The Corner

Economy & Business

The Great White Working-Class Debate: Just Because I’m ‘Nasty’ Doesn’t Mean I’m Wrong

Last week I wrote a lengthy Corner post in support of Kevin Williamson’s excellent (and strongly-worded) attack on the notion that white working-class voters constitute just another American victim class. In the absence of war, plague, or natural disaster, white citizens — indeed, all citizens — have real agency. They have the power to help themselves. Writing to echo Kevin’s point, I cited my own long experience in reaching out to struggling poor and working-class families:

Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. As I’ve related before, my church in Kentucky made a determined attempt to reach kids and families that were falling between the cracks, and it was consistently astounding how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives. If they couldn’t find a job in a few days — or perhaps even as little as a few hours — they’d stop looking. If they got angry at teachers or coaches, they’d drop out of school. If they fought with their wife, they had sex with a neighbor. And always — always — there was a sense of entitlement.

In response, I’ve received quite a bit of blowback but very little actual argument. I’m “nasty” and self-hating, I’m trafficking in “social Darwinism,” and at least one writer feels my words are so self-evidently awful that merely quoting me is an illustration of the “extraordinary sewer that is the American right today.”

But lost in all the name-calling is any actual refutation. There is an enormous problem with self-destructive behavior in the white working-class — indeed, in poor and working-class families of all races. There is an enormous problem with entitlement. Talk to public school teachers. Talk to social workers. Talk to medical professionals in poor and working-class communities. Yes, they can point you to salt-of-the-earth families striving to make the best of terrible misfortunes, but they can also point you to many, many families where the parents engage in appalling behavior, the kids learn from mom and dad, and yet they’re befuddled and angry that they can’t get ahead. 

It’s fascinating the extent to which some of my conservative critics have adopted leftist arguments. I could type all day about the failings of the establishment or the elite (indeed, I’ve written far more about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of America’s cultural elite than any other social class), and my cheering section is vast. To use the Left’s language, that’s “punching up,” and that’s cool and fine. But when I talk about undeniable, rampant problems in America’s working-class, then I’m a meanie. That’s “punching down.”

This is classist nonsense. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” We’re all responsible for our actions, and our income is irrelevant to our moral obligations. We could have the greatest elite in the world, but if America’s poorer citizens can’t stay faithful to their spouses, are indifferent to their academic and work performances, and abuse alcohol and drugs, then their lives will be a struggle — even if we created the big-government, protectionist utopia that the socialist Left and Trump Right seem to crave.

Sadly, however — as Charles Murray notes in Coming Apart — we’re cursed with an elite that won’t preach what it practices. America’s wealthier citizens tend to get married, stay married, stay in school, and attend church at higher rates. Yet, at the same time, they too often publicly embrace and advocate the moral decline of the sexual revolution and the economic dependence of the welfare state. Rather than leading by word and deed, they wrap themselves in their own prosperous cocoon and substitute good wishes for meaningful actions. 

In the United States of America, “You can do better” is a far more compassionate and constructive message than “It’s not your fault.” We’re fallen human beings. We can always do better — rich and poor. We always have responsibilities — rich and poor. Any other message is pure pandering. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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