The New Minority, Justin Gest [Review]

Like many people, in the aftermath of the election I discovered a keen interest in the reasons why so many White Americans had voted for Donald Trump. This followed from one of two puzzles that gripped me at about 8:30 pm Eastern time on 11/8. The first was, “How could Hillary lose?” The second, and the one more pertinent here, was “How could so many people vote for Trump?”

These questions have fueled two quite different reading agendas. Justin Gest’s compelling, excellent The New Minority fits comfortably into the second one. And I want to underscore how important the distinction is. Even had Trump lost, the question of how so many people voted for Trump should have dominated academic political science in the aftermath. To sum this up with “racism” or “classism” or “partisanship” is merely to label the unknown and pretend the labeling constitutes an answer. Exactly how does identity play into a vote for someone so manifestly unqualified? Exactly why would racism prove compatible with voting for Obama over Romney but Trump over Clinton? And why did Trump’s appeal resonate so much with people who had almost nothing in common with him? Nothing is so bizarre, then or now, as the spectacle of the disaffected, the marginal, the left out coming together in solidarity with the penthouse billionaire.

The answers to these questions will be different than the question of why Hillary lost. Nor does investigating this question require focusing on the politics of the white working class to the exclusion of Blacks, LGBT Americans, or immigrants. The surprising political power and the massive shift of this group make it worthy of study–not least because perhaps nobody, including themselves, thought that they mattered very much until the upheaval of 2016. One of Gest’s lessons is that had more work been done to integrate such perspectives earlier that the conditions for the calamity might not have occurred.

Gest, like the more famous Arlie Hochschild and Kathy Cramer, has been seeking the answer to these questions for a long time. Indeed, all three of these authors are to be commended for having noticed the crucial shift in the tectonic plates of American politics before anyone except them–and Donald Trump–did.

Gest’s book is methodologically and theoretically distinct from Strangers in Their Own Land or The Politics of Resentment. His biggest innovation is to put the story of how the American white working class makes meaning from politics in comparative context (in this case, with the analogous social formation of the United Kingdom). Gest combines ethnographic, historical, and quantitative work in an impressive synthesis that demands more attention from the field–and the general public–than it has received.

From these methods, Gest arrives at a conclusion that is all the more profound for its banality:

Ultimately, contrary to conventional portrayals, white working class voters are rational. They seek representatives who care about their grievances. They seek platforms that act on these grievances. And they respond to parties and organizations that invest in them with time, resources, and candidates. This is not different from any other sector of the electorate. The difference is that, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, social and economic forces have isolated the white working class as a political constituency, to the extent that many in this demographic feel like a peripheral afterthought in a country they once defined.

Gest, I think, nails almost everything relevant in this discussion. The lone qualification is that it is not clear why, given these factors, members of the white working class who chose to engage in politics disproportionately sided with the Trump administration (or, in the UK, with UKIP and before them the British National Party). Gest has an answer–that the social distancing between party elites and the white working class opened a door for political entrepreneurs in the stripes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump–and with that bit of context the explanation hangs together.

Gest arrives at this conclusion by spending time in working-class neighborhoods in London and in Youngstown, Ohio. There, he finds that the “deep story” (in Hochschild’s words) that the WWC has told itself is bleak.

In 2007, Barking and Dagenham’s borough Council administered a survey to several hundred residents. It asked, ‘What can we do to make Barking and Dagenham better?’ According to Council administrators, the most common answer was, ‘Make it like it used to be 50 years ago.’ The average white resident could not conceive of progress coming from the future. (p. 53)

Even in the supposedly more optimistic United States, Gest’s respondents evinced despair. As Gest notes, residents of declined (they are no longer “declining”) industrial towns like Youngstown live in a physical environment that bespeaks their towns’ past industrial greatness–and, incidentally, celebrated a local civic identity (one often imbricated with racial performances, of course). Now, the decay of that environment seems to mock the residents’ hopes for a return–however much the Youngstowners continue to believe that some new development (when Gest visited, it was fracking) would save them.

The common thread is that both the UK and the US white working class respondents expressed a sense that they had been thrown out of the central part of their national identity–in the UK, by immigrants; in the US, by the elite and racial minorities. Symbolic performances of those groups were held to have displaced the white working class. The feeling of displacement was reinforced by the seeming inattention of politicians–and by the failure of government to deliver on the promises of the good life that both British and American respondents associated with that mythical era of “fifty years ago.”

Gest’s job is not to evaluate the objective veracity of these claims, but to document their felt reality. And they feel real. Indeed, much of what he writes jibes not only with other accounts (for instance, George Packer’s The Great Unraveling, in addition to the Hochschild and Cramer books) but also my own experience as a recent itinerant in the declined industrial regions of central Pennsylvania and western Massachusetts. In such regions, the critical Vonnegut question–“What are people for?”–seems harder to answer than it did in Brooklyn (to be fashionable and elite), in DC (to be powerful), in Qatar (to be part of a family and an ummah), or in the America I still remember from the 1980s (to be better, however that was defined). Neither the economy nor politics nor the culture celebrated those places–and the hurt of that abandonment is practically palpable even in the cheerfulest new bakeries located in what used to be the town-defining textile mill.

Gest captures, in unflinching detail, this self-portrait of increasing marginality–a portrait, he notes, that is as much invention as depiction, given that the good times were never so good and the marginality of these cohorts is greatly exaggerated. Inter alia, he describes the process by which members of such communities can be–there is really no other word for it–radicalized; he also describes the far more common process by which vastly greater fractions of these communities simply opt out of politics. Both are relevant. Both demand more scholarly attention. And both cry out for practical action.

If you have read the Cramer and/or the Hochschild book, you may think that you have read what you need. You should add this book. If you haven’t read anything about this group yet, you should start here.