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Joan Walsh Talks With Truthout About What’s the Matter With White People

Joan Walsh. (Photo: New America Media)

Joan Walsh, the former editor of Salon (and now editor at large), has in recent years become the go-to MSNBC commentator on working class issues. Born into an Irish middle class family in New York, she offers a personal and analytical perspective on why so many white working class families defected from the Democratic Party. Her viewpoint on blue collar politics is insightful at a time that the progressive movement is still wrestling with how to rebuild the New Deal coalition in a contemporary format. Get your copy of “What’s the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was” directly from Truthout right now by clicking here. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout.

Mark Karlin: What happened to the high school educated worker, who polls show vote in significant numbers for Republicans, even though the GOP economic policies are damaging to them? Did the Democrats abandon them, or did they abandon the Democrats? You argue that many voted for Obama, but still the siren song of the GOP has been luring this swing group for decades now.

Joan Walsh: I think it’s important to remember this group did support Obama at higher rates than they did John Kerry or Al Gore. So they’re not all hopelessly lost to the Democrats. But I think the obstructionism of Republicans, combined with the president’s seeming more concerned about the banks than the banks’ victims, left a lot of them disappointed, so they swung to the GOP hugely in 2010.

Mark Karlin: One of your most interesting personal anecdotes is your recollection of the hard hat rebellion in New York during an anti-Vietnam War protest decades ago. Can you recount the actual background to that incident (which represented a similar backlash in other cities) and what it represented?

Joan Walsh: White working class men were already feeling the early rumbles of deindustrialization. And they were also angry and resentful at the youth revolt. Some of it was patriotism – they couldn’t stand to see the flag or the president disrespected. Some were veterans. Some were just angry that college kids who got chances they never had turned out to be so ungrateful! The Hard Hat Riot of 1970 followed a peaceful protest near New York City Hall, after four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State University May 4. By all accounts, it wasn’t a rowdy or angry or at all violent gathering, but a little ways into it, about 200 construction workers from the World Trade Center site came charging up the street with flags, and they began beating some of the protesters with their hard hats.

My father was there as a protester, and he thought he saw his brother, a steamfitter, among the rioters. He fled and went back to his office and to my knowledge they never spoke about it.

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Mark Karlin: Do you sometimes find it odd that college educated progressives speak out on behalf of whites (and minorities) who are experiencing economic decline, while many of those same whites may resent the progressives as elitists who are only interested in multi-culturism and helping out non-whites?

Joan Walsh: I write in the book about a long history of “educated” elite reformers approaching the white poor and working class – particularly my people, Irish Catholics – as dirty, backwards people, and often seeming more interested in the rights of minorities and women, not those white workers, who we can sometimes act like they created and deserve their fate. So I’m not always sure that “we” college educated progressives do deal well with the white working class.

Mark Karlin: Which brings us to the issue of race. I just read an opinion piece that Romney will need 61% of the white vote to win, given a turnout of non-whites somewhere below 2008 but above 2010. To what extent do many white middle, blue collar and elderly whites vote Republican because of their perception – egged on by GOP campaigns – that the Democrats represent giveaways to minorities. I am thinking, particularly of the poor whites in Appalachia who vote Republican year after year. I recall reading a Washington Post article about a dirt poor rural white county in Kentucky, where I think darn near everyone received some sort of government aid. The county would literally die without the federal government. Yet, the residents voted overwhelmingly Republican.

Joan Walsh: It’s the most vexing thing. They either don’t see what they get as government help, or they think they don’t get enough, or they feel shame that they get the help, and believe that some private sector miracle worker will create opportunity for them. And yes, since the 60s the GOP appeal has been that government is giving YOUR money to THOSE people, so that government help is only defined as the tiny welfare programs that go to the poorest of the poor.

Mark Karlin: Speaking of race, you also talk about the complexities of the issue. For instance, you write of the vaunted – though now economically needy – University of California system, where whites are in the minority and Asian-Americans surpassing them. California is also the first large state where whites are now in the minority of the population. Given that it is America’s largest state, that is quite a significant milestone. Your thoughts on this?

Joan Walsh: To me, it means two things. Our old binary black-white model of race relations has to change. It doesn’t fit a world in which Latinos and Asians are the fastest growing “minority.” And I think we also have to realize that our “whites on top” model of economic and power relationships isn’t always true, either. Of course whites for the most part remain on top, and yet a lot of whites are struggling and to always bring the message that they are the ones with all the advantage – no wonder they tune progressives out.

Mark Karlin: What lessons did you learn coming of age in “Nixonland”?

Joan Walsh: I learned that the 60s was very scary, even for liberals, even for African American families at times. Three presidents were toppled before I turned 16 – Kennedy by assassination, Johnson by the anti-war movement (he decided not to run for re-election in ’68,) and Nixon by his own crimes. The assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were terrifying. Crime did go up, divorce rates did too. The violent fringe of the anti-war movement was nihilistic and terrifying. I think liberals too often act like the 60s were a golden age where we righted wrongs and where all the social change we made was good. It would help to acknowledge the turmoil and division that we’re still living with.

Mark Karlin: You wrote for awhile for the leftist “In These Times,” located in Chicago, and you were there when Harold Washington was elected against a Republican candidate who ran a vitriolic campaign that incited white mobs of hate. You speak of one moment where Walter Mondale, in town to support Washington, faced the most menacing group of protestors (anti-Washington whites) that he had encountered. Was this the same smoldering fear, resentment and bitterness that many working class Irish showed, for instance, when busing was ordered to desegregate the Boston schools many years back?

Joan Walsh: You look at some of the photos and they could be the same people – the anger and hate in the faces. Yes, I was ashamed of my people in Boston, and I was even more ashamed in Chicago. But I was profoundly moved and inspired by the multiracial movement behind Harold Washington. In many ways he’s why Barack Obama is president.

Mark Karlin: I was up in Wisconsin just before the unsuccessful Scott Walker recall vote and read many polls afterwards. A third of union households voted to keep Walker in office and he received the overwhelming majority of votes from high school educated whites. Isn’t this representative of a successful Republican effort to pit workers against each other?

Joan Walsh: I think it is. I also think, with hindsight (though I supported the recall) that we should have paid more attention to the 70 percent of people who thought the recall should only be deployed in a case of clear wrongdoing. Maybe it was a bar too high to get over.

Mark Karlin: You write, “One party, my own, has lost its spine, the other lost its mind.” That’s a pretty bleak picture. Did the Wisconsin uprising and Occupy Wall Street give you any hope of populist change? If I recall correctly, you consider yourself a person who believes in change with the party, rather than being an insurrectionist.

Joan Walsh: I hate people wishing that Occupy or other populist movements would just join the Democratic Party. It’s condescending. But …I wish more of them would work with the left of the Democratic Party. I was stunned at Occupy Oakland when I watched them shut down speakers and leaders who had any ties to Democrats, while refusing to condemn – and actually empowering – violent anarchists and nihilists who were more about terrorizing non-Occupy folks than about changing society.

Mark Karlin: The subtitle for your book is very intriguing: “Why we long for a golden age that never was?” Wouldn’t many argue that the 1950’s were the golden age economically for middle-class white America?

Joan Walsh: Oh it absolutely was a golden age for middle class white America. I acknowledge that in the book. But it wasn’t a golden age for everyone, and maybe not even for most people, so I think our nostalgia about it is dangerous, it relegates women and people who aren’t white to second-class status. That’s what the GOP convention in Tampa was all about. They will ultimately fail, but they can cause a lot of sorrow before they leave the stage.

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