Joan Walsh grew up in an Irish middle-class family in New York. But she says they went from “Kennedy Democrats to voting for Nixon.” So why did so many working class families defect from the Democratic Party? And why does Walsh think their vision of the American dream has kept the country from becoming “a truly multiracial America”? Joan Walsh joins us to discuss her new book, “What’s the Matter With White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was,” and how she thinks white middle class America will impact the elections.

‘What’s the Matter With White People?’ 24 September,2012forum

Joan Walsh, author and editor-at-large for

  • Mazal Yisreal

    I really believe that most white people suffers from illusions and,that they have been lied to all their lives about the facts of life,and, they don’t understand where most people are coming from becoz they are out of touch with the truth.

  • Rufus

    White people suffer from the same problems that people who are non-white do.
    We should all be very skeptical of people who want to divide Americans along racial lines. If you look closely at their income, often you will find they are paid operatives working on behalf of the criminal 1%.
    We should also be skeptical of people who want to make us all very envious of other people, and make us very greedy. That is a standard technique used by the 1% undermine any socialistic efforts that might achieve justice for the multi-racial 99%.

  • Ayn.Marx.666

    Whether it’s the goods (largely goods-of-the-spirit) attendant to being born white or the money inherited from parents or gained using the means they have provided, a notional ‘possession’ may be defended all the more vehemently for its being largely or fully unearned.

    • Joanne

      Goodness, what a well-worded comment!

    • Historian

      “being born white” and “money inherited from parents or gained using the means they have provided” or not remotely comparable. Plenty of whites (in America & elsewhere) are far more disantvantaged than plenty of non-whites (in America & elsewhere). Being white does not help millions of Americans born & raised in Appalachia or the many depressed towns & villages across the country. My Japanese & Taiwanese-American childhood friends, who have well-paid professional jobs, were & are far more privileged than the local Appalachian whites they grew up with–whom by the way they called “redneck evn though they hated being called racial epithets–, who, underpaid or underemployed, struggle to make ends meet. It’s your kind of blanket generalization, or racism, about “being born white” that stymies efforts to help those in the lower half of the economic ladder (too many alienating and unjustified statements about race, not enough focus on economic policies that hurt those below the median income).

  • Jenny

    In the Northern California Congressional District 1 we have a Republican candidate, Doug LaMalfa, whose campaign posters show a cowboy hat hanging on the tagline: “He’s one of us.” Go figure.

  • Susan

    Thank you for this show: it’s an interesting and important topic.

    I think one of the behind-the-scenes factors shaping white anxiety right now is the demographic shift we’re experiencing. America will soon be majority-minority, and I think that especially for people who have always lived in homogeneously white communities, this seems scary. This anxiety is fostering an us-versus-them mentality, and a weakening of the social compact. There’s a lot less motivation to devote resources toward social support of your fellow citizens if you see them as “them” instead of as “us.”

    • Historian

      The problem with this simplistic analysis is that the economic problems–wage stagnation or even decline–for those in the bottom half of the income ladder –and the increased unwillingness to use government policy to help them started LONG before this demographic shift. Prop 13 and other attempts by the relatively well off to limit their tax burden began in the 1970s, when so-called “whites” were still overwhelmingly the majority. Reagan & his disciples constantly engaged in anti-tax & anti-welfare, wealthy-favoring rhetoric & to a large extent policies during the 1980s, again long before the demographic shft. I remember quite well the 1980s: the decision to write off the US auto & steel industries–because they were supposely not worth saving and “free trade” would supposedly save us. The victims of that were overwhelmingly WHITE non-professionals.

  • Rhet

    To Walsh’s statement “white people better start listening to what’s being said about them”, she is telling us to take a backstabber like her seriously. Backstabbers always demand that. If a liar is lying about you, their words of no value except to the liar who speaks them and the envious fools who believe them.

  • Jim Puskar

    When people are unsuccessful and do not realize the dreams they have aspired to, they always look for someone or something to blame. Sadly, minorities are ready targets, even though they, too, have been denied ‘The American Dream’ by the efforts of the wealthy and powerful. Those same wealthy and powerful people are only too able and willing to convince the white middle class that the problems they face are the fault of ‘those people.’

    • Historian

      Very simplistic. You cannot do away with the laws of supply & demand through wishful thinking. If you have unlimited immigration, wages do go down for the less-skilled & rental prices do go up. (If you don’t understand why, look up prices: supply & demand and marginal product of labor. Rental housing is particarly sensitive to price increases through increased demand because you can’t esaily manufacture new land. And building more just leads to less open space for those who have to rent). However, landowners & capitalists do benefit because they can pay less in wages & charge more for rent. Therefore it’s reasonable for anyone in the lower half of the income level to disapprove of illegal immigration, which is a way to undermine current limits on immigration–and it does not matter what the race of the illegals are. So it’s not a matter of targeting “minorities” (an anchronistic term) It’s basic economics. And it is, in the interest of the “wealthy and powerful people” to “convince” some non-whites& some so-called “liberals” that those against unlimited immigration are simply being racist.

      • Jim

        Straw man alert. Who’s talking about “unlimited immigration?” Answer: Nobody, except in Historian’s imagination.

        • Historian

          Walsh, like many others, says you must provide a “path to citizenship” to all illegals (except presumably the very small number that have committed serious crimes). This is in effect allowing unlimited immigration, since it will not only legalize those who already came illegally but encourage even more illegal immigration. Unless you actually enforce some sort of limits on immigration (and the 1965 Immigration Act had reasonable limits) you in effect have open borders, which is unlimited immigration.

  • Joanne

    Just heard the comment from the Vietnamese-American. I recently had a long conversation over a manicure with the owner of a beauty salon who was Vietnamese. She told me she was going to vote Republican and I asked her why. One of the things she told was that she didn’t understand Obamacare and didn’t see the point of it. I explained to her that under Obamacare, no one would have to worry any more about ending up homeless or worrying about bankruptcy etc. from something like cancer. After much questioning, she finally said to me, that that was impossible. That in America, if someone got cancer, the government would take care of them. When she understood that under current law that that was not the case, and that fact sunk in, she was completely amazed. She told me she was going to talk to all her friends and get them to change her vote.

  • dennis65forum

    In actuality, we are seeing the death of dinosaurs. This is the battle of the bulge for far-right thinking. They are fighting for survival. They will no prevail as we move farther into this new century. It happened in the change from the 19th to 20th Century. It will be a hard time for us all, but the far-right ideology will become extinct.

  • Jim Gensheimer

    Let’s here something about how government welfare programs actually subsidise the low wages paid by businesses. I have a friend who works at a retirement home and she remains on section 8 housing because her job doesn’t pay enough. Yet the fact that she can survive with the subsidy enables the retirement home to get away with paying a low wage.

    • Historian

      I agree that businesses push the costs of people’s basic survival onto taxpayers. I too was paid so little for the jobs I got after college graduation that I needed welfare & foodstamps for 2 years to survive (Section 8 was not available to me due to a long wait list). I’m only off public subsidies because I’m getting child support from a well-paid father: my wages would certainly never cover survival). But the alternative, getting rid of the government safety net and letting the poor simply starve or freeze to death (as in Victorian times) would be far worse. If businesses can get away with paying so little that people need welfare programs to survive it’s because the labor market is glutted for all but a few professional and high tech jobs.
      But the glutted labor market is an issue that the open borders lobby & so called “liberals” like Walsh do not want to discuss, because they are unwilling to put practical curbs on illegal immigration through workplace enforcement. (Listen to her recommendation: providing a path to citizenship for illegals–rather than penalizing employers who hire illegals, which would just encourage more illegal immigration).

  • ed

    walsh she comes across as.. one of the most repulsive guests you had on your show . The word white was invented by the British and during colonial time.the word Caucasian is more appropriate

  • Jon

    Every time Mr Romney mentions his grandfather status, I cannot ignore his obvious desire to ensure that his vast fortune is not taxed when inherited by his heirs. This is an obvious selling point with his target audience.

  • Jenny

    Candidate LaMalfa’s poster is not just an ironic and vaguely offensive statement. I find LaMalfa’s message of “them” and “us” abhorrent, and since LaMalfa’s wealthy rice farming operation has gotten nearly $5 million in federal subsidies, the message of his campaign, “He’s one of us,” not only has racist overtones, but marks him as one of the 1 percent. He is the hand-picked successor of retiring representative Wally Herger, R, (best known as one of Olberman’s “worst person in the world.”) NONE of LaMalfa’s republican primary challengers have endorsed him, (due to dirty tricks now being investigated by the FEC) yet this predominantly working- and middle-class district STILL trends toward voting Republican. Check out his opponent: Democratic tax attorney Jim Reed who is gaining endorsements from disillusioned Republicans. This could be an upset, and deserves a look, but so far is being ignored by the Democratic party.

  • catherine L

    Is there any key narrative useful to remind the pissed off white voters how much everyone benefits from good, affordable public education (community colleges, state and UC), so they can stop attacking it and the teachers, which is a huge distraction in times of giant budget cuts?

  • kira gould

    great topic, great show, and I can’t wait to read this book. It is so refreshing to hear nuanced and intelligent discussions about race and politics and class in the US, especially at a time when the polarization is so vast. THANK YOU, Forum, and Ms. Walsh.

  • Historian

    Walsh confuses “blaming immigrants” with people who do not want unlimited immigration. It not an issue of blaming individuals, but supply & demand. Unlimited immigration, particularly of the less-educated, pushes down wages & conditions & pushes up rental prices, which makes things much worse for lower-income Americans. You cannot undo this unfortunate fact through the wishful thinking of so-called “liberals” & the open borders lobby. On the other hand, unlimited immigration does help land-owners & capitalists, which is why we have so much of it. The race or nationality of immigrants does not matter, but the education level does since less-educated (largely illegal) immigrants & refugees compete with less advantaged Aemericans for the less-skilled jobs & rental housing. The Immigration Act of 1965 was designed to favor skilled & educated but it has been undermined by illegal immigration, since illegals are less educated than Americans. Migrant labor policy, which exempts perishable crop labor from immigration caps, has already made perishable crop agriculture such a poorly paid & horrific job than only those who can support a family in much cheaper foreign countries (mainly Mexico), rather than the much more expensive US, will do it. Legalizing all the illegals (by providing a “path to citizenship ” as Walsh puts it, to illegals) just encourages more illegal immigration., thus making the problem worse.
    The working class America did not become middle-class from 1946-73 simply because we taxed the wealthiest more, as she says, but because the elites agreed to limit immigration, which she neglects to acknowledge. And she herself “demogogues” the issue by implying that eveyone against illegal immigraton is “racist.”

  • SlySy

    I had a similar conversation recently and most of us agreed that it’s easy to be Liberal when you are young, but hard to stay that way when you work, pay bills, have kids, pay mortgages, etc. Once you start to see your salary gutted by taxes that never benefit you, your mind may change.

  • marcos

    The problem is that the Democrats only represent those who are organized to make claims on public transfer payments and only if it does not conflict with their obligations to the plutocracy. The Republicans don’t even pretend to represent average folks but play the emotional game so well that the Democrats can’t compete with their half hearted appeals to rational self interest.

    I could just as easily ask what the problem is with Asian immigrants and their disrespect for the social insurance programs and middle class leisure society that our grandparents’ generation fought for.

    But to the merits, “The Greatest Generation” held tight until the early 1970s when things began to fall apart for them and they jumped ship to become first Nixon’s silent majority and then Reagan Democrats. Their kids came down from their boomer highs and lurched rightwards in the early 1980s as it became clear to them that the post-war boom was over and they wanted to consolidate their advantage.

    The Republicans play to win and play for keeps, the Democrats are just there to take power when the Republicans overreach. When the Republicans win, they attack the Democrats, when the Democrats win, they attack the Democrat base. Fewer and fewer see their political reflection in this Democrat Party that is a cheap reflection of the Republicans.

  • mommy

    I too listened to this program with ambivalence.
    To her credit, Walsh was somewhat nuanced in some of her comments, and I may even agree with her that many in the working class are voting Republican because they fear the coming demographic shift.
    For the record, I’m a lifelong social democrat. I voted and campaigned for Obama in the last election and I will likely do so again.
    However, many of Obama’s policies will further harm the economic prosperity of the country. As other commenters have pointed out, job creation is not keeping up with population increase. Until this country, Obama included, can have an honest discussion about sustainability and what that really means with regard to setting more restrictive immigration policy and policies to encourage family sizes of two or fewer children, our economy will continue to flounder. The notion that we can produce an infinite number of jobs for low skilled workers is clearly faulty, especially in an economy that is ever more mechanized.
    Speaking as a mom, I see the immediate impacts on children of large families. Even upper middle class families generally do not have the time and financial resources to do a good job of parenting when there are four or more children. These children struggle to get their parents attention, struggle for basic resources such as funds to pay for soccer or gymnastics, and flounder in high school because parents do not have the time resources to help them with their homework. If they do manage to get to college, it’s generally at a second tier institution or worse. These kids often end up dropping out for financial reasons.
    The great unspoken fact for Democrats today is that large families are generally born to immigrants. For this reason, without higher immigration since the 1970s, population in the US would have been stable. We would likely not be struggling to the degree that we are with crowding, urban sprall, encroachment on wildlands, lack of housing, unemployment and decline of our health and education system.
    It’s true that an abundance of low wage, low skill immigrants and their children does lower the cost of food, restaurants, construction and even manufacturing. However, the fact that it takes so many immigrants more than two generations to climb the skill ladder means that the overall economy in the US has declined, for almost everyone, not just “white people”, since the 1970’s.
    It doesn’t do well for Democrats to villainize every person who points out the impacts of immigration (legal or otherwise) and over population.

  • Jorge

    “…the emerging white minority”–Joan Walsh

    Can’t wait for my affirmative action goodies and to have bleeding hearts’ champion my cause. Then we’ll all be equal (cough).

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