Anybody who spends time in the working-class parts of America (and, one presumes, Britain) notices the contagions of drug addiction and suicide, and the feelings of anomie, cynicism, pessimism and resentment.
Part of this pain arises from deindustrialization. Good jobs are hard to find. But hardship is not exactly new to these places. Life in, say, a coal valley was never a bouquet of roses.
What’s also been lost are the social institutions and cultural values that made it possible to have self-respect amid hardship — to say, “I may not make a lot of money, but people can count on me. I’m loyal, tough, hard-working, resilient and part of a good community.”
We all have a sense of what that working-class honor code was, but if you want a refresher, I recommend J.D. Vance’s new book “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance’s family is from Kentucky and Ohio, and his description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.
He describes a culture of intense group loyalty. Families might be messed up in a million ways, but any act of disloyalty — like sharing personal secrets with outsiders — is felt acutely. This loyalty culture helps people take care of their own, but it also means there can be hostility to those who want to move up and out. And there can be intense parochialism. “We do not like outsiders,” Vance writes, “or people who are different from us, whether difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”
It’s also a culture that values physical toughness. It’s a culture that celebrates people who are willing to fight to defend their honor. This is something that progressives never get about gun control. They see a debate about mass murder, but for many people guns are about a family’s ability to stand up for itself in a dangerous world.
It’s also a culture with a lot of collective pride. In my travels, you can’t go five minutes without having a conversation about a local sports team. Sports has become the binding religion, offering identity, value, and solidarity.
Much of this pride is nationalistic. Vance’s grandparents, he writes, “taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood.”
When I lived in Brussels, this sort of intense personal patriotism was simply not felt by the people who ran the E.U., but it was felt by a lot of people in the member states.
This honor code has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes. There’s some truth to this, as the reactions of smug elites to the Brexit vote demonstrate.
But the honor code has also been decimated by the culture of the modern meritocracy, which awards status to the individual who works with his mind, and devalues the class of people who work with their hands.
Most of all, it has been undermined by rampant consumerism, by celebrity culture, by reality-TV fantasies that tell people success comes in a quick flash of publicity, not through steady work. The sociologist Daniel Bell once argued that capitalism would undermine itself because it encouraged hedonistic short-term values for consumers while requiring self-disciplined long-term values in its workers. At least in one segment of society, Bell was absolutely correct.
There’s now a rift within the working class between mostly older people who are self disciplined, respectable and, often, bigoted, and parts of a younger cohort that are more disordered, less industrious, more celebrity-obsessed, but also more tolerant and open to the world.
Trump (and probably Brexit) voters are in the first group. They are not poor, making on average over $70,000 a year. But they perceive that their grandchildren’s world is quickly coming apart.
From 1945 to 1995, conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future. Liberals emphasized multilateral institutions and conservatives emphasized free trade. Either way, the future would be global, integrated and multiethnic.
But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective and segmented.
Their pain is indivisible: economic stress, community breakdown, ethnic bigotry and a loss of social status and self-worth. When people feel their world is vanishing, they are easy prey for fact-free magical thinking and demagogues who blame immigrants.
We need a better form of nationalism, a vision of patriotism that gives dignity to those who have been disrespected, emphasizes that we are one nation and is confident and open to the world. I’m thinking we have a lot to learn from Theodore Roosevelt, but that’s a topic for another day.