Michael Brendan Dougherty has taken up the lance against elitists who castigate white working-class men for their self-destructive attachment to Donald Trump. Dougherty went after a Kevin Williamson piece in National Review that called Trump’s working-class supporters “economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government.” Dougherty contended this was nothing more than an “example of the official right’s condescension toward the suckers in Garbutt or Chicopee.”
“Garbutt” is Garbutt, New York. “Chicopee,” unless Dougherty meant a couple of small villages in Kansas or Georgia, is actually Chicopee, Massachusetts, a small city in the lower Connecticut Valley. Like most of New England, it’s taken a lot of hard punches from de-industrialization. It’s had its share of problems, and it is in fact home to a lot of disaffected white working-class voters.
I should know, because I’m actually from Chicopee. If Dougherty is trying to help, I wish he’d stop.
The Working Class Isn’t a Lost Cause
I’m a product of the white, male working class Dougherty talks about. With the help of the kinds of institutions and emotions liberals now despise (including a fear of the cops and a commitment to religion), I made it to college. I worked for the Chicopee state representative in the Massachusetts House, voted there until I was nearly 30, owned property there until just a few years ago, and buried my parents there. My brother and my closest childhood friends still live there.
It is because I am a son of the working class, and because I am from Chicopee, that I am so hard on the working-class men who support Trump. I know them, and I know they could be better than the scummy politics to which Trump tempts them. Dougherty’s argument, sadly, is shot through with the sense of victimhood and helplessness that is usually the hallmark of liberals and which destroyed so much of post-industrial Massachusetts in the first place.
The guys in Chicopee, like working-class men anywhere, can be a rough bunch. But they’re not the lost cause Dougherty seems to think they are:
The conservative movement has next to zero ideas for improving the life of the typical opioid dependent who lives in Garbutt, New York, outside of Rochester. Let’s call him Mike.
Maybe they will make a child tax credit refundable against payroll taxes for Mike. He could get a voucher for a private school, but there aren’t many around and he can’t make up the difference in tuition costs anyway. In truth, the conservative movement has more ideas for making Mike’s life more desperate, like cutting off the Social Security Disability check he’s been shamefacedly receiving. It’s fibromyalgia fraud, probably.
And Williamson is the condescending one? Dougherty juxtaposes “Mike” against an equally inane prototype of an establishment GOPer named “Jeffrey,” a rich “coke-sniffer” from Westport, Connecticut. He’s obviously using caricatures to make a point, but still: cokehead capitalists in Westport and hillbilly heroin junkies from Chicopee? Please.
Dougherty Says Admit Defeat and Join the Left
In an earlier time, the working men of Chicopee—and Garbutt, and Bridgeport, and Keene, and a thousand other places—could resist this kind of doomed call to class warfare. They were part of a culture of civic virtue and religious faith that held impulses like victimhood, entitlement, and social revenge in check. They lived, not always happily, subject to a self-imposed code of obligation to their families, rather than drowning in self-absorbed grudge-nursing.
Today, working-class men (and women) are more susceptible to those appeals because they and their children have been seduced by welfare-statism, marinated in a therapeutic culture of excuses, and surrounded by the wreckage of small-town values that finally imploded under attack by leftist elites. They have been told, repeatedly, that their concerns are nothing more than racism and sexism, and that they should shut up. This makes them prime targets for hucksters like Trump or upscale socialist fantasy-peddlers like Bernie Sanders.
Dougherty’s advice to white working-class men in all this? Go with it. It’s your time, and none of this is your fault. Screw those guys. Get yours.
Is that the answer? To turn the Republican Party and the conservative movement itself into Trump’s angry, bastardized version of the Democratic Party? Instead of telling men to stop fleecing the disability system, to kick their addiction, to be fathers to their children, to get a job no matter how low or unappealing it is, and to stick with it until you get a better one, Dougherty plays the same condescending, bitter card of victimhood and entitlement that liberals use all the time.
These Voters Want Spoils of Political War
There’s no shame in saying that working-class men and women are not highly educated or sophisticated. They would be the first to tell you so. But that makes it damned hard for them to go up against the clever, self-indulgent messages crafted by a charlatan from Manhattan whose whole life has been pissing away his father’s inheritance while sticking his name on products only chumps would buy. Conservatives are supposed to help people avoid those traps, not mark the path to them in Day-Glo paint.
The best candidates of any party in a republic convince people to give them the benefit of the doubt and to let them take a crack at problems that voters have to admit they themselves cannot really understand in all their complexity.
Dougherty, however, blames Republicans for focusing on overly complicated or esoteric issues—that is, for actually running as though they want to govern the country next year. Instead, his advice is to get down to “Mike’s” level, and to tell him what he wants to hear. That’s not a campaign, that’s pandering, and no Republican will ever beat a Democrat at it.
So what would win among these working-class voters? Most of the people I grew up with were lifelong Democrats who voted first for Ronald Reagan, then split among Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, later went over to Al Gore and John Kerry, and finally to Barack Obama.
The fact that Chicopee is a blue city that would now likely support Trump should tell you what you need to know: that Williamson is right and Dougherty is wrong. These are not small-government conservatives waiting to be led in an uprising against the welfare state, but working-class men and their families continually voting for big-government Democratic candidates on liberal promises of more stuff and more money.
Conservatism Fights, Not Feeds, Envy
That’s why Dougherty’s view, that the GOP has to work harder to get those votes through the rank temptations of populism, will result in yet more corrosive appeals to the worst instincts of the working class. Rather than treating them as adults and challenging them to embrace a conservatism like the ones their fathers—even as Democrats—once supported, Dougherty merely encourages white, working-class men to continue down the road of voting for watery socialism, only this time under the guise of populism, with candidates who echo their gripes louder and louder like a chorus of tuning forks trying to shatter a rack of glasses.
Not only will this kind of liberalism-as-angry-populism eventually lose in places like Chicopee to a real liberal like Hillary Clinton, it will lose while reinforcing the debilitating notion that everything is someone else’s fault, that the economy is whatever you’d like it to be, that the state exists only as a redistributive game, and that family values are for saps.
This is worse than Know-Nothingism; it’s Know-Nothingism practiced by someone who actually Knows Something. Dougherty is an intelligent man who should know better. Condescension, bitter identity politics, and social resentment are the hallmarks of modern liberalism, not of mature conservatism. They will always lead the poor to dependency and the working class to penury. I’m sure he means well in taking up this kind of defense of the working class, but with friends like Michael Brendan Dougherty, Chicopee doesn’t need enemies.