Class Cluelessness or Class Callousness?: An Interview with Joan C. Williams

The following is an interview that I conducted with Joan C. Williams. Dr. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. She is the author of numerous books, including What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.

The interview is about her book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Williams explores Trump’s 2016 election in the context of growing income and wealth inequality. She argues that the rise of populism and nationalism in the U.S. are due, in part, to the liberal elite’s cluelessness about the white working class’s struggles.

It remains to be seen whether this crucial group of voters will remain loyal to Trump in 2020. From where I’m standing, it’s not lookin’ good.

The interview took place on July 10, 2020.

E: On my blog, I wrote an essay about the Left’s focus on social identity. We’re coming up an another election, we have the risk of another Trump presidency, and I argued that liberals are missing the boat when we’re degrading and demeaning poor or working class whites. You seem to make a very similar argument in your book White Working Class.

W: Thank you. Lord send me patience. “I believe in social inequality, except for this kind!” I understand it, but I don’t excuse it.

E: So, why do you think liberals do it?

W: It’s hard to give up privilege, everyone knows that. But class privilege is one of the hardest kinds of privilege for white people to give up, because the silver spoon crowd tells themselves that what got them to where they are is their own hard work and their own merit.

They tend to get and accept that things suck for people of color. They totally get that. But the idea that there are a whole bunch of white people that work just as hard as they do and have very little to show for it – that would cause them to ask if, maybe, one of those people that is on this invisible escalator of social privilege is them – not just by race but also by class.

It requires them to give up really cherished beliefs, like that people who go to college are smarter than people who don’t, that people who talk articulately are smarter than people who don’t, that the smart creatives are the masters of the universe. It’s a very uncomfortable truth and many liberals just don’t want to go there.

E:  My blog starts most essays with a personal story. Do you have a personal experience that led to you writing the book?

W: I have been thinking about social inequality since I was standing in front of a gold plated altar in rural Peru in 1961.  I was looking at all of the farmland owned by the church and the people working in the high terraces and thinking, “Wow, this is really messed up.”

I was an American kid who lived in South America for two years from ages 8 to 10, and the social inequality was inescapable. In the US, we didn’t have people sleeping on our streets then. The U.S. has now turned into Peru in the 1960s.

“We didn’t have people sleeping on our streets then. The U.S. has now turned into Peru in the 1960s.”

I was also greatly affected by gender bias. Basically my whole career was affected by it. So I started studying gender bias, but, also, at 26 I married into a white working class family. My mother-in-law thought I was so weird.

They were visiting us in Cambridge where we were going to Harvard. We were cleaning up after dinner and she asked me, “Where do you keep the butter?” I said, “Under the bed.”

I was thinking, Who asks that question? And she went and put the butter under the bed! That’s how weird she thought I was. And on some level that’s how weird I thought she was! We were like Martians to each other.

I’ve been married for 42 years and she’s probably one of my closest friends. So I have been bridging the class/culture gap for almost half a century and I have a lot of respect for working class people. I’ve learned a lot from them. I don’t excuse racism in white people, period. That’s just not in my job description. But a lot of the class anger against my crowd (the silver spoon crowd) that these people hold has been turned into racial anger.

That’s not okay, but it distresses me that the PME [professional managerial elite] responds to this class anger with such distain and dismissiveness. It basically drives decent people into the arms of irresponsible populists. My attitude is, “How’s this working for you, folks?”

The PME just says, “These people are racist.” Yeah, they’re white people. They’re racist, you’re racist, get over it. Let’s work on racism, together, with other white people and people of color. Working on racism does not preclude working on social class distain.

E: How have you been reacting to some of the events in 2020 such as the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter movement? I know that I’ve seen from my own social crowd – the academic, liberal crowd – a lot of disturbing images, memes, posts and things that people are making about working class white people, particularly in response to the pandemic.

W: I avoid this stuff like the plague. What kinds of things? Are these like, “Let them die” or “They’re incredibly stupid” things? Or both?

E: I keep screenshotting them. You know the “Don’t tread on me” flag with the snake? Well educated liberals in my crowd are sharing a similar picture, except it says, “I don’t understand epidemiology.” Memes that send the message that people are just stupid.  

That really worries me when we’re talking about really major societal problems. I think about climate change and how liberals send the message, “Believe in science or you’re an idiot.”

Yet they’re dismissing some people’s concerns about the implications of some of our policy decisions that are based on science. They’re not even attempting to empathize with people who might lose their jobs if we shut down a coal mine or ban fracking or things like that.

I guess I’m seeing a lot of similarities between how the liberal elite is talking about coronavirus and how we have been and will continue to talk about climate change. It’s this weird way that science has been politicized and has been used to call people stupid, essentially.

W: It’s so ironic that science has been turned into a religion. Science isn’t a religion, it’s simply a method. I am really married to the method; I love the method. But it’s not a religion!

“It’s so ironic that science has been turned into a religion. Science isn’t a religion, it’s simply a method.”

I stopped writing about class about a year ago because I wrote so many op-eds that were rejected. Basically, in order for me to get something about class published – this isn’t universally true but largely true – it has to be a class migrant who’s reading it.

So if I get another person of my background, a “golden spoon” person, who reads my op-ed, they reject it. So I stopped writing about class because it was unpublishable. But I’m very persistent.

What I want to write next is a piece basically asking, “How did the present pandemic turn into a culture war?”

I think a nice twist that I’m playing around with now is that the PME has faulted the non-college graduates on the climate change vector for not understanding the nature of risk. In the climate change context, it’s that we under-calculate small risks. But the PME is doing a similar miscalculation now.

E: How so?

The PME is being completely unrealistic about risk. I just talked to a friend of mine that has basically not been in a store since March. And I tried to say to her, “Hey, yes, coronavirus is horrible, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and it really sucks. But the fact is, for people our kids’ age, the chances of dying are less than 1%.”

She’s has been sending me all of these articles saying that it’s so risky, but that’s not the point. The point is we’re hyper-salient on the tiny percentage of children who are tragically getting that syndrome and dying, we don’t give that kind of hyper-vigilance to driving a car or to other things.

So the PME are being equally unsophisticated in how they’re assessing risk all at the same time that they’re being all pompous about how much they believe in science.

Climate change deniers are making a mistake in their risk assessment with respect to climate change. The PME are making a mistake in their risk assessment with respect to coronavirus. They’re different mistakes, but it’s not like one is enlightened science people and the other are ignorant idiots. People make mistakes about risk assessments unless they use this little methodology that I happen to be very attached to, called science.

E: This liberal tendency to dismiss economic concerns as they relate to COVID-19 or climate change really worries me. It makes me think that climate change will start to be articulated as only an “elite” issue.

W: It already has! I was talking to a reporter that was covering the yellow vests in France and in his story he quoted White Working Class (it’s been translated into French because this is happening all over). One of the yellow vest folks said, “They’re focused on the end of the world, we’re focused on the end of the month.”

“They’re focused on the end of the world, we’re focused on the end of the month.”

I think that the end of the world affects the end of the month, but if people were respectful in recognizing that cultural difference – which is a structural, class difference – they would be more effective in addressing climate change.

I’m pretty conventional, and I’m totally conventional when it comes to policy. I think climate change is the single largest issue that we face right now. And one of the reasons I’m completely ticked off about class cluelessness is that, ironically, it’s making it completely impossible to address it.

So I am not the one to say, “If you only understood class you would value coal jobs.” Coal is dying. Period. But that should be an seen as an economic challenge for a very important group of people rather than a cause for celebration.

“Coal is dying. Period. But that should be seen as an economic challenge for a very important group of people rather than a cause for celebration.”

E: I’ve been concerned with the rhetoric that says that people who are concerned with the shut downs or concerned about losing their jobs or losing their small business are just evil or they’re grandma killers or that they’re stupid and don’t understand science.

I think that that’s really dangerous, and it reminds me of that quote about “the end of the world” versus the “end of the month.” A lot of people are very concerned about reaching the end of the month and their entire lives and livelihoods being uprooted by shut downs.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have shut downs, but I think we need a different type of rhetoric that acknowledges people’s economic concerns as we make the policy decisions that we are forced to make. I don’t think liberals are doing that very well.

W: And we’re paying the price. Let’s be sensible here. It all comes down to risk. You cannot eliminate the risk. We cannot keep you safe. Let’s talk about eliminating the risk in a way that balances the risk of economic pain with the risk of grandma dying.

That’s a horrible trade off, but that is actually where we are. Nobody talks about that because they’re all busy performing their identity of purity.

E: I’ve been following Dr. David Katz, and he’s been talking about sensible risk mitigation from the beginning. He runs a program at Yale and perfectly fits the liberal elite stereotype.

In an interview with Bill Maher, he was laughing about how he was featured on Fox News and he never thought that would happen.

I also don’t know if you’ve heard of Thomas Piketty…

W: Everyone in my crowd has heard of Thomas Piketty.

E: Well, I’ve been reading his new book, Capital and Ideology. In the last section, he distinguishes between what he calls the Merchant Right and the Brahmin Left.

W: Oh, I love that.

E: He says that what we have in the U.S., France, and Great Britain is a double elite system. The Left has elites and non-elites. And the Right has their elite and non-elites.

In one section, he argues that liberal elites are scared to make economic reforms because that means they’ll probably have to lose something since so many of them are benefiting from the current system.

W: Yeah.

E: He argues that the reason the Left has moved away from economic issues and economic reform is because, since the fall of communism, there hasn’t been a convincing economic alternative to neoliberalism proposed by the Left. The Left has been kind of floundering trying to propose a post-communist framework for economic justice.

W: I think that it has to do with performing identity. I don’t buy that there’s no model. There is a model. It’s Denmark, it’s Sweden. That’s the model. I don’t spend much time trying to invent utopias. That’s easy. What I’m interested in is what you can actually accomplish. And you can actually accomplish that. I don’t think it’s a failure of imagination.

I haven’t read the book. I will definitely pick it up now. But I think this is what happened, and this is well-documented by political scientists in the United States by the way – I wrote about it in an academic book I wrote called Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.

In the 1970s you had this fundamental realignment – because of my generation, because of us hippies – and we basically broke the New Deal alliance where the performative identity of liberal elites was focused on support for unions and blue collar people (typically men – it was very gendered).

Instead we basically invented the culture wars by focusing our liberal identities on these cultural issues like being able to sleep with our boyfriends, using birth control, and environmental issues.

So there was this fundamental shift in power in the Democratic party – and this is paralleled in other countries – from the focus on blue collar and a true cross-class alliance to focusing on cultural issues.

“There was a fundamental shift in power in the Democratic party from the focus on blue collar and a true cross-class alliance to focusing on cultural issues.”

Then non-elites began to be really resentful and what happened is that the business elite – which really only cares about tax cuts – says, well, we don’t really care much about these cultural issues. So we’re going to give the blue collar whites these cultural issues to make sure they vote for our tax cuts.

And liberals for some reason – it has to do with, again, identity – they don’t get it. They don’t understand how they’re being played. Also, the college-educated elite (and it’s begun to change, and this is what Bernie Sanders represents), they were doing fantastic economically. So their attitude is, “What’s the problem?”

Yet these cultural issues were really important to them – you know, sexual freedom, the self-development ethic I write about. So those did seem to them to be the important issues and they didn’t care much about the end of the week, because they got that covered.

They cared about the end of the world. How dare you mess with my world which is working so well for me?

So that’s what happened. And it was extremely savvy on the part of the business elite to capitalize on the shift to cultural issues. What is obscure to me is why the Brahmin Left doesn’t seem to get it.

E: I’ve heard arguments that since the 1960s or the Civil Rights movement the Left has become all about cultural issues, but I’ve never heard it placed on hippies.

W: There was a sharp shift in the Democratic party from blue collar to college-educated in the 70s. They don’t want to give up the power. They don’t want to stop talking about – and I’m one of them –about abortion rights and talk only about jobs or blue collar issues.

I’m a little different because I think that if you’re so dismissive of social inequality that you don’t care about jobs for blue collar people, I don’t think you’re a liberal much less a progressive. But it also just doesn’t work. Look what happens. Everything turns into a freaking culture war.

E: So what do you think about the liberal push to abolish the electoral college? Is that one way they’re trying to get around the blue collar shift to the Right?

W: That’s never going to happen, and I’m not interested in things that aren’t going to happen. How are you going to get all of the people in states that the Electoral College benefits to agree to that? You’re not. It’s science fiction.

E: I think it’s interesting how many liberals are pushing for it, because I think that it might reflect their desire to quiet those voices and to maintain class privilege and political privilege.

W: Yeah, I think it’s complicated because it’s also true that the over-weighting of rural votes, which was not such a distortion when it was invented, is now an unbelievable distortion. I think it should happen, I’m just not interested in trying to make it happen.

E: So we’re here in another election year, what do you think is going to happen? What do you think liberals need to do from here until November to make sure that Trump doesn’t get elected again?

W: First of all, liberals have already done the main thing they’ve needed to do, which is swallow their pride and rally behind Biden. I was really worried for much of the primary season that we were going to have a divided convention and a sort of Left circular firing squad.

And more power to them. Joe Biden is a nice man. He does not stand for the policy positions that my crowd really cherishes, yet they are going to vote for him. So I think that’s what they need to do.

Now, could the Biden campaign be better at messaging in ways that would heal the class divide? Yes, I think they could. But the Biden campaign – and I’m not a political strategist – but their campaign is basically to let Trump hang himself. And I think that’s probably pretty wise in this context.

Trump has finally met a fact of life that he can’t explain away just by controlling a small group of people. The virus is not like a cold. The virus has killed almost 200,000 people. So, I’m not a political campaign adviser, I’m more of a cultural critic. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

E: I have an elite liberal friend that pushes back on me when I critique Democrats and says that what I’m critiquing is culture, not policy. She says that Democrats, in terms of policy, support working class whites more than Republicans do.

Maybe we don’t talk about it as much, but in 2016 Clinton had these plans for Appalachia and Trump didn’t. My friend says that Trump’s policies don’t help working class whites as much as the liberals’ policy. Would you agree with that?

W: Partly, that’s really true and it’s really untrue. It’s true in the sense that the Republican’s policies reflect the interests of big business. Now he’s also taken huge amounts of money and thrown it on the farmers. But by and large, Trump is just really terrible for workers – unbelievably bad.

We’re in the middle of a global death scene and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not doing anything to protect workers. So in that sense, it’s right that Republicans are generally terrible for workers.

It is not exactly true that Democrats are good for workers. They’re definitely better. But all you have to do is go to the heartland and see those desolate, hallowed communities and look at the sharp rise in the number of people in poverty. Democrats were an integral part of that.

And it’s so ironic that – and I’m now going to steal the term – that the Brahmin Left believes in income inequality absolutely and completely unless you’re talking about the white working class. Then somehow they don’t believe in it anymore? How does that make sense?

Income inequality has been under Democrat administrations as well as Republican. And Democrats as well as Republicans have been wrapped in neoliberalism and the thought that you have to de-regulate and the market is going to solve all the problems until quite recently.

“Income inequality has been under Democrat administrations as well as Republican. And Democrats as well as Republicans have been wrapped in neoliberalism and the idea that you have to de-regulate and the market is going to solve all the problems.”

We only have two institutions really that we’ve ever invented in the world: one is the market and the other is government. And they both suck. The Left is entranced with government and hates the market, and the Right is entranced with the market and hates government.

These institutions are kind of like everything else human. They are so flawed. All we can do is try to put a balance between them and patch up the worst egregious errors that government will inevitably make and the market will inevitably make.

It’s about trying to patch together these two crappy institutions in a way that doesn’t lead to 40% of the American public not being able to survive a $400 expense. I’m not asking for perfection, but that sucks. And that’s on Democrats as well as Republicans.

So your friend is right in that Republicans do not help workers, but she’s a little bit wrong in saying that Democrats do.

E: Well I think we’ve come up on the end. Thank you so much for being available to talk today. I really admire your ability to write for an academic audience as well as a more general one.

W: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I almost never get the chance to talk about this stuff anymore because there is just crashing silence. So thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.

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