The Geography of the Class Culture Wars
Seattle University Law Review, Vol. 34, p. 767, 2011
49 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2011 Last revised: 25 May 2011
Date Written: February 25, 2011
This Essay is a contribution to a colloquy about Joan C. Williams’s book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter (Harvard University Press 2010). Williams argues that class matters because socially conscious progressives need working class allies to achieve work-family reform for the benefit of all. Williams calls us not only to think about class and recognize it as a significant axis of stratification and (dis)advantage, but also to treat the working class with respect and dignity. Williams writes of the “class culture wars” between social progressives (mostly within the “professional/managerial class”) and the white working class. She asserts that improved relations between these groups will require progressives to better understand the white working class, including why they seem to elevate cultural issues over their economic self-interest. To that end, Williams surveys the major recent ethnographies of the white working class to present a composite portrait of that milieu.
My Essay seeks to enhance Williams’s powerful and path-breaking discussion of the white working class in four ways. Part I brings geography explicitly into consideration by arguing that the culture wars – which I believe Williams aligns correctly along a broad and fuzzy line between the working class and the professional/managerial class – similarly align along the rural-urban axis. Just as liberal elites tend to shun the white working class, they also express disdain for rural and small-town residents. Indeed, among urbanites and “coastal elites,” rural Americans have become a proxy for the working class – the uncouth, the uncultured, and the illiberal. I document this increasing geographic polarization specifically in relation to the 2008 Presidential election.
Based on this argument that the opposing sides in the class culture wars are now represented (at least rhetorically) by the rural and the urban, I take up three other issues. Part II of the Essay adds nuance to Williams’s broad-brush class dichotomy by introducing other classes and sub-classes that are particularly relevant to the rural context. Specifically, I show how Williams’s implicitly metropolitan class taxonomy parallels a similar divide in nonmetropolitan communities, and I discuss the role of morality as a basis for differentiation among factions of working class whites in rural settings. Then, in Part III, I argue that cultural and political disdain for rural folks prevents law- and policy-makers from seeing and addressing the distinct challenges facing the rural citizenry, including issues associated with work-life security. I conclude in Part IV with thoughts on work itself as common ground between the professional/managerial class and the white working class. I call for the work-identified professional/managerial class to let go of stereotypes of the white working class as lazy and ignorant and to acknowledge how hard the working class actually do work. I also argue that liberal elites should recognize the structural and cultural obstacles to education and advancement facing working class whites, just as they have recognized similar obstacles stemming from race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion. Recognizing a shared commitment to work across the classes could foster political détente and, ultimately, a more robust political coalition in support of work-family reform.
My thoughts about Williams’s book and the class culture wars are informed by my own rural upbringing, as well as by my status as a “class migrant,” which Williams defines as those “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to elite education.” In addition, my comments and analysis rely heavily on two sources – one conventional, the other not – which complement Williams’s fine work. First, I draw on Jennifer Sherman’s 2009 book, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America. This book provides a rural-specific counterpart to Williams’s more generalized explanation of why morality and family – and therefore cultural issues more broadly – are so important to the white working class. The second, rather unorthodox source is journalist Joe Bageant’s 2007 book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. Bageant’s insights as a cultural critic – though articulated in a sharper tone and reflecting a more anecdotal method – are uncannily similar to those which Williams and Sherman document in academic fashion. Finally, I illustrate how President Obama has endorsed the core ideas of all three authors.
Keywords: work, family, work-family balance, work-life balance, culture, culture wars, white working class, working class, middle class, upper middle class, professional/managerial class, education, missing middle, rural, rural and urban, class, socioeconomic class, progressive politics, 2008 election
JEL Classification: K30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation