The Real Book About the "White Working Class"

Interview with Les Leopold, author of "Wall Street's War on Workers," the book neither party wants you to read

In late February a new book by journalist Paul Waldman and University of Maryland professor Thomas Schaller called White Rural Rage hit the bookshelves. The book was a compendium of Hee Haw! caricatures of hayseed America mixed with a blunt diagnosis: rural Americans are disproportionately racist, conspiratorial, authoritarian, and supportive of political violence, key culprits in the rise of Donald Trump. “Rural Americans,” Waldman and Waller wrote, “are overrepresented among those with insurrectionist tendencies.”

Media response was instantaneous and ecstatic. Morning Joe hyped White Rural Rage as if it were a cross of What Happened and The Grapes of Wrath; Mika Brzezinski sat rapt as Schaller described rural voters as “the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-gay geo-demographic group in the country.” Echoing one of the book’s constant refrains, Paul Krugman at the New York Times wrote about “The Mystery of Rural White Rage,” complaining about the illogic of rural white disdain for Democrats, while Salon’s Amanda Marcotte after reading it felt emboldened to take off the “kid gloves” and pop rural America’s “racist, sexist, homophobic bubble.”

I was grumbling about this book when author White Rural Rage: The ... Waldman, Paul Best Price: $12.72 Buy New $15.19 (as of 09:22 UTC - Details)

Chris Hedges

connected me with

Les Leopold

, director of the Labor Institute, who’d just written an opposite sort of book called Wall Street’s War on Workerswhich turns out to be a thorough deconstruction of most of White Rural Rage:

Leopold has spent much of his career agitating for union causes. and though he’s persistently criticized the Democratic Party, it’s because he’s chiding them for too often advancing interests of wealthy donors over workers, which he sees both as a moral problem and bad electoral strategyWall Street’s War on Workers goes further, however, penetrating one of the chief media deceptions of the 21st century, namely that working-class voters are driven by racism and xenophobia, and not by a more simple, enraging motive: they’ve been repeatedly ripped off, by the wealthy donors to both parties.

As we discuss below, Leopold is going to have a hard time getting booked on Morning Joe or receiving shout-outs in Paul Krugman columns when his book features sections like “The Mischaracterization of White Working­ Class Politics” and “The Continued Mischaracterization of Populism.” The book is in the tradition of Thomas Frank’s seminal history of anti-populism, The People, No, which described the original Populist Party clashing with New York banking interests on issues like free silver, and quickly found itself caricatured, forever, as bigoted, stupid, and dangerous. Leopold is telling a similar story, but is more focused on the idiosyncrasies of the current clash, which he sees as rooted in competing narratives about a number: 30 million, his estimate of the number of laid-off Americans since 1996:

As Wall Street has routinized the financial strip-­mining of productive enterprises, more than 30 million of us have experienced mass layoffs. And even more have felt the pain and suffering as our family members lost jobs.

As for where he got the number, he explains in a footnote that the “Bureau of Labor Statistics’ mass­ layoff database records 20.2 million layoffs for the years 1996–2012,” 2012 being the last year the stat was calculated. “If layoffs con­tinued at that rate through 2022, the total number of layoffs would be 32.8 million.” Even 20 million in 16 years is a huge number. But it’s the often unexplained reasons for those layoffs that illustrate the enormity of the gulf of political misunderstanding between college urbanites and rural America.

Middle America has been screwed over in a hundred ways since the mid-nineties and even before. An even partial list of the scams I had to cover in the post-’08 period would turn this review into a novel, but a lot of investment schemes targeted middle-class, suburban and rural Americans (elderly urban minorities were also common marks) with a little bit of savings, and/or the institutional investors that held their retirement monies. The passage of NAFTA led to a lot of job losses, but a bigger cause is a phenomenon I’ve covered here and which Leopold tackles: stock buybacks.

Buybacks happen when big companies use cash or borrow funds to buy their own stock on the marketplace, then retire the shares. Both the buying and the retiring tend to drive share prices up, which is a good thing for executives compensated in company stock, but less advantageous for those not privy to the company’s plans. For this reason, the SEC barred buybacks as manipulation until 1982, when the administration of Ronald Reagan instituted rule 10b-18, creating a “safe harbor” for such transactions. Leopold, examining a Department of Defense study of what contractors did with excess cash when they had it, writes:

Defense contractors increased their stock repurchases and dividends to shareholders by 73 percent in the last decade… Where to get all that money? For defense contractors it’s a no­-brainer—take it from our tax dollars.

For the business sector, it is often extracted from the troubled companies through cost-­cutting—including mass layoffs, wage and benefit cuts, shifting production to low-­wage areas, and cut­ting spending on things like health, safety, environmental safeguards, and research and development.

The implications of this are crucial. As Leopold notes below, most people assume layoffs are just cold hard economic reality, the unavoidable result of market forces taking their toll on uncompetitive businesses. But it’s not always true. Healthy companies will cut jobs just to up share prices for executives, who increasingly are compensated in company equity. Leopold cites a stat saying 85% of executive compensation comes in the form of stock awards, creating massive incentives to spend on buybacks. I’ve seen both higher and lower numbers, but even the low end (Harvard Business Review put the number at 59% globally and 75% in “the Americas”) is significant. A Southern View of the... Ashe, Samuel A'Court Best Price: $10.11 Buy New $8.99 (as of 03:14 UTC - Details)

In the end, Leopold posits that while Democratic voters believe they need to shift to more illiberal positions to win working class voters, they’d more likely need to emphasize mass layoffs as a root of rural anger, which would force them to choose between Wall Street donors and rural votes. Survey findings turned up the following two conclusions, for instance:

  • Some 10 to 25 million white working ­class people are liberal on social issues but don’t identify as Democrats.
  • These non­-Democrats are extremely worried about trade deals and imports, which likely reflects their concerns about job loss and job insecurity.

There are elements of Leopold’s book with which I don’t fully agree. In places he seems to be trying to prove both that white working class voters have reasons to be angry and disappointed with the Democratic Party, and also that they’re not responsible for the Trump phenomenon, at least not exactly. For instance, he writes, “a higher percentage of white managers (30.4 percent) than of white workers (25.1 percent) say they voted in the Republican congressional primaries.” Trump is so toxic with progressive voters that I think it’s hard to write in an unembarrassed way for that audience about his success in connecting with those voters, or recent war veterans, for instance. Leopold spends time proving that the crowd on January 6th wasn’t working class. I wouldn’t have bothered — what if they were? — but Leopold is writing about the phenomenon of blame, to the people doing the blaming, so it makes sense on that level.

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