|"The Carousel of Progress" - Walt Disney World|
"The country is more divided as it has been in a long time."
We've grown used to hearing this a lot. It is true culturally. It is true geographically. It is true in terms of our acceptance of previously-thought-to-be objective institutions such as universities, journalism, and published science.
A look at voting maps shows this in stark relief as vast oceans of sparsely populated rural red surround small, densely populated islands of blue.
(pink = RW populist, LW pluralist)
(blue = RW Populist, green = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)
The geographic pattern is clear. "Elite" punditry was quick after Brexit and Trump's surprise victory to look around and decry the bubble: they had been too self-involved with people like them to see clearly the upswell of populist sentiment. Much was made of the fact that journalists (and the academic they likely relied on for expert opinion) were located primarily in the big cities, usually on the coasts. Maybe there was, after all, something to what right-wing pundits had been decrying all along. Maybe the "pointy-headed" "coastal elites" were "out of touch" with the "real Americans". Alright everyone, back to Wasila, ASAP!
In 1993, when I was first out of high school I took a job with a friend of mine who worked in Masonry. The fact that I knew him was due to a funny quirk of skateboarding - a sport that, through emphasis on outsider individualism, daring and physical prowess, often crossed class boundaries. As Taylor Hall writes in a fascinating post on the blog Broken Clipboard,
Members of the lower class typically choose sports characterized by violence and uncertainty based on physical strength and daring; partaking in prole sports such as boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting. These sports are often available at low cost and in urban areas and are accessible to all. These sports serve as a legitimate way of establishing self-respect and a sense of masculinity – traits necessary for survival in a modest background.
My friend had no plans on attending college. He was kind of ripped and had a tattoo of batman on his right pectoral. He found me a job assisting him as a "hogger", a position basically defined by the sloppy, dirty, laborious, low-skill tasks of hauling materials, mixing cement and fetching items. The work was dirty, sometimes dangerous or painful, and rewarded a sort of fearless, can-do physicality. It was also my first exposure to a highly masculinized work environment. My sensitive, gender-deconstructed, feminist upbringing made me stick out. I wasn't quite "one of the guys". It wasn't completely Republican. When a grumpy roofer kept blaring Rush Limbaugh, an older Carpenter hollered at him to, "turn that right wing shit down!" He liked me and told me how one of his dreams was to drop LSD on the top of one of the great pyramids in Egypt.
Aside from the back-breaking laboriousness of the job (I used to get home so tired I'd sometimes fall right to sleep), I think back on the experience as really turning me off from blue collar work in general. I had nursed the idea of becoming a firefighter for a time. But I realized that the hyper-masculinized atmosphere would make me uncomfortable; I would never be "one of them".
This was all by design, of course. Both of my parents were college educated. I was listening to post-rock, writing poetry and deconstructing the world around me - rebelling against any local culture I could find. I was trying my best to be abstract and global. I continued to work blue collar jobs. Actually, "pink collar" really, as I found myself interested in social services - a field that tends female. I delivered meals to the sick, handed out pills to the mentally ill and brain injured, all the while taking college courses at night, eventually becoming an elementary school teacher, and now behavior analyst.
I could make a good case that my intellectual interests, my ideological assumptions, have led me to embrace a left-wing politics. But what led me to those assumptions? Surely, I was raised in a left-wing home. And I have lived in left-leaning, cosmopolitan cities - Santa Cruz, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. Culture and geography has had a lot to do with it. I have indeed come to live in a bubble of sorts. None of my friends are really Republicans. My facebook feed is bright blue. I read mainstream (liberal) news sources.
Looking at the maps above, one would think that I would have to leave town to encounter "real America", to understand the white, Christian America.
But in reality, he lives next door. Anywhere a building is being constructed you'll find scores of working class men who will reliably and overwhelmingly be voting Republican in the next election. The carpenters, masons, electricians, fork-lift drivers, roofers, plumbers, truck drivers. They are men who get dirty, work with their hands, drink beer after work, barbecue on the weekend and watch the game. They drive big trucks with big tires because being manly feels good. Like most people, they probably aren't political junkies, and so would much rather listen to country or butt-rock on the radio than Michael Savage or Sean Hannity. But there's likely someone on the jobsite who's plugged in politically, and he is likely influential in reinforcing their worldview. When they go to church it's probably a mega church, which reinforces their traditional values.
The messages from rightwing media and megachurches is one of paranoia and incessant tribalism. Over and over, the message is that a way of life is under siege. Men can no longer be "men". Christians can no longer be "Christians". And who is to blame - the names are legion and all mean the same thing: liberal, elitist, pointy-headed, egghead, atheist, commie, pinko, feminazi, PC, SJW, globalist, snowflake. By its nature, the populist position has an easy target: anyone who is different than them. Often, simply their request for inclusion, if not their very right to exist, is viewed as an offensive attack.
One can see how attractive this message might be - that their identity is threatened - to a group whose occupations have indeed been losing status for decades. In this amazing infographic, in which occupations are charted by political ideology, there is an overwhelming tendency for blue collar, non-college educated work to swing right. Click the link to see the whole page, but just take a look at this portion:
People's occupation is often core to who they are, how they view the world. If not the actual work itself, then the culture of the profession, what kind of people work there and what kind of people are then expected to work there. If I describe the lovely foreign film I just watched while sitting around the dirty igloo cooler with my fellow pipe-fitters, they are going to look at me funny. Just as if, while eating Chipotle with my fellow graphic designers, I describe in detail the 3-point buck I took down last Saturday.
Much has contributed to get us to where we are today. Remember Revenge of the Nerds? Remember nerds? If you work in construction, you probably do. The rest of us, maybe less so. Feminism allowed men to be more sensitive and not be defined merely by a stoic, physicality. The Information Age introduced forms of labor that required abstract knowledge than required no daring, strength or toughness. Gay rights redefined masculinity even further. Transgender acceptance upended it entirely. Global commerce and media have upended tradition at breakneck speed.
Much has been said about the loss of manufacturing, economic insecurity and the rust belt swing from Blue to Red. But while those are a significant factor, certainly with respect to electoral politics. What is more important is the redefining of the American Male and his place of work. There is nothing about working with your hands that requires a traditionalist view of masculinity. However, work is to a large degree identity. It becomes family identity, it gets passed down through generations. These generations develop different repertoires of knowledge, emphasize different values. If a child grows up in a home that doesn't watch foreign films, debate global religion, critically deconstruct modern art, he is going to view the world differently.
But do these worlds have to be in tension? Do they have to collide with such dangerous friction? What can we do, as a society, to be more inclusive? This is the question for our time.