The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality
by Justin Gest.
Oxford University Press, 2016.
Paper, xiii + 249 pages, $24.95
The past year or so has seen the appearance of quite a few books dealing with the white poor and the white working class, beginning with the unexpected success of J. D. Vance’s much-discussed Hillbilly Elegy. Naturally some of these have been more helpful and insightful than others, but The New Minority by Justin Gest stands out in that its analysis is based upon a sociological study undertaken by the author himself in an attempt to get to the root of white working class disaffectedness and radicalization.
Gest, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, surveyed hundreds of residents of two white working class areas—Youngstown, Ohio in the U.S., and the East London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham in England. He also did face-to-face interviews with many residents. The results of his research, while showing that in some instances there are differences between the white working classes of the two countries, demonstrate a deeper commonality: the belief that they are being marginalized, and that no one in power cares. Gest shows that while in many instances this marginalization has an economic component, a racial component, or some combination of both, the underlying complaint is that of the loss of attentiveness to their concerns on the part of politicians.
While a notable lessening of political power obviously comes in to play, in that a group that once represented a majority does so no longer, Gest’s study illustrates that, pace the views of certain progressives, it is not that alone which constitutes the white working class’s feeling of marginalization. It is not the “loss of hegemony” per se that disturbs them, but the feeling that they no longer have any political influence at all, even regarding concerns that affect them directly.
The New Minority was published before the 2016 U.S. election, so it mentions Donald Trump’s candidacy only in terms of his growing success among the various GOP candidates. But it does point out a fact that Trump’s opponents, both Republican and Democratic, were to regret later: he was the one who listened (or at least pretended to listen) to the white working class. Which if Gest’s analysis is correct, was, at bottom, all it really wanted. He “addresse[d] people who felt silenced” and “bluntly acknowledged white working class people’s acute sense of loss.”
Gest closes the book with suggestions for both liberals and conservatives on how the white working class can be appealed to in the future. He notes the difficulty in doing so, however, given the Democrats’ “reluctance to risk their relationship with more socially liberal and diverse voting blocs” and the Republicans’ inability to harmonize their “establishment” and “anti-establishment” strains. While these various conflicts are being worked out, writes Gest, “a group with a powerful vote has thus been neglected, and populists are beginning to take notice.”
Robert Grano writes from outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, Again, and in various small press journals.