The Taboo Subject of Class in this Election

The Revenge of the White Trash

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. Photo credit: Penguin and Mindy Stricke / Penguin

The one subject that seemingly gets overlooked in today’s political discussion is the issue of America’s class divide and the rise of White Trash America. It’s a divide that has been in the making for a long time. Nancy Isenberg, the author of “White Trash,” tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman in this week’s podcast that, at best, we’ve had a “democracy of manners.” Not only has White Trash become politicized, low income Caucasians have moved to the center of the debate.

Isenberg explains the history of this issue and that even Ben Franklin hoped that the size of the country would flatten out the class system. But it never happened.

In fact, the explosive ideas of eugenics and of a “cognitive class” have never really been far from the surface.

Today’s politics seem to be bringing all of this out into the open — even if we’ve been reluctant to talk about it.


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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

While politicians often talk of those things that unite us as Americans, there are equally powerful forces that divide us; not always the political forces but at the center is often the taboo subject of class. Even more than race, the class divide lies at the base of the chasm that separates what was once called two Americas. The symbols are everywhere. Starbucks America versus Dunkin’ Donuts America. Educated versus non-educated. Walmart versus Whole Foods, etc. But these symbols are but the latest manifestations of a 400-year history of class conflict in America. That’s the story that Nancy Isenberg talks to me about as she tells me more about her look at the 400-year history of white trash in America. It is my pleasure to welcome Nancy Isenberg to Radio

WhoWhatWhy. Nancy, thanks much for joining us.

Nancy Isenberg: Well, thanks for having me.

Jeff: Why has this as a subject in general been taboo so often for so long in American history?

Nancy: Part of what I highlight is the way in which certain myths get invented. In particular the one that has a lot of power is the idea that at the time of the American Revolution we broke free from the British class system. This is a myth that we usually associate with figures such as Thomas Jefferson and his words from the Declaration of Independence. But the problem with that is that the evidence is contrary to that notion because Jefferson, just like Benjamin Franklin and most of the founders, grew up in a society break based on English ideas. So the idea of class, the ideas of poverty, lingered on and proved to be quite forceful in defining the way in which Americans thought about class. Particularly what I highlight in this book is the role of rural poverty and the way in which class-standing was connected to land ownership and property.

Jeff: To what extent is so much of this something that is inherent in us as human beings, and that is the tribal instinct, that desire to associate with people like ourselves?

Nancy: Well, it’s really interesting. It’s funny you say that because that is actually an interesting issue that I address in a debate between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This is a series of letters that they exchange in 1813. And Adams basically made that argument. He said that, you know, Americans were ambitious. They wanted to separate themselves and reestablish class differences and he went on to argue that if you threw forty men in a room they would quickly divide themselves into different factions and that somebody, one group, would try to get more power than the other group. So the idea of emphasizing differences, the idea that the class system polices the boundaries so that we can tell the stark differences between the middle-class and the lower-class, is a part of the way societies organize. So I wouldn’t say it’s instinctual, even though someone like John Adams might believe it is. I think it is reinforced by the way in which social orders are created.

Jeff: Is it also reinforced by the very nature of democracy and electoral politics, even going back to the founders in that it then become something that can be exploited? I mean we’re seeing the modern manifestation of that today.

Nancy: Yeah, I think this is always the unpleasant side of democracy is that if we go back to someone like Andrew Jackson who was promoted as a common man, he came from Tennessee. I say how he was associated with the southern back country. He’s given the name old Hickory. He didn’t come from necessarily an upper-class background. He wasn’t as well-educated as his rival John Quincy Adams. But by the time he’s running for president he’s very wealthy, he’s a slave owner. We have this problem in democracy and it really starts in this period, that we expect our politicians to be like us. We expect them to at least perform in a way that makes them seem as if they’re ordinary people. And I highlight an Australian observer who made this comment in 1949; he said that we don’t have a democracy. We accept huge disparities of wealth, what we have is a democracy of matters. And we go through these rituals and the one that always bothers me, since I actually live in Iowa, is the idea of, you know, every candidate goes to Iowa, puts on their plaid shirts, eats their corndogs, and suddenly they’re not the wealthy politicians that they are.

Jeff: To what extent have demographics and geography played a role in this? You talked about rural poverty before but it does seem that the class divide as it’s moved around, as it shifted in American history, has always in some way reflected the movement of the population in at times from rural to urban and urban to rural etc., that that’s been a big part of it.

Nancy: Yeah, it’s very important, class has a geography. One of the things that I highlight is, the reason that Ben Franklin thought that America would create a different class system was through western migration. The size of the continent would flatten out the class system, get rid of the extremes of wealth and poverty and establish a happy mediocrity. The problem with that, it didn’t happen. Because as people moved west, so did the wealthy, large land speculators, the wealthy landholders. So class systems are reproduced as people move west. But the rural urban divide is another really important one. I mean by the beginning of the 20th century there’s a lot of emphasis on arguing that people who leave the countryside, who left rural society, left their small town, basically were the better people, the smarter people, the more ambitious people, where the people who were not the people who are left behind are the ones who stay in poverty. So we do have this kind of long-standing bias between rural America and urban America. And we also have this myth, it’s true of Franklin and Jefferson. They didn’t promise upward mobility, what they promised was horizontal mobility. So class is about migration and that is a really important feature in American history.

Jeff: it also reflects what you were just talking about with respect to rural and urban, reflects the immigrant experience, that it becomes a self-selecting population of those that can make the journey to come to America and it’s the same thing again, this issue of migration.

Nancy: Right. And one of the problems we have with immigrants, we have to realize when people come to this country, some come from very wealthy backgrounds. They’re not in the same position even when they get off the boat with poor immigrants. So we often, and this is true with the pioneer myth as well, we think migration, like Franklin said, somehow puts us on an equal plain, but it really doesn’t. And if you come over in steerage, you’re in a different class position than people who have their own cabins on the ship. So I think that’s another theme where we know, yes, there are examples of social mobility, it’s not as if I’m denying it, but not on the scale that we would imagine.

Jeff: Has the racial divide, did the racial divide for so long in America kind of cover up, paper over this issue of the class divide and as we have attempted to deal with racial issues, arguably somewhat more effectively in modern times, has it brought the class issue into greater bold relief?

Nancy: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I argue from the very beginning race and class are intertwined because from the beginning, if you think about the colonial period, the majority of people would fall into the category being un-free. That would be slaves, convict labor, indentured servants, and we forget the fact that slavery even in the colonial period, people were quite aware, and this is something Franklin and Jefferson were aware of, that slavery is a system, created a planter hierarchy and it disadvantaged poor yeoman farmers. This is something that James Oglethorpe argued when he was trying to establish Georgia and prohibited slavery from its early years from being instituted in Georgia. So yes, from the very beginning we see this contest between slave labor and free white labor. And you’re exactly right, this ends up being an issue in the rise of the Confederacy and then it becomes used again by what are known as the redneck politicians of the early 20th century like James Vardaman, who exploit racial and class divisions in order to keep people focused on people who are poor and helpless and have them direct their hatred there rather than realizing who has power in society. To divert from attacking the elite, it’s much easier to see someone of your own class as a rival, whether it’s a political rival or whether it’s a rival in terms of trying to survive in a really difficult economic system.

Jeff: What impact has mass culture as it has ultimately resulted in television and mass media, but the idea of mass culture, what impact does that have on the class divide?

Nancy: Well, it’s very interesting. One of my favorite historians that I studied with as an undergraduate, Warren Susman, argued about the introduction of radio and how important it was that finally you had a national culture. People began singing the same songs, hearing the same advertisements. So there’s a way in which mass media does give people, you know, common reference points. But I think at the same time, when we tried to think about mass media, particularly TV, we know even to this day that TV shows are marketed for high population areas, or pitching shows that really appeal to the middle class, because TV, like radio was made to sell things. So a lot of what’s on TV you can measure by what they’re advertising. So we don’t have necessarily a TV, a selection of shows that actually encompass the full diversity of the United States.

Jeff: it’s interesting that to some extent we did in the early days of radio and even particularly in the early days of television before it became more atomized in so many ways and certainly the Internet in the long tail has carried that even a step further.

Nancy: Right. I talk about the importance of television. I talk about the importance of the Beverly Hillbillies; again reviving, that negative portrait of the hillbilly poor. I mean if you remember that show, essentially the hillbillies, even though they were wealthy, even though they moved to Hollywood they sort of got none of the manners and etiquette, all the things we associate with upward mobility. The whole system in the United States is if you are going to rise up, suddenly being talking like the middle class, dressing like the middle class and adopting their values. And that theme has clearly been revived with reality TV as well.

Jeff: Talk about the history of class conflict. We know pretty much the highlights and low lights of racial conflict in America. To what extent has class conflict played itself out?

Nancy: White trash are kind of a window in the class system and how class moved to the center of key political debates whether it’s Western migration, it’s the Civil War, the sectional controversy, reconstruction. I mean reconstruction is the perfect example of the contest between free blacks and poor whites. Essentially union soldiers, agents who work for the Freemans Bureau, said over and over again that if the South was going to be rebuilt, it was going to be a contest about who rose more quickly. Is it going to be free blacks? Or is it going to be poor whites? Many of them felt that free blacks were making progress at a much faster rate in terms of getting jobs and educating their children. My focus is really talking about the importance of how white trash becomes politicized, when it moves to the center of the debate. And when I talk about class differences, one of the periods that we often forget are the 1920s, and the rise of eugenics, where essentially prominent eugenicists begin to argue that we want an elite class, a cognitive class and they even came up with a word for it, aristogenic. At the same time they’re arguing for this idea that poor whites should not be able to have children and you get the widespread passage of sterilization laws by 1931, twenty-seven states have sterilization laws in the books. So there again you see how class is connected to intellect, the IQ testing that was first introduced in the 1910s, was all measured by class, the idea that class standing would determine the intellect of the next generation. So those are the themes that I try to highlight when I talk about class conflict or the way in which white trash are used over and over again as a way to justify that we will always have the poor and nothing you can do, whether you give them charity, is going to actually help them to be integrated into normal society.

Jeff: What impact did universal education have on this debate, this divide?

Nancy: Well, education is really interesting. This is the other thing we forget, is we know in New England even in the 19th century they had much more widespread public education. We go south we see that they didn’t because they didn’t want to pay for it. And this is one of the problems when we think about illiteracy, that the problems of illiteracy not only were they greater in the south but they were greater in rural areas. So that by the time of World War I, we begin to see studies being done showing that the prevalence and persistence of illiteracy in rural and particularly southern areas. So that gets to a contemporary issue today. What are we willing to pay for to help society? And education had always been a controversial issue.

Jeff: Where are we then as you look at this history, where are we today on this continuum? Are we near an apogee? How do we fit in today when you look at this class divide playing itself out today, particularly as we see this migration again towards urban areas?

Nancy: We had periods where we have created a pseudo-aristocracy, to use Jefferson’s term. We had the Gilded Age with the Rockefellers. So in no way is this not an issue, that the way our tax structure works, that we have helped facilitate the growth of the 1%. But what’s also important that I think is really interesting is that we think of the 1% as people who are connected to Wall Street and finance. But in fact, it’s not a surprise that Donald Trump, a real estate mogul, is running for president, because the 1% also own the majority of land in this country. So we haven’t even escaped that, that inequality in the distribution of land. And I think this is something that journalists talk about all the time, the increasing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. But what I’m trying to say is it is not a new thing, because journalists always imagine it’s brand-new, we’ve never had it before, but we have.

Jeff: Nancy Isenberg. Nancy, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Nancy: Well, thank you for having me.

Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adopted by WhoWhatWhy from Starbucks cup (Lily / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and Dunkin Donuts cup (m01229 / Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

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