Performing class in a nation that hates poor people but loves poor people stories
This is a companion piece to the essay I wrote last week. It also has its roots in an endnote from this piece. Put together, this is as close as I’ll get to an interconnected White Pages Cinematic Universe.
I’ll have one more public essay (probably next week) before closing up shop for the year. It’ll be the annual awards issue (so a lot of fun nonsense, basically). It’s been a big year for The White Pages. There are about twice as many of you here than there were a year ago. I’ve moved to a weekly publishing schedule and (thanks to many of you) have built a very fun paid community- both here and over at the Flyover Politics Discord. It means a lot that every week I can say “hey, can folks help out?” and a few more of you say yes.
Speaking of which, if you have been considering a paid subscription and wondering when to do so, tomorrow is the deadline to participate into our subscribers-only book exchange! Folks seem pretty hyped about it. Heck, I’m pretty hyped about it (and don’t worry, we’re not sending anything in December, so it won’t be one more pre-holiday pressure thing).
Andrew Jackson was a wealthy slaveholder. The Hermitage— his estate outside of Nashville— eventually grew to over 1000 acres, one of the largest private residences in the state of Tennessee. He owned more than 100 human beings. He was a famous military commander and a U.S. President. He was not— under any reasonable definition of the word—“poor and working class.”
Andrew Jackson also grew up on the outskirts of the young American Republic. His father died in a logging accident before he was born; his mother died of cholera when he was 14. If you squint at in the right light, his rise to wealth and power is a classic American rags-to-riches story.
Like most Horatio Alger narratives, the glory of that particular story becomes tarnished the harder you look at it. You have to ignore the relatives’ plantation his family moved to after his father’s death, as well as the inheritance from an Irish grandfather that jumpstarted his legal career. Most of all, of course, you have to ignore the fact that Andrew Jackson was a White man in a country that enabled White men to own not just land but also Black human beings (and that built an entire political, social and economic infrastructure in order to support White men’s success at the expense of others).
That’s all liberal fact-checking and tsk-asking though. You know who wouldn’t be compelled by all these arguments about how Andrew Jackson wasn’t a true working class hero? Andrew Jackson! The pesky facts of Andrew Jackson’s class mobility story were no match for his feelings. Truth be damned, Jackson identified (and was identified as) a backwoods cracker. Neither he nor his wife were accepted by the cosmopolitan establishment “beaus” of Washington and New York. He was a scrapper and a yeller and a whiskey drinker who earnestly believed that his people— frontier Whites— were hardier, tougher, more cunning and more central to American success than their urban antagonists.
Andrew Jackson believed himself to be a beleaguered working class hero. It then followed, naturally, that any action he took once he gained political power— from a raucous open house Inauguration party to one of the more horrific acts of Holocaust against Indigenous people in North American history— were themselves victories for the great White common man.
America is not a nation that loves poor and working class people in practice, but it is a nation where we are taught to love the idea of being working class. That’s not a particularly new revelation. It’s the idea that powers our founding myth— the American Dream of economic and social mobility through hard-work and honor. We expect working class bonafides from our politicians (it’s a political liability if you can’t convincingly rattle off some tagline about how “my grandparents came here from nothing” or “my Dad worked third shift”), from our entrepreneurs (regardless of when you are reading this, I can almost guarantee that if you are in the U.S. and can find a TV with cable, there is an episode of Shark Tank on as we speak), and from future generations (if you are a college graduate you have no doubt received a solicitation email from your alma mater with a feel-good story about a plucky working class kid whose life was changed through a generous scholarship).
Our collective fetishism of class mobility cuts across racial lines, of course. We are even more compelled by Black and Brown rags to riches stories than White ones, since they allow us to believe that not only our class-based but also our racial caste systems might be permeable.
There is a lot to critique in our collective obsession with individual stories of “making it.” These stories obscure systems of power and domination, they push myths of individualism rather than collective care, they isolate “winners” from their communities and implicitly if not explicitly blame the “losers” (folks who stay poor and working class) for their own condition. They’re dangerous stories, these Horatio Alger myths. But at least they are cogent. At last they make narrative sense.
What’s much more curious is the deep desire of Americans (particularly White Americans) to hold onto a working class identity long after that identity is authentic. While no-longer-poor White Americans are by no means the only demographic group to look back with nostalgia at their humble beginnings, the fervency with which middle-and-upper-class White America fetishizes working class life is notable. Look at the differences between how wealth is discussed in mainstream hip hop (a disproportionally Black media) vs. popular country (which is disproportionally White). Jay-Z once famously shot back at critics who lambasted his and other rappers focus on the trappings of newfound wealth with the line “When you grew up with holes in your zapatos/you’d be celebrating the minute you’d be having dough.” Meanwhile, every year brings a new song from a successful (and often quite wealthy) country artist about how they’re a “Redneck Woman” or how they love “Redneck Girls” or are members of a “Redneck Yacht Club” or how they and the other boys ‘round here “[dig] in the dirt and drink ice cold beer and… chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco spit.”
It is impossible to discuss White working class fetishism outside of the central role it has played in 20th and 21st Century conservative politics. From Reagan and Nixon riding the waves of “hard hat riots” to electoral victory onward through Trump, the contemporary Republican Party are the modern masters of the old Jacksonian playbook. There is a clear through-line from our seventh President railing against the establishment from the front porch of his actual plantation to Tucker Carlson using his television platform to claim that pink-haired college students are the true elites or boat-owning Trump supporters pointing to their (very expensive) flotillas as proof of their millionaire hero’s working class appeal.
But even if the moves are obvious, there are still layers here that are fascinating. For instance, what even constitutes a “working class” identity for somebody who is no longer (or has never been) poor? Often, all it takes are attitudinal or stylistic signifiers. To go back to the well of country music, what enabled the California-born Merle Haggard to lean on the “Okie from Muskogee” part of his identity and not the “extremely successful country music star” part of his identity was that he claimed to prefer “holding hands and pitching woo” to “free love.” See also: the million times a conservative politician or media figure has levied the same tired slur about their “latte drinking” enemies as proof of their common man bonafides (the assumption inherent in this canard, I suppose, is that there is something magical about True Working Class Tastebuds that make real Americans unable to digest coffee and milk at the same time).
Quite often, though, our country’s most indelible class-signifiers are geographic. Just as Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee was once coded in the American mind as a backwoods, lawless place, so too are certain parts of the country still assumed to be universally working class or redneck-y, regardless of the actual class identity of all of its current or past inhabitants. This, of course, is the Appalachian story, a region of the country so associated with both romanticized and vilified poverty that an Ohio-native and Yale Law School graduate was able to ride the fact that he had relatives in Eastern Kentucky first to his unofficial position as that region’s Elegizer in Chief and later all the way to the U.S. Senate. Today, J.D. Vance lives in a mansion in one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest (not to mention most liberal and, um, latte drinking) areas and has to borrow somebody else’s more modest kitchen when he wants to make a regular guy campaign ad about how he cooks breakfast in the morning. Such is the power and pressure of having successfully sold a spurious story about who you are and where you come from.
Appalachia may be ground-zero for this phenomena of geographic class-coding, but it is by no means the only place that instills all of its residents— including its wealthy local brahmins- with (sometimes accurate, sometimes spurious) working class bonafides. I’m originally from Montana. I’ve lived both in truly rural Montana and less rural Montana, but I learned very early on that outside of the Rocky Mountain West, that isn’t a meaningful distinction. I’m also not authentically working class. There were times growing up when money was as tight as you’d expect for a family of eight on a government employee’s salary, but both of my parents have college degrees, the vast majority of us kids went to private colleges (with a lot of debt! but still!) and I even went to a Catholic high school (there were scholarships and after-school jobs involved, but again! still!). Like many folks, my family’s class story isn’t linear or simple, but I’ve always been buttressed from our nation’s most harmful economic winds.
But as it was with Andrew Jackson and J.D. Vance, America’s class stories aren’t about reality, they’re about perception. Print the legend, baby. I learned very early on that anywhere East of the Mississippi River, the mere fact of my Montananess established me as “not just another White guy.” At times, that wasn’t an advantageous marking— every one of my family members has a shared experience of being automatically type-cast as a dumb rural hick. More often than not, though, that worked to my advantage. I have no doubt that I received scholarships and opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten had I been the 900th applicant from a coastal suburb and not the first applicant from a little-understood and much-mythologized Western place. I also learned very early on— in the dorm room lobbies and happy hour hangouts that came along with many of those scholarships— which exaggerated stories I could tell (about free-range cattle wandering about or six-hour long bus rides to small town debate tournaments or how the whole state only had three escalators) which would really play up my exotic exceptionalism.
There are a lot of reasons to be proud to be a Montanan, but truth be told I didn’t spend my youth and young adulthood regaling friends from New York and California with stories about our groundbreaking state constitution or our history of labor activism or the Indian Education for All Act. I had one card to play that made me Not Just Another White Person and I was going to play it.
Never mind that you didn’t have to scratch too hard to find out that mine was just one more all-hat-no-cattle sort of situation. I mean, I didn’t actually have many rugged Western bonafides. I can’t hunt or fish or fix an engine or even chop my own wood. They made us take the Armed Service Aptitude Battery in High School and I was in the third percentile for mechanical aptitude [I had a gangbusters verbal score, for what it’s worth (U.S. military recruiters— subscribe to my newsletter!)]. Plus, I wasn’t even a pure, unsullied Montanan. Half my growing up years were spent in Maryland! In a coastal suburb! I lived a few miles away from a two-story mall that had so many escalators you wouldn’t believe it.
None of those biographical holes are the primary reason why my exaggerated rural-ness couldn’t deliver me from the assumed indignity of Generic Whiteness. Throughout America’s history, the parts of our country that are coded as rural, White and working class haven’t been isolated from the project of Whiteness and capitalism: they’ve been essential to it. White people were dispatched to our nation’s mythologized frontiers for two reasons: to claim Native land for Whiteness and to grow the food and mine the raw material necessary to keep the broader project of capitalism humming. That’s not a marginal American story. That is the American story.
That’s not to say that there was never or still isn’t real class-based oppression embedded in that broader narrative. While there are some of us (myself included) who have been grandfathered into an undeserved working class identity based merely on where we grew up, there are generations of Appalachian miners and Oklahoma red dirt farmers and Wyoming oil roughnecks (to say nothing of poor folks in non-mythologized places) who have always been screwed by this system. I have plenty of Montana friends and loved-ones whose trailer park homes aren’t imagined, whose paychecks have never stretched from one month to the next and whose lives are now even more precarious as our state gets overrun by wealthy Yellowstone-watching dreamers searching for their own piece of Big Sky credibility.
Class in America— like race in America— isn’t just real, it kills. It lowers life expectancy. It makes the world crueler and less bearable. But those of us who are protected even a bit from the worst horrors of capitalism don’t do our working class friends and neighbors (of any race) any favors when we pretend that class is merely an affectation we can try on whenever it suits us. And that goes for all of us— the place-based valor stealers like me, the culture-war-inciting conservative masters-of-the-universe trying to play hot potato with the term “elite,” or all the folks with well-paying email jobs who talk a bit too loudly about their college gigs on landscaping crews or in restaurant kitchens (God bless the kitchen-based prestige television show The Bear for giving so many people with currently un-calloused hands the chance to gain some pilfered credibility by reminiscing about how that they too used to drink water out of deli containers).
Last week, I wrote about both cultural appropriation and “Black Friends” and the many racial hoops White people jump through in search of a racial identity. The parallel gymnastics we play around class— our attempts to exaggerate one more identity-marker that might fill in the blank space left when our forebears assimilated into Whiteness— are just as understandable and just as unhelpful. It’s more longing. It’s more play-acting. It’s more ego gratification masking as empathy.
There are so many ways— for those who aren’t themselves working class or poor— to show solidarity with those who are. There are unionization efforts to support, redistributionist candidates and campaigns to get behind, money to spread around your own communities. Separately, there’s also a need for all of us— even White people, and yes, even boring middle class White people with no distinctive Horatio Alger story to their name— to admit that we desire something beyond the inheritance of Whiteness. We do miss authentic, caring community. We do crave the experience of solidarity. Being honest about who we are and who we aren’t doesn’t get us all the way there. But you can’t build anything beautiful on a foundation of half-truths. So let’s start by being honest with each other about our identities (as boing and unexceptional as we fear that might be)… and then, when we’re ready, let’s have a conversation that’s more about caring for one another than about trying to fill the imagined holes in our moral biographies.
Song of the week:
This was an essay about class in America. If it were an essay about class in Britain (a place I hear talks about class much more openly than we do here), I’d of course have picked the best song about class voyeurism ever, “Common People” by Pulp. I’d also have talked more about this essay, which posits that hip Londoners party in deliberately ugly warehouses because they’re isolated from their meaningless email jobs. But let’s stay state-side. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve mostly been listening to Zach Bryan on repeat. It’s not clear to me why other male country singers haven’t just given up since he’s come on the scene. Amongst other reasons, he writes what seems like a new song a week, which means that he’s covered a good percentage of topics already, including performative quasi-Western fakery.
Anyway, you should listen to “If She Wants a Cowboy.” It’s so good. And then listen to “Oklahoma City,” which doesn't have anything to do with this essay but which also rules.
As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.
White Pages subscribers discussion of the week:
I’m on the fence! I was thinking something Elon Musk-inspired about the first time you discovered that rich people and/or people in power didn’t know what they were doing. Alternately I’m toying with a general “how do you keep your wits about you at the end of the year”… or maybe something else! I’m open to suggestions. But we’ll definitely continue with the book exchange, as that’s already been a hit.
I hope y’all know the drill by now, but if you want into the subscribers’ community and don’t have the cash, just toss me an email and I’ll comp you. No need to explain. email@example.com.
One of the interesting things about being married to a tall white English man is that Americans almost always assume they know his British class, and always assume wrongly. As if someone with that accent living in the U.S. must automatically have been at least nudging upper class, when in fact his parents had to fight his schools to let him take the tests to continue high school and apply to university--being told over and over that it would be a waste of time because he was working class.
It’s always fascinating not just how powerful our own attachment to identity is, but how much it determines our assumptions about others’ identities.
I’ve been having some conversations about the insidiousness of meritocratic thinking recently, too. How even self-identified progressive friends make assumptions about the kinds of financial situations people deserve or “brought upon themselves.” Class experience seems to be, anecdotally, a major factor there.
Gonna be digesting this essay for a while, Garrett! I really appreciate your call to be honest about our averageness. It feels to me like there's freedom to be found in going there, as scary as it may be to our identities and egos.
Though this may seem random, have you seen Amsterdam? My partner and I watched it Sunday night and Margot Robbie's character has a line towards the end that goes: "I’m very happy to be unimportant and live in a place that has love and beauty."
Your essay and that line clicked mentally as I drink my coffee this morning and got me thinking: I wonder if we as white people partially feel this need for importance because in the U.S., we culturally lack community.
Looping in some attachment theory, if we feel well-attached because say we're part of a greater community of care and solidarity, by extention we might theoretically feel more secure and operate in a more healthy way. I would say that the culture created by white supremacy, with all its individualism and striving, is a form of insecure attachment. And so it makes sense we cling to partially true stories for a sense of completeness or belonging that isn't otherwise available to us within the status quo.