Backlash Forever (Review Essay)Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, book reviews, class, Hard Hat Riot, Working class politics
The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution
by David Paul Kuhn
Oxford University Press, 2020, 416 pp.
Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality
by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
Liveright, 2020, 288 pp.
When a young Chuck Schumer arrived at Harvard in 1967 as a freshman, he joined the great political stirring of those years—who could resist it? But Abbie Hoffman he was not. “I was faced with what Alexander Hamilton called mobocracy,” Schumer recalled in his coauthored 2007 book Positively American. He became a College Democrat, canvassed for Eugene McCarthy, and eschewed the radicals. Campus members of the New Left’s Progressive Labor faction horrified him, and he felt “sickened” seeing protesters scream at cops. “The police weren’t pigs. They were the people I’d grown up with. They were my neighbors. My friends. They were the Baileys [imaginary Irish-American Long Islanders with whom Schumer consults on decisions].” Soon enough, Schumer’s party—the College Dems and, of course, their friends the non-college Dems—would pay the price. “By the late ’70s,” Schumer observed, “the Baileys did not trust the Democrats anymore, and the Democrats weren’t listening to the Baileys.”
Despite decades of doting on the Baileys of Massapequa, the senator never figured out how to win them back: in 2016, he tells us, Joe Bailey voted for Donald Trump. Although 1968 is now closer in time to the Russian Revolution than to our moment, the backlash still rules: the Silent Majority, the Reagan Democrats, the Kansans who have something the matter with them, Joe the Plumber, the elegized hillbilly, the Rust Belt diner patrons, Joe Bailey. At each election, these archetypes of the white working class line up for the unrepentant oligarchs of the Republican Party.
How did the Democrats lose the Baileys? Two new books are the latest to take on the question: David Paul Kuhn’s The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution uses narrative history to make an argument that has been recited so often since the late 1960s that it has taken on a ritualistic quality: to be American is not enough, one must be positively so. Fail to perform the proper rites of patriotic adoration, and the Cossacks will come riding in on the Long Island Expressway, pillaging and burning. This is ersatz class analysis, which passes off the most privileged fraction of the working class as a stand-in for the whole. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality traverses somewhat similar territory. Taking a more serious approach, these eminent political scientists see Trump as the result of a crisis of the historic compromise between elites and democracy, and the phenomenon of rank-and-file support for oligarchy as a kind of politics of distraction. Though more clear-headed, their book, too, rests on mechanical assumptions about the relationship between class and political behavior.
It’s time to abandon this story, which assumes both that workers have a “natural” home on the center-left, yet also that social conservatism always lies latent within working-class culture, available for the right-wing politician ready to activate it. Rather, the establishment of working-class solidarity in industrializing societies between roughly 1870 and 1970 was the deliberate effort of the countless militants and activists who turned a shared social experience into a common political orientation. Certainly, the defeat of the workers’ movement in the decades since has been aided by the fanning of the flames of cultural grievance. But while this reversal has benefited elites and the culture-warrior right-wing politicians they own, others too have stood to gain.