Paisano Elegy: Ignorance, Aspiration, and the Future of American Politics
March 1, 2017
Working class authenticity is all the rage these days on both sides of the Atlantic. Even before Donald Trump’s campaign re-ignited the fires of empathy for the mythical “white working class,” the runaway popularity of J. D. Vance’s paean to his kith and kin, Hillbilly Elegy, became a touchstone for discussions of the tribulations plaguing the forgotten Americans—in the Rust Belt, in Appalachia, and elsewhere.
Vance himself, whose Horatio Alger path wound from a broken home through the Marine Corps to Yale Law School to a Silicon Valley private equity shop, remembers his former friends and relations with a combination of regret and recrimination. Anecdotes about their failures provide a vividly realized screen upon which to project yet another argument about the state’s proper role (or lack thereof) in helping the less fortunate. His affection for fellow “hillbillies” forces him to chide his newfound colleagues in the meritocratic elite for failing to understand them. Such understanding, however, has little practical impact on his policy prescriptions. His bootstrap homilies and skepticism about government assistance confirm the preferences of conservatives who have applauded his jarring memoir from their secure coastal perches, and sound more marketable in the accents of Appalachia.
Across the Atlantic, advocates of Britain’s departure from the European Union (Brexit) beat the same anti-elitist drum to lend their positions greater street cred. When Michael Gove—newspaper columnist, government minister, product of the UK’s best schools and all-around political expert—dismissed economic concerns about the consequences of Brexit with the disdainful assertion that “people had quite enough of experts,” he offered a textbook example of this appeal in all its incongruous, self-contradictory glory.
Most recently, historian, hedge fund adviser, Davos regular, and jet-setting intellectual Niall Ferguson proclaimed that he was wrong to have been one of those dreaded experts opposing Brexit. Ferguson’s mea culpa partook of the same elite obeisance to regular folks as Gove’s, telling a London audience, “If those of us who were part of the elite spent more time in pubs in provincial England and provincial Wales,” they would have embraced Brexit. Ferguson backed up his change of heart with references to specific EU problems, from its schizophrenic foreign policy to the disasters of the Euro, without really connecting his expert critique to the concerns of the people in those mythical provincial pubs. Asserting his connection to the common folk was enough; explaining it would defeat the purpose of such gut-level appeals. To complete the ensemble, the Daily Mail’s account of the interview included a photo of the rugged Ferguson in jeans and corduroy jacket, without his Magdalen College tie.
One could identify many other examples of this rediscovery of the working class by leaders who themselves have actually spent little time among them, and who use “the working class” as a stalking horse for positions they have already taken. Praise for the common sense of that ill-defined group was once the exclusive property of the political left. Conservatives, however, have embraced this romanticized image with gusto over recent decades, even before Trump pulled it off the carnival midway. It’s an appeal as old as Rousseau, the belief that education and refinement impede understanding by obscuring natural instincts and that one is better off as a political leader by playing on the assumed resentments of the common people against an ill-defined but always sinister educated elite.
Trump and the Leave campaign capitalized bigly on that sentiment. Armies of tweeters and bloggers with names that reference small towns or “flyover country” have seconded them, proclaiming their authenticity and legitimacy by linking themselves to the sturdy people of the soil. It’s a trusty strategy to short circuit policy debates, condemning discussion of details as a tactic of technocratic metropolitan elites. The combination of those old habits of thought with the limitless availability of information on the Internet has fed a suspicion of experts most recently anatomized in Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise, which will be reviewed in these virtual pages soon.
Presumption and artifice in claiming working class authenticity are not new, in politics or any other field of human activity. Nevertheless, there is something especially troubling in the current rush to canonize the common wisdom of the common folk. For one thing, treating the working class as an undifferentiated mass misses the variety of working class experiences. Former factory workers in Lancaster, Ohio are different from agricultural laborers in Mississippi or the urban underemployed in Philadelphia, and their different personal histories, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and attitudes toward the role of the state in their lives mock any simple assertion that one knows what “the working class” wants or needs.
More importantly, being in the working class or showing sympathy for it need not and should not assume hostility to education or new ideas. People in the heartland may detest elite condescension. But elite commentators who think it makes them empathetic to praise common folks for ignorance are displaying a condescension of their own that is no less insulting and destructive.
I come from immigrant stock myself, with a pretty common story: grandparents from Italy, multiple relatives who toiled in factories and paid terrible health prices for it, a father who was the first member of the family to graduate from college. Ivy educated and Ivy employed, I don’t pretend to have the best connections to those “back home.” But I remember enough about where I came from and the people who raised me to recognize a few important things.
My working-class relatives possessed a lot of useful knowledge without the benefit of fancy college degrees, and they could be intensely skeptical about outside experts. At the same time, however, my relatives and neighbors knew very well the importance of knowledge and the value of an education. They were delighted to be able to send their children to better schools, so they could pursue careers as doctors and lawyers and business people (and even college professors). What they lacked in formal education they made up for in aspiration. They warned their children not to lose touch with who we were—advice some of us wish we had heeded more closely. Nevertheless, we were not encouraged to remain stagnant. Authenticity came not from standing still, but from remembering where you came from even as you moved on in search of new success.
That’s the key point. Skepticism about outsiders can be healthy—but it never meant, and still need not mean, hostility to knowledge. My paisans back in Niagara Falls would not like being condescended to by experts who assume they know nothing, but they also would not appreciate being condescended to by other experts who pat them on the head and praise them for knowing little, as if ignorance were a badge of honor. I’m sure plenty of people from my old neighborhood voted for Trump (indeed, Niagara County went for Trump after going for Obama in 2012 and 2008). I’m also sure that few of them have any interest in the future of the European Union. But I can assure you they would recoil at being reduced to props to buttress the political arguments of those they have never met. Nor would they consider it high praise to have some self-important think tank highbrow or investment banker laud them for lacking knowledge of the world beyond Buffalo’s snow belt. Wherever they argued, they would make arguments with reference to information, not simply assume that what is said in a bar is automatically more or less accurate than what is said in a classroom.
Ignorance is not a sin. All of us are ignorant on a great many subjects. But neither is ignorance a virtue. Ignorance is a part of the human condition that we must constantly work to overcome. We are not owed praise for not having learned enough, nor should we be lulled into complacency by self-interested experts who use the rhetoric of common sense to mask political agendas. We should make policy arguments based on knowledge, not short-circuit discussion by claiming that authenticity trumps education. We should aspire to know more about the world, to debate the significance of new knowledge, and to share what we know with the wider community, all with the goal of helping to shape the future for ourselves and our children.
I know this to be true because I learned it from the people who raised me, back in flyover country.