Language Matters: The True Definition of the “Working Class”

“A working class hero is something to be.”

~ John Lennon

When historians write the stories of the 2016 American presidential campaign, they will have to reckon with the various ways that the accepted definitions of words and phrases were contorted by candidate Trump. If the ways in which Trump changed the meanings of words had been limited to himself, it might have provided a source of humor at his malapropism and assorted mis-speaks. Instead, his changes in a word’s meaning were picked up by others – including the news media – which meant that his words spread, in some cases superseding original meaning.

The relationship between language and ideology was the focus of much of the post-World War II battle in academic circles. Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and other theories that were adapted in literature, anthropology, and history struggled to establish whether language determines what we are capable of thinking – can I think something without having the language to shape those thoughts – or whether thought determines language. In many ways, the battles over “postmodernism,” as these lines of inquiry were commonly called, have seeped out of the academy and into our political life. While academics pushed notions of “truth” to the point of asking whether truth existed in an objective sense, or whether it was always the subjective interpretation of the person holding a truth – the intellectual enterprise ran into the limits of such thinking when confronted with horrific events like the Holocaust. Holocaust denial was not part of the postmodern project, but Holocaust deniers used philosophical notions of the variability of truth to argue that it never happened.

It is remarkable to me to observe how academic questions that have lost some of their prominence in the universities have appeared in twisted form out in the political world. People who once believed in the objective truth of journalism now argue that no journalism is objective, that all is biased, and that therefore, any journalism that disrupts the beliefs of the reader must be “fake news.”

We live in a world where within 24 hours of a mass shooting or other destructive event, conspiracy theorists and fantasists flood social media with false narratives of what just happened. As a consequence, even though a film clip or photograph appears to reveal a story that is “obvious,” under the influence of others, individuals may look at the evidence and insist that the alternative story is contained within the photograph. Daniel Moynihan may have argued that we are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts, but we now seem to live in a world where part of the population believes a whole different set of “facts,” which makes any kind of rational discussion of solutions to a problem impossible. How can negotiators agree on a solution if the various sides insist that the facts of the matter themselves are under dispute?

Trump’s language, therefore, is part of this phenomenon where words change meaning because Donald Trump insists that his words are the true definitions. The president can now insist that even though he was heard on audio or in a film clip saying or doing something that millions saw him doing, he did not, in fact, do those things. A most recent example was when he claimed that he didn’t watch television, despite his tweets that indicate he’s watching “Fox and Friends” while he’s tweeting.

Such was the case with the whole concept of a “working class.” In the common narrative that emerged prior to the election, and which has been the basis for criticisms of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, the Democrats neglected its traditional constituency of “working-class voters” in order to identify with something called “identity politics.” In a country where speaking about class distinctions has been anathema in the past as it summoned the spectre of Marxism, suddenly everyone wanted to talk about Donald Trump’s devoted attention to the working class. The problem was that there seemed to be no working definition of what comprised the working class, and who was eligible for membership within it.

What emerged was not the definition of a social and economic class that one is born into and inhabits, but the idea of class based on education. In papers posted at the Economic Policy Institute website the consensus appears to be that “working class” refers to workers without a college education. It does not refer to a wage or living standard, to cultural mores, or to historical data, all of which identify “working class” in international or historical studies.

In America, class identity has been touted as fluid because no matter the condition of one’s birth, the mythos of the American Dream tells all that anyone can grow up to be anything they want. Rather than recognizing the structures that place people in their class environments, the American assumption is that even the poorest baby can grow up to be the richest person. But, based on the loose definition of working class, would this mean that a man without a college education who becomes wealthy remains a member of the working class? And if money is all it takes to get out of the working class, why do people remain within it?

These questions are crucial for understanding the argument at the heart of Ramp Hollow by Steven Stoll. Stoll traces the history of “Appalachia,” a region whose boundaries and characteristics turn out to themselves be nebulous, as a means of combating a narrative that has gained popularity in the wake of the bestseller status of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Stoll’s argument represents the structural reasons behind the poverty of the Appalachian region. An entire history of exploitation and violence and the forces of corporate capitalism have helped to create a situation in which those who remain in Appalachia endure high rates of poverty. But, as Stoll argues, even the ways that poverty is measured can be misinterpreted when looking at small farmers.

Again, language matters. In a fascinating discussion of the concept of “subsistence,” Stoll marshals evidence to demonstrate that the commonly understood definition of the word, which indicates a sort of hand-to-mouth existence, is not an accurate description of the subsistence farming done in the Appalachian region. He shows how subsistence farming not only fed a family, but produced excess that was available for a barter economy where economic exchange of goods and services made cash less necessary than it would be in an urban environment where everything has to be bought. But, if you measure the cash wealth of a farmer whose family is thriving in a subsistence culture, he would appear to be at the bottom of the economic ladder, which is not an accurate gauge of the family’s real wealth.

This is just one example of how Stoll, by studying the historical record and examining “real” life, is able to disrupt narratives that have seen all of Appalachia as full of poor hillbillies. Stoll also uses the historical records to look at the various ways that land has been taken from those who live there. Methods such as enclosure, or the granting of land to absentee landlords, or the strike-breaking thugs who worked for the mining companies, or the destruction of land in pursuit of minerals and coal, all of these events and more have contributed to the levels of poverty that do exist. So, if in the end, he affirms the existence of pockets of poverty, why is this book a crucial corrective?

Because right now, the popular view of those who live in Appalachia is dominated by Hillbilly Elegy. Vance paints the people of Appalachia as lazy, hard-drinking, drug-abusing, self-destructive people who are incapable of rising above their circumstances due to a culture of individual “moral flaws.” In this way, Vance’s book serves a deeply conservative agenda in which the individual is always responsible for their circumstances. Vance’s view is that the only reason that people are poor in Appalachia is because they want to be, and the proof of that is because Vance himself “escaped.”

Last year, when Donald Trump had manipulated the narrative to the point that journalists started referring to his slumlord father as a “working class hero,” other journalists such as Sarah Smarsh argued that most journalists’ understanding of the working class was skewed. As Smarsh wrote, journalists had accepted certain stereotypical views of the working class in order to justify why Trump’s base of support seemed to be drawn from them. Journalists saw the working class as uneducated, which led them to see the working class as “ignorant,” which explained why so many of them had been hoodwinked by Trump’s rhetoric into supporting him.

But Smarsh demolished that argument (I should note that she also cited my own research in her article) by showing how journalists were paying attention to only the members of the working class who were white, ignoring the large number of black working class voters, and journalists’ own class biases as members of an educated middle class caused them to depict anyone who hadn’t had a college education as somehow incapable of critical thinking. Journalists also ignored the large number of wealthy and middle class whites who were supporting Trump. Why? Journalists did not want to directly address the racism at the heart of Trump’s appeal, and got around the problem by misinterpreting Trump’s racist rhetoric as an economic populist one.

But more importantly, the depiction of the working class as a solidly conservative, racist bloc of voters denied a 200-year history in which workers had been at the vanguard of leftist movements. My family had been part of such movements in England, including family lore that my grandfather had been one of the Jarrow Crusade marchers, workers who marched from the north of England to London to demand economic reforms. It was also workers in coalition with others who turned out in the Battle of Cable Street when Irish and Jewish laborers united to wreck a march by British fascists led by Oswald Mosley.

Just as a notion of a unified American working class that was white, racist, and supporters of Trump did damage during the campaign, and continues to drive those who think the Democratic Party needs to abandon its commitment to diversity in order to court this notion of the working class, so, too, writers have emerged who are disrupting the simplistic arguments at the heart of Hillbilly Elegy.

In a recent article in the Boston Review, Elizabeth Catte argues that the idea of a certain type of whiteness propounded by Vance puts forth a similar mythology to that of Trump’s working class. Catte demonstrates how the myth of the “lazy white Appalachian” actually gives credence to right-wing views of Black people as lazy. If Vance has been successful in arguing that the poverty in Appalachia is the fault of its white inhabitants who have made poor life choices, it shores up similar arguments about poverty in communities of color. If poverty is not due to a deadly combination of structural and cultural factors but is all down to individual choices, then a lack of compassion toward the poor is wholly justified. Vance constructs a “mythical” view of whiteness that justifies those mythical views of blackness that continue to operate in structural ways against the Black community.

Ramp Hollow is an important book representing years’ worth of research and careful analysis. The people of Appalachia deserve to have their situation understood in the light of a history of systemic exploitation that has worked to create whatever shortcomings outsiders see in the communities. Vance’s view of Appalachia is a myth, another simplistic take on human nature that fails to take into account the power of structural oppression. A series of scholars are seeking to correct the damage that Vance has caused.