Joan Walsh grew up in what she thought was “the last generation for whom our nation kept its promises.” But it hadn’t. (More)

What’s the Matter with White People, Part I: The Golden Age That Never Was

This week Morning Feature considers Joan Walsh’s new book What’s the Matter with White People? – Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was. Today we look at her childhood myths of a post-World War II working class golden age. Tomorrow we’ll see how the 1960s and 70s splintered the New Deal coalition that had been the Democratic Party’s base. Saturday we’ll conclude with how that base began to reform during the George W. Bush era, and how Democrats can knit that still-fragile coalition more closely for the future.

Joan Walsh became Salon‘s first full-time news editor in 1998 and editor in chief in 2005. At the end of 2010 she became the site’s editor at large, to write full-time. Before joining Salon, she worked as a journalist, as a legislative staffer for the California Assembly, and as a policy consultant on education, community development, and urban poverty issues.

Divided We Squabble

Joan Walsh hit political bottom in August of 2011. As Republicans continued to hold the nation’s credit rating hostage over the debt ceiling, Real Time host Bill Maher asked Walsh if Hillary Clinton – whom Walsh backed in the 2008 primaries – would have been a more effective president. Walsh could not find an answer, and sat mutely as Neil DeGrasse Tyson stepped in to say he thought Clinton would have negotiated better with Congress. She describes the moment as “great television and great politics: the African American scientist backed the white lady Democrat when the white lady pundit would not.”

Amidst stubbornly high unemployment – with Republicans determined to gut community support for hardworking families and give still more favors to billionaires and big corporations – Walsh wondered why Democratic discussions of politics had once more devolved into identity politics, and why divisions over race so often trumped what should be a unified coalition of “the 99%.” The roots of that division, Walsh learned in researching her book, lay deeper than the “Southern strategy” of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.

An Irish Family Fairy Tale

In childhood, her father had talked of their “black Irish” heritage: descendents of Spanish immigrants to the Emerald Isle, many exiled as indentured servants in the Caribbean and American colonies, others forced into servitude to pay the cost of fleeing the potato famine for the United States. The Irish had fought proudly to flee African-American slaves in the Civil War, she was told, and had welcomed into Irish-Catholic neighborhoods the tens of thousands of black Americans who fled poverty and Klan violence in the south for jobs and hope in northern cities. After World War II, government helped returning soldiers pay for college and buy homes, and the post-war economic boom created the largest middle class in history.

But then, some in Walsh’s family and many other Americans believed, the urban unrest of the 1960s shattered the dream. Working class whites fled crime-ridden cities. They watched factories close and wages stagnate, while their taxes went to support people who would not work for themselves. They saw their kids taken out of local schools and bused across town to meet court-ordered integration plans.

Under the New Deal, the story went, Democrats had taxed the few to help the many. Under the Great Society, it seemed, Democrats taxed the many to help the few. The Democrats had become the of party of minorities, feminists, LGBT activists, Hollywood limousine liberals, and Ivy League do-gooders. They no longer cared about the plight of working class whites, and dismissed any objections as ignorance and racism.

Many in Walsh’s extended family believed that story and, along with millions of other white working class voters, began backing Republicans. The New Deal was over. It was time to get government off our backs.

Fact-Checking the Fairy Tale

The truth was far more nuanced. Yes, African slaves and Irish indentured servants had lived side by side and even intermarried, until wealthy whites saw the potential of a coalition that might upset their grip on power. They played the poor off against each other, enacting miscegenation laws and reminding the Irish that indentured servitude was temporary if they paid off their debts, while black slaves served for life.

Many poor Irish, understandably, claimed whatever privileges they could to lift themselves and their children up from desperation. They formed neighborhood gangs, some of which evolved into early police forces, and worked their way into northern city governments where they distributed jobs and other benefits to family members. When the Union instituted the wartime draft in 1863 – with the wealthy able to buy exemptions for $300 each – Irish neighborhoods in New York City erupted into bloody rioting. As stories of that horror spread and seeded yet more upper class contempt, many working class Irish wrapped themselves in a defensive cloak of hyperpatriotism, as they would again during the Hard Hat Riot of 1970. Joan Walsh’s father would watch in helpless dismay as Irish construction workers – including one of his brothers, family stories say – attacked anti-war demonstrators.

Nor was the rosy story of Irish welcoming black Americans into northern cities always true. Race riots were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most often born of working class white resentment during economic downturns. The rise of organized labor did help the working class, but Walsh documents a sad history of minorities shut out from many of the largest and most powerful unions.

Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of using race as a wedge against class played on deeply-rooted patterns and habits. In hard times, far too often, the response of those at the edge of poverty is to kiss up and kick down. As we’ll see tomorrow, that same pattern helped build the modern Republican Party.

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Happy Thursday!