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What's the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was Hardcover – August 1, 2012
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The size and stability of the American middle class were once the envy of the world. But changes unleashed in the 1960s pitted Americans against one another politically in new and destructive ways. These battles continued to rage from that day to now, while everyone has fallen behind economically except the wealthy. Right-wing culture warriors blamed the decline on the moral shortcomings of "other" Americansblack people, feminists, gays, immigrants, union membersto court a fearful white working- and middle-class base with ever more bitter "us vs. them" politics. Liberals tried, but mostly failed, to make the case that we're all in this together.
In What's the Matter with White People?, popular Salon columnist Joan Walsh argues that the biggest divide in America today is not about party or ideology, but about two competing narratives for why everything has fallen apart since the 1970s. One side sees an America that has spent the last forty years bankrupting the country providing benefits and advantages to the underachieving, the immoral, and the undeserving, no matter the cost to Middle America. The other sees an America that has spent the last forty years bankrupting the country providing benefits and advantages to the very rich, while allowing a measure of cultural progress for the different and the downtrodden. It matters which side is right, and how the other side got things so wrong.
Walsh connects the dots of American decline through trends that began in the 1970s and continue todayincluding the demise of unions, the stagnation of middle-class wages, the extension of the right's "Southern Strategy" throughout the country, the victory of Reagan Republicanism, the increase in income inequality, and the drop in economic mobility.
Citing her extended family as a case in point, Walsh shows how liberals unwittingly collaborated in the "us vs. them" narrative, rather than developing an inspiring, persuasive vision of a more fair, united America. She also explores how the GOP's renewed culture war now scapegoats even segments of its white base, as it blames the troubles of working-class whites on their own moral failings rather than on an unfair economy.
What's the Matter with White People? is essential reading as the country struggles through political polarization and racial change to invent the next America in the years to come.
Top Customer Reviews
The book has a somewhat unfortunate, even deceptive title. First of all, Walsh doesn't find much wrong with white people except that the white working class and the labor movement have been largely abandoned by the Democratic party--or let us say the arugula wing of the Democratic party. Second, one would expect a snarky sociopolitical treatise from that title, but this book is not snide or condescending in tone. It is a much more personal book than you might expect. Walsh writes about her steadfast liberal father (who was educated by the Christian Brothers and was in many ways a traditional Catholic) and her mother, who was frightened by the chaos of the 60's and wound up voting for Nixon. The portraits of members of her family are vivid and often quite touching, and we see how these relationships impacted Walsh personally and politically. The image of her going to the ruins of the World Trade Center with her cousin, a member of the NYPD who tried to save survivors of 9/11, stays in my mind. Again and again, Walsh emphasizes her ties to her "people"--she sees herself as what she is, a daughter of the Irish Catholic working class. (The material on the historical journey of the Irish in America is fascinating.)
Walsh's description of how we got into the political straits we are in--how race and identity politics divided the Democratic party--is a shrewd summing up of 50 or so years of American politics. From a liberal point of view, it is often an account of mistakes and lost opportunities. Walsh may be overly kind of the Clintons, particularly Bill--never really noting how his personal failings played into his opponents' hands. But this is basically a balanced account. I could not help comparing her critical take on one prominent Democratic senator--by no means the worst of the lot--with a puff piece in the Times I happened to read around the same time. While supporting Obama, Walsh does not (thank heaven) idolize him. (A little known detail sticks in my mind. Have you noticed that credit card interest rates often now amount to usury--or what would have once been considered usury? Not too important, unless you are a struggling person who has to rely on this source of credit. Hillary as a senator voted to rein credit card interest in. Obama did not.) As Walsh sees it, Obama has a way to go before he can be regarded as a tribune of the working masses.
A strong central theme of the book is this: how do we get white working class--people like Joan Walsh's Irish Catholic relatives--back into the Democratic fold? (Hint: Maybe we should offer them some real, serious, bread-and-butter economic help?)
If you are a Republican you are probably not going to love this book. But I hope the president reads it, even if just to be reminded of what he of all people hopefully already knows. (Please, Mr. President. It's an enjoyable read.) I personally could not put it down. Highly recommended.
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Surprisingly, given the attitude of most liberals towards the white male working class, Walsh, who is an editor at Salon.com and very much a liberal, gives an extremely empathetic and enlightening explanation of the causes of the rightward shift. She doesn't completely let the white workers off the hook - she points out, for example, that much of their opposition to Affirmative Action programs lies in their desire to be able to keep the better paying union jobs such as police and firefighters for their own kids. However, she blames most of the shift on missed opportunities by the Democratic party and misinformation from the Republicans.
As a working class woman also of Irish descent (albeit Canadian), I found myself nodding frequently at much of what she had to say. She speaks with great love and sympathy for her own Republican relatives. Her story of how she became a liberal Democrat thanks to her father, who was able to live the American Dream only due to being given to the Catholic Brothers when he was thirteen, is both sad and poignant. Her explanation of the sometimes shared, sometimes hostile history between the Irish immigrants and black people of NY is fascinating. Her story of her own journey to understand both her conservative family and her liberal friends and to live within both groups is insightful.
Too often, the white male working class is dismissed as 'racist' or 'stupid white men' by liberals while the Conservatives play into their fears (most unfounded) as they quietly dismantle the institutions, like unions, that actually try to protect the working class. Finally, in Ms Walsh's book, someone is actually speaking out for this much maligned group in an honest and sympathetic manner and, if the Democrats ever want to win them back, they better pay attention.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Open season for white hate here.