completed well before the advent of the American ‘subprime’ and credit crises, but he predicts the coming collapse because he witnesses all around him ‘a complex and nasty circle of credit racketeering by the mortgage and banking business based upon conditioned consumer stupidity and millions of very shaky credit applications’ (p. 104). In a theme that Smith’s book develops more fully, Bageant also focuses on how the Republican Party, in particular, cynically exploits working class insecurity, misfortune, fear and ignorance in so many ways—from ‘White Trashonomics’ to ‘international smack-downs and muggings for the Republic’ (pp. 104, 218).

Mark Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, using a much more scholarly tone than Bageant, documents the ways in which the Republican Party, since the 1970s, has ‘reprioritised’ and ‘reframed’ its policy messages on the economy to successfully ‘reposition’ (p. 39, passim) itself for electoral victory. Smith challenges the conventional wisdom that the Republicans used a ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy by campaigning on social and cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, drugs, pornography and school prayer only to focus once they gained power on neoconservative economic reform.

The Republican Party cynically exploits working class insecurity, misfortune, fear and ignorance.

Thomas Frank’s bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? is the best-known popular expression of this bait-and-switch view. Frank argues that the Republican Party deliberately plotted to use social issues—the politics of sin—to build electoral majorities by inducing millions of gullible citizens to vote against their own economic self-interest (Frank 2005, pp. 4–7). It is what Bageant calls the working poor, the ‘mutt people’, using ‘the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation’ (pp. 24, 219). It was also my parents to a T: people who owed their very survival to FDR and the New Deal but who voted Republican all their lives because a generation of GOP propagandists convinced them that Roosevelt was a socialist.

The statistics of working class voter self-flagellation are striking. Smith points out that, after three decades of post-war prosperity, many Americans hit an economic wall in the 1970s. While the median income per family more than doubled between 1947 and 1973, it rose by only 10 per cent in the 1970s and 9 per cent in the 1980s (pp. 50, 54). Much worse is the fact that economic insecurity hit hardest among the seven in ten adult Americans without a college degree. Calculated as the wage differential between those who completed college versus those who stopped at high school, the ‘value’ of a college degree that stood at 45 per cent in 1973 rose to 89 per cent by 2000 (p. 55). Or, as Bageant puts it, the losers in this class war ‘bust cartons’ at Wall-Mart or Home Depot for $16,000 a year: ‘These are families with two working spouses and a couple of kids who in 2005 were still trying to crack $35,000 and who still make up 24 per cent of American workers—at least 35 million by the government’s own count’ (p. 9).

Smith argues, however, that Republican Party electoral triumph and America’s sharp turn to the right in an age of stagnating wages, job insecurity, high debt levels and increasing economic anxiety was not the result of a calculated ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy, but rather because the GOP ‘reframed’ its message more successfully than did the Democrats. Talk about ‘spin’! From the mid-1970s onward, conservative intellectuals were able to prep politicians like Ronald Reagan and ‘reframe’ their pet projects—low taxes, deregulation, dismantling the welfare state—as being essential to personal prosperity and national economic recovery. For their part, the Democrats, once they managed to regain the White House in 1993, were left holding the debt bag.

Economic insecurity has hit hardest the 70 per cent of Americans without a college degree.

Republican ‘reframing’ was quite astonishing. Smith points out that Barry Goldwater, who was completely buried in the 1964 presidential election, and Ronald Reagan, who swept the Democrats aside in 1980, had policy platforms that were ‘nearly indistinguishable’ (p. 131). The key difference in the two election outcomes was not that Goldwater had a dour personality and Reagan was ‘sunny’ and ‘folksy’ (p. 131). Rather, Reagan, with the enterprising help of an energetic band of conservative intellectuals, reframed their reactionary agenda in ways that convinced your average voter that, if you paid a whole lot less in tax, prosperity could be restored and America would be made great again (pp. 130–139). Voila! Reaganomics! And George W. Bush learned from Reagan that a ballooning national debt doesn’t matter because nobody but a few liberal pinheads pay any attention to bad news like that.

Deer Hunting With Jesus is so heavily seasoned with pithy observations about how ‘NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning’ (back cover) naïve Americans were bushwhacked by such a racket that I fear this book will be badly misread in Australia. The Australian edition has a special preface in which Bageant draws a parallel between the ‘… same rowdy, open spirit, and the often wry understanding of politics, and most of all the same sense of humor …’ that Australians supposedly share with Americans. He is wrong. The whole notion, peddled mercilessly and for decades by political leaders on both sides of the Pacific, that Australia is just a smaller, newer version of the United States is another product of political spin. The two countries do not share the same rowdiness (whatever that means), or the same spirit, open or otherwise. The general public in either country does not have a ‘wry understanding’ of politics and the two societies certainly do not share the ‘same’ sense of humour.

Bageant inadvertently reveals this in the only disappointing chapter in his book—the one in which he defends America’s gun-owning psychosis by arguing that naïve liberals and the fearful rich don’t understand either guns or the central role firearms play in American culture. Sorry, Joe, we do understand—and all too well. I, too, was presented with a shotgun on my thirteenth birthday, an unfortunate expression of confidence in my maturity by a well-meaning but misguided father who also believed implicitly that ownership of a gun was the most fundamental of all personal freedoms.

Thirty thousand die every year in the United States as a result of gunshot wounds.

Although Bageant says he no longer hunts, he is clearly nostalgic for the comradeship of the campfire and the sweet smell of gunpowder—so much so that he ends his chapter on guns reminiscing about his long dead Scots-Irish forefathers who mystically still trod the frozen stubble, listening for that distant rifle crack echoing across the ridges ‘bringing down a buck somewhere in heaven’ (p. 157). Ugh! Nowhere in this chapter celebrating ‘the smell of gun oil’ and the ‘polishing of blued steel and walnut’ (p. 120) does Bageant mention that almost 30,000—ten times the number of deaths caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks—die every year in the United States as a result of gunshot wounds (Krouse 2005).

Still, Bageant’s book, for all its ‘primal after-the-hunt stuff’ (p. 120) and quotable criticisms of Americans who have been ‘shit at and hit’, is not a collection of cheap shots at the ‘Yanks’. It is rather a lyrical lament for millions of disadvantaged Americans—a basically loving expression of grief and sorrow for America’s terribly exploited working class. It is important that Australian readers understand this.

And believe me, we here in Australia are no better. Australia has its very own mutt people, society’s ‘roadkill’ (p. 27). Visit some of the nation’s poorer suburbs or any of Australia’s thousands of struggling bush towns and the evidence is all around you. For Bageant, one globally recognised symbol stands out—Lynndie England, hometown Fort Ashby, West Virginia, sent to Iraq by ‘the nation’s de facto draft—economic conscription’ (p. 200) only to end up ‘serving a thirty-six-month sentence in the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego’ (p. 209). What’s Donald Rumsfeld doing these days?

Bageant writes extensively about America’s ‘national story line’ (p. 11)—the patriotic illusions he calls the ‘American hologram’ (pp. 17, 90) that stiches the country together. We in Australia also have our national story line, our illusions, our myths, our ‘Australian hologram’. Sadly, our vision and our willingness to give critical voice to it often appear much sharper when we look halfway around the world at America than when, if ever, we look across to neighbouring suburbs in our very own hometown.

REFERENCES

Frank, T. 2005, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin, Texas.

Krouse, W. J. 2005, ‘Gun legislation in the 109th Congress’ Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington DC [Online] Available: http/www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32842.pdf [2008, Sep 7].

Dennis Phillips was born in Colorado and grew up in Texas. He is a dual Australia/US citizen and has lived in Australia for 36 years. He teaches the US Foreign Policy unit at the US Studies Centre, The University of Sydney.