Raising questions and fostering debates around the ways that class, race and gender intersect may never have been more important or relevant than they will be in 2017. In the wake of a Donald Trump victory and a looming Brexit-shaped Britain, there has been a rush to understand “the white working class” – and it has centred around this group’s “failings”. Their failure, that is, to understand a wider political argument, their failure to grasp the “truth” of good old political rhetoric and their failure to realise that they are racist when they talk – or alternatively don’t talk – about immigration. In the next few years, there will be a plethora of research, journalistic literature and social comment on the subject. But there is a warning to heed here: reactive and non-critical debate will tell us little, even as it marginalises and divides communities.
The New Minority is a considered piece of research, and public policy scholar Justin Gest has long had an interest in what he describes as “the new minority”. His study turns a valuable spotlight on what media and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have began to call “the left behind”. The book’s main focus is Youngstown in Ohio, although Gest also spent time in the UK and undertook qualitative research in Dagenham in East London. He argues that the centrist approach to politics has “driven voters to the fringes”. Although the white working class have traditionally been markers of a centre ground in national politics, he says, they are now voting for right-wing politics in increasingly significant numbers. The key question Gest asks is whether the white working class are voting for these politics because of their own racism, or in reaction to the failings of capitalism and the economic decline of industrial areas both in the US and the UK.
Gest draws on the oral histories of his respondents to contextualise family traditions and the political and economic landscapes of Youngstown and Dagenham. The outlook for those he encounters is far from optimistic and he makes clear that the fear and uncertainty that has gripped deindustrialised communities does not appear to be subsiding – and it is this climate that has destabilised mainstream politics. I enjoyed this book, and am grateful to Gest for willingly entering into a debate that has recently become very tricky and divisive in both academia and political discourse. However, I am unsure to what extent the white working class really are increasingly supporting right-wing political agendas, and The New Minority does not prove its case that they are.
For me, the book’s most important argument is its critique of the failings of mainstream political agendas, and in particular the failure of Republicans and Conservatives to tackle or understand the importance of the “mechanisms of mobility”. As for the Democrats and Centre Left, “their challenge is to draw white working class voters into their diverse coalition” by convincing them that the challenges they are experiencing, at both household and workplace level, are general working-class challenges that have very little to do with being white.
Lisa Mckenzie is research fellow in the department of sociology, London School of Economics, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).
The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality
By Justin Gest
Oxford University Press, 268pp, £64.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9780190632540 and 2557
Published 17 November 2016