Institutions are like people. They have personalities, histories, memories, cultures, ethics, desires, relationships, emotions, dreams, and habits. And like people, institutions also have addictions and compulsions.
The American mainstream news media has been addicted to stories about the so-called “white working class” for more than seven years – and it shows few signs of wanting to recover and heal. This addiction began in earnest during the Age of Trump and in response to what the mainstream news media and its gatekeepers saw as fascinating “human interest stories” about ‘forgotten white Americans” in rural red state America and their love for Donald Trump.
In many ways, this is nothing new. Such reporting is part of a long tradition of mostly anthropological and stereotype-laden stories about “toothless hillbillies” and poor whites in Appalachia and other parts of rural America. With Trump’s ascendance, the American mainstream news media doubled down on their addiction both as a function of embarrassment that they had so fundamentally misjudged the country’s political dynamics and to capture the money that could be made through obsessive coverage of “the white working class.”
In one of the most recent high-profile recent examples of this addiction by the mainstream news media, the New York Times ran a front page story about President Biden’s attempts to win over the white working class through a bold series of policies and other outreach efforts:
With his call for a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” President Biden on Tuesday night acknowledged rhetorically what Democrats have been preparing for two years: a fierce campaign to win back white working-class voters through the creation of hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree.
Mr. Biden’s economically focused State of the Union address may have avoided the cultural appeals to the white working class that former President Donald J. Trump harnessed so effectively, the grievances encapsulated by fears of immigration, racial and gender diversity, and the sloganeering of the intellectual left. But at the speech’s heart was an appeal to Congress to “finish the job” and a simple challenge. “Let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not,” he said….
But Democrats will have to match those jobs against Republican appeals aimed at white grievances encapsulated by fears of immigration, racial and gender diversity, and the sloganeering of the intellectual left. …
Republicans openly mocked Mr. Biden’s “Finish the Job” slogan, and among working-class voters, they have public opinion on their side. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 36 percent of Americans without a college degree approved of Mr. Biden’s job performance, compared with 53 percent of college graduates. His approval on economic issues was even worse, with just 31 percent of voters without a degree approving of his handling of the economy.
The Times story continues with more polling data and who will “win” this political contest:
Without doubt, Democrats have their work cut out for them. About two-thirds of eligible voters do not have four-year college degrees, and over the last decade, Democrats have lost ground with them, especially with less educated white voters. In 2020, Mr. Biden won 61 percent of college graduates, but only 45 percent of voters without a four-year college degree — and just 33 percent of white voters without a four-year degree.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll in September, 59 percent of white working-class voters said Republicans were the party of the working class, compared with 28 percent who chose Democrats. Sixty-eight percent of these voters said they agreed more with Republicans than Democrats on the economy, while just 25 percent picked Democrats. Beyond economics, white working-class voters sided overwhelmingly with Republicans on building a border wall, opposing gun control, stopping illegal immigration and seeing gender as immutable and determined at birth.
Democrats, caught between those sentiments on social policy and the party’s core constituencies of people of color, women and the college-educated, are hoping that tangible improvements in well-being can persuade white voters without a college education to focus on their economic interests.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because choices we made in the last two years,” Mr. Biden said on Tuesday. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
In all, the recent Times story on the “white working class” embodies some of the worst habits that typify the American mainstream news media failures in the Age of Trump and ascendant fascism and racial authoritarianism. Euphemisms such as “cultural issues” and “white grievances” are used instead of directly and transparently discussing racism and white supremacy. Moreover, such euphemisms and literal white-washed-speech norms present white supremacy and white racial resentment and rage as somehow based on legitimate grievance instead of as a function of white privilege and other unearned advantages.
For example, what exactly are these “white grievances” beyond a superficial listing of supposed issues? And what is “white” about them? The lack of specificity in the Times’ piece gives credibility to claims and complaints that lack substantiating evidence.
These attempts at fairness, neutrality, objectivity, bothsideism, and horserace journalism by the American mainstream news media also remove the moral component from truth-telling. Here the battle between neofascism and multiracial democracy is presented as a matter of political disagreement and partisan polarization instead of as an existential battle between good and evil. What media scholar and journalist Jay Rosen describes as “the savvy take” will not save American democracy – or the Fourth Estate’s credibility and legitimacy in this time of crisis:
One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Innocence is bliss.
The quest for innocence in political reporting means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. Which can get in the way of describing things. He said, she said doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!
Political journalism should help us get our bearings in a world of confusing claims and counter-claims. But instead, we have savviness, the dialect of insiders bringing us into their games.
What do we actually know about the so-called white working class in the Age of Trump and beyond?
Like all addicts, the American mainstream news media needs to hit rock bottom so that it can finally admit it has a problem and then seek help to get better.
Social scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that it was not “economic anxiety” but instead white racism and white racial resentment that explains why white “working class” (and other white voters) support Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the larger neofascist movement. “Status anxiety” is just a proxy for anger and fear about the perceived loss of white privilege and white power. This complements other findings which show that a large number if not an outright majority of white Republicans, “conservatives”, Trumpists, and right-leaning independents would support a dictatorship in America if it meant that white people like them would not have to share power in a democracy with black and brown people.
Trump’s coup attempt on Jan. 6 is the literal embodiment of such white rage and contempt for multiracial democracy.
Political scientists and other researchers have also repeatedly shown that poor white people are more likely to support the Democratic Party and not the Republicans. There is a qualifier to this data: Poor and disenfranchised people on both sides of the color line – the ones often featured in the mainstream media’s white rural and working-class poverty porn genre – are less likely to vote than members of higher income groups.
So-called “white working class” Trump and Republican voters actually have higher median incomes (often substantially so depending on the state) than the national average: this fact is downplayed (if mentioned at all) by the American mainstream news media in their writing and other coverage of Trumplandia and its “real Americans” who everyone should bend over backward to understand and accommodate. President Biden and the Democrats hope that improving the economic conditions of rust belt and white working-class communities will somehow win those voters back to sanity and out of the orbit of the Republican Party’s fascists (and Christofascism and other right-wing extremist poison). Unfortunately, those hopes are not supported by the evidence. Mike Males at YES! Media offers this intervention:
Surveys and studies consistently find Trump’s generally older, White supporters enraged at “loss of status” and in fear of being “replaced” by non-White people. That White people are falling behind across key economic, health, and safety indexes is not due to victimization by immigrants and liberal conspiracies, however, but to victimization by other Whites and self-inflicted alcoholism, drug overdose, and suicide.
Is the solution to undividing America massive federal programs to improve Republican America’s struggling economies and troubled social conditions, then? Aside from the problem that Republican members of congress (and two recalcitrant Democrats) have sabotaged beneficial initiatives, former President Barack Obama already tried that. From 2010 to 2016, the Obama administration’s economic recovery measures fostered millions of new jobs and thousands of dollars in real median income growth for Whites in urban and most rural areas alike, reversing the recession under Republican George W. Bush’s presidency.
Yet, despite these gains, White voters vehemently rejected Democrats in successive elections. Today, Trump’s base voters are electing candidates who share their racial resentment and imagined victimization, not those who actually are advancing their safety and economic well-being.
Here are several more inconvenient facts that undercut the mainstream media’s obsession with the white working class.
Trump and the Republican fascists have a solid base of support among white middle class and affluent communities in blue state America.
But that is a much more challenging and difficult story for the mainstream media to focus on because it would require critically interrogating members of their own peer group and class instead of obsessing about poor and working-class white people in rural and rust belt America.
Black and brown people are experiencing far more economic uncertainly and pain than are “white working class” people in America. Yet, they did not flock to Trumpism and neofascism. Why is this?
In the same bastions of Trumpism in rural and rust belt America that are obsessively profiled by the American mainstream news media there are liberals, progressives, Democrats, and other people who reject such politics. Where are their profiles and fawning coverage?
By definition, President Biden’s initiatives to help rust belt and rural America are “newsworthy.” But the more important question is how should the news media cover that story. Whose voices and experiences should be highlighted and elevated? Are we, the Fourth Estate, speaking truth to power and helping the public to make informed decisions? In this time of crisis are we defending democracy or aiding and abetting the rise of fascism and authoritarianism?
In the end, as Donald Trump and his successors in the Republican-fascist party and movement become even more extreme and dangerous the American mainstream news media will continue to feign being shocked and surprised by how white working-class voters support (and love) all of this horribleness.
An inability to see clearly and a perpetual state of denial about reality is what the American mainstream news media’s addiction to the white working class has wrought. Like all addicts, the American mainstream news media needs to hit rock bottom so that it can finally admit it has a problem and then seek help to get better.
Unfortunately, if current habits and trends continue, the American mainstream news media will not realize it has a problem until it is too late. After more than seven years it is clear that such a moment of clarity will not be happening.
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