Elizabeth Catte is right that the media treated Donald Trump voters as a group needing to be explained. Pundits in search of a grand narrative found it in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016). It helped that Vance had escaped the great rural unknown to attend Yale Law School and work in Silicon Valley. His memoir told the story of a dysfunctional family that could, some thought, stand for all of Appalachia—and by extension, all white working-class Americans trapped in dying cities or rural wastelands.
Vance’s book received praise from both liberals and conservatives. For Republicans, it was a tale of self-reinvention and self-reliance: he refused to blame the state for his family’s troubles and claimed, in the end, that his mother had only herself to blame for her addiction. The message was simple: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. For liberals and progressives, Vance painted a picture of an alien world of rural whites trapped in false consciousness and a spiral of self-destructive tendencies. Theirs was a broken culture that required diagnosis. By turning Hillbilly Central—West Virginia—into Trump Country, the media did what they usually do, reducing the complicated history of a diverse region into a snappy sound bite of white rage.
Throughout the 2016 election season, the faces of that Trumpian anger were charged-up men in trucker hats and women in T-shirts chanting “Lock her up.” Trump tapped into class resentments, bragging about his love for the “poorly educated.” If Washington elites were privileged insiders, mired in the tax-producing swamp, his supporters were the real Americans, the hardworking majority.
The stark irony of it all was that an avowed multi-billionaire had stepped down from his New York City penthouse and found a formula that enabled him to forge a bond with the masses. The national media coded Trump’s base as the working-class “other”—white trash, rednecks, hillbillies. It was supposed to be an identity that skimmed, even ignored, real economic issues—the embodiment of vague “economic anxiety” (a diagnosis laden with psychological baggage), as if the wound was self-inflicted and detached from the nation’s long history of class oppression and division.
The 2018 midterm elections suffer from simplistic characterization as well. The whopping victory for Democrats in Congress foretells a new “year of the woman,” we have been told. True, a diverse array of female faces were sworn in, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx has become the poster child for a new socialist-inspired movement. Yet much of the media seems incapable of seeing that gender and class are not exclusive categories. As Catte shows us, Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist message resonates beyond hip cafés in Brooklyn; socialism has a long history of influence in the South as well. Though not a member of the Socialist Party of America, Louisiana’s Huey Long, Jr., was not a good-old-boy populist who came out of nowhere. His “Share Our Wealth” program of the Great Depression echoed what left-leaning southern progressives were promoting in the 1930s. But Americans have short historical memories. Catte reminds us that West Virginia, like rural America’s political past more broadly, is not to be boiled down to the simple catch-all of a “red state” mentality.
I would add two troubling trends to Catte’s diagnosis of the present. One is the rejection of class as a factor in Trump’s election. Dan Balz and Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, for example, have discounted assessments that say economic concerns mattered. Referring to the argument made by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck in their book Identity Crisis (2018), Balz approvingly declared this past September that “race, religion, gender and ethnicity” were the “driving forces” behind people’s votes, especially white voters. Class identity doesn’t even make the list, as if class doesn’t produce an identity.
The other trend since the midterms has been the desire to make Ocasio-Cortez the most visible symbol of the blue wave. The cult of celebrity is built into U.S. political DNA—the one thing that George Washington, Eugene Debs, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all had in common was star power—and it is not easily defanged. But I would like to see other progressive women get media attention, such as Sharice Davids, the LGBT Native American attorney from Kansas. There is also a lesson to be learned from Catte’s example of Virginian organizer Nic Smith, whose appearance in viral videos has helped to revive the important New Deal and Great Society message that poor people in rural coal country are suffering because they do not own the land. As he said in an interview in 2017, the way to beat Trump is to follow the example of JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson. “They went to coal towns and said, ‘We’re here. And we give a shit.’” But where is Smith now? The media have moved on to new faces.
I also have less faith than Catte about the ability of rural voters to revive their socialist heritage by drawing on family and generational memories. Memory is not immune to distortion. West Virginian and former Army major Richard Ojeda demonstrates this trap, and Catte is right to point out the limitations in seeing him as a “novelty” candidate. He is appealing precisely because he fits the conventional masculine image of a rural populist and labor leader. Like all Americans, West Virginians are still conditioned by gendered expectations, and the blue wave did not wash them away. Mother Jones would not stand a chance of getting elected today.
As a historian, I cannot honestly romanticize any past political tradition. Political theorist Corey Robin may say that among today’s socialists “you’ll hear less the language of poverty than of power,” but U.S. party politics has always indulged in exaggerated rhetoric. It is not enough to get voters excited. I would like to see socialists, Democrats, and the media do more to discuss the difficulty of translating practical social problems into viable political solutions. Achieving political change through legislative victories is an arduous process, and optimistic messaging is not enough.
Socialism can and should inform this work, but we must do more than look to the past. Socialism’s influence has not been uniform, after all, even in the United States; Huey Long’s vision is vastly different from that of feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Democratic candidates must address how our society distributes resources unequally when it comes to education, health care, safe neighborhoods, economic incentives, tax breaks, infrastructure, and the environment. A single socialist game plan may not easily bridge the urban and rural: Bernie Sanders (who represents predominantly rural Vermont) and Kirsten Gillibrand (when she represented a rural New York district) were outliers among Democrats on gun control. Sanders’s views on race have also remained trapped in 1960s rhetoric about the “ghetto” (which helps to explain why most black women voters sided with Hillary Clinton). My point is that socialism has some serious blind spots in addressing today’s issues that cannot draw on history for answers.
We don’t just need new faces; we need more honesty about how class shapes the lives of everyone. Democrats must confront class blindness with the same tough talk they demand in exposing racial or gender prejudice.