While doing fieldwork in Tennessee for his eye-opening and often harrowing new book, Dying of Whiteness, Vanderbilt University Professor Jonathan M. Metzl met Trevor. A 40-something-year-old former cab driver (who used to “party pretty hard”), Trevor needed a walker to get around; his skin was “yellow with jaundice” from hepatitis C and an inflamed liver. Trevor is dying, yet he is opposed to the Affordable Care Act, even though it would provide him with the medical care he needs and can’t afford. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he explains to Metzl. “I would rather die. We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, scholars and commentators worked overtime to understand people just like Trevor: to explain their anti-statism as well as the near certainty of their support for Trump. Some crunched poll numbers and turnout reports. Others turned to Thomas Frank and the thesis developed in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Repackaging the Marxian concept of false consciousness, Frank argued in his trademark witty, cosmopolitan, sometimes condescending voice that conservative politicians distracted working-class voters from their economic self-interest with endless talk of abortion and affirmative action. In other words, these officeholders and candidates stoked the fires of the cultural wars while passing legislation that stuffed the pockets of the rich with cash and pushed the rest of the nation deeper into poverty and despair.
Metzl, along with the qualitative social scientists Francesco Duina and Robert Wuthnow, rejected this approach as well as its tone and analysis. Like Arlie Hochschild, author of the award-winning book Strangers in Their Own Land, and others in a growing anti-Frank camp, Metzl, Dunia, and Wuthnow each tried to get to really know their subjects and what motivated them at the polls by spending time with them on the ground, in their small towns and blue-collar enclaves in flyover states and other out-of-the-way places. Based on these conversations, the authors insist that poor, working-class, and lower middle-class whites—though it isn’t always clear in the books who belongs to what class category and why—aren’t being duped. They aren’t voting against their economic interests because they have been misled. They haven’t, as Frank maintained, been enlisted in an endless series of meaningless cultural skirmishes in order to divert their attention from what really matters: paychecks, benefits, and household budgets.(
Posted by The non-Conformist