Most accounts of contemporary politics in the US acknowledge the centrality of white nationalism in right-wing mobilization. But some analysts would say that it is not the only motivation. There is a class dimension to right-wing mobilization. In an important book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political philosopher, writes that the ideology of meritocracy based on equal opportunity has, contrary to its pronounced aim of making society more democratic, has in fact contributed to the opposite outcome: the rule of the more educated over the less educated, those with college credentials over those who don’t.
Meritocratic ideology, moreover, has given people the illusion that they have gone up in the world owing only to their own merits whereas, in fact, they have been dependent on many prior advantages such as wealth and a supportive family background that working-class people do not have. With this illusion of independent striving being the reason for their success has gone the judgment that those who did not succeed failed because they did not work hard and so deserved their being left behind in the meritocratic race.
Meritocracy has created two kinds of resentment among poor whites. One is the resentment, aimed mainly at Blacks and immigrants, that they are being allowed to “jump the queue” by getting privileges via affirmative action and similar schemes by liberal elites. This kind of resentment is rife among poor whites who feel they have “followed the rules” but have been sidelined. In other words, meritocracy is not really operative and liberals play favorites.
The other resentment is among those who are seen and see themselves as the losers because they tried but failed. This is a double-edged resentment directed both at oneself for having failed but also at liberal elites who are the beneficiaries of a meritocratic system that values only the highly credentialed and has no time for people with lesser skills, with folks who did not make it to college. This has led to white workers deserting the Democratic Party in droves because being led by highly educated elites, the party is perceived as now serving the interests of the highly educated and the minorities whereas it was once the party of the working class. These feelings of resentment, of being disrespected by educated elites, were exacerbated by Hilary Clinton’s describing Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” and Obama saying people opposed his policies because they lacked information, i.e., that they were ignorant. In contrast, Trump glorified them when he said, “I love the poor educated.”
In discussing the articulation of racial and class resentments, Sandel cites the famous black sociologist W.E.B Dubois who noted that during his time “the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” Unlike Blacks, white workers were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best public schools. But with the civil rights movement, this “perverse psychological wage subsidy fell away,” leaving poor whites without the “comfort of knowing that worse off and more despised than they were.” Plagued by the sense of slipping backward both in terms of income and the value society places on their skills and work, poor whites find the perfect targets of their frustration in liberal elites, Blacks, and immigrants and become easy prey for conspiracy theories.
While reading Sandel, I was reminded of a similar exposition of the explosive articulation of racial and class motivations in the eminent Black philosopher Charles Mills’ reflections on the meaning of the seizure of the Capitol on January 6, 2021:
The psyche of white citizens is foundationally shaped not merely by rational expectations of differential social and material advantage, but also by their status positioning above Blacks. For a significant percentage of white Trump supporters (I don’t want to say all), I think the hope was that Trumpism—tapping into their “white racial resentment”—would address and eliminate both of these dangers, the ending of differential white material advantage and also the threatened equalization of racial status…What we saw on January 6 was in significant measure the acting out of the rage at this prospect.
All in all, a must read in order to understand why not only in the US but in Europe the white working class have deserted the old labor or social democratic parties and come under the sway of populist political entrepreneurs like Donald Trump.