A maverick law professor has called for universities to respond to their perceived failure to predict and understand the rise of populism at the ballot box by establishing a new discipline of white working-class studies.
John Banzhaf, professor of public interest law at George Washington University, told the Fifteenth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities, held in London on 4 July, that US universities must develop more effective intellectual tools in the wake of Donald Trump’s triumph in last year’s presidential election.
The election result, he told delegates, was greeted by “the surprise – and even shock – of virtually everyone in the intelligentsia, who originally thought [Trump’s] campaign announcement was only a joke or a publicity stunt”. Going to college, it seemed, “severely limit[s] our ability to understand and appreciate the very strong views held by so many of the six in 10 American adults – a clear majority – who do not have such four-year degrees”, he said.
“We don’t understand and therefore can’t possibly convey their strong feelings; we don’t appreciate and consider the depth of their despair about the economy; we don’t ask or begin to comprehend what they think of their country,” Professor Banzhaf said.
Paying serious scholarly attention to the 42 per cent of the American population who make up the white working class, Professor Banzhaf went on, would have a number of benefits.
It would help academics understand, analyse and teach “issues as diverse as affirmative action, police practices, medical care delivery and reform, abortion, female and minority rights, religious freedom, inter-family relations, gun control, international trade [and] globalisation”. It might throw light on “another surprise political event” – the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
And, if “black studies, Hispanic studies, LGBT studies etc are justified because they help students understand people from backgrounds and cultures different from their own, the same justification would support – even more strongly – studies and classes about the white working class”, Professor Banzhaf said.
Professor Banzhaf is renowned in the US legal world for his tenacity, especially in high-profile cases against the tobacco industry and McDonald’s. Last year he told Times Higher Education that US law schools were raising a generation of “wuss” lawyers.
The most significant benefit of studying the white working class could be in helping to save lives, Professor Banzhaf told the conference.
To explain what he meant by this, Professor Banzhaf pointed to “a startling and shocking trend”, namely that “life expectancy – which has always been a reliable indicator of improvement in the human condition – is now sharply declining among white working Americans, both male and female, although it continues to rise for those with a four-year degree… Researchers have reported that the death rate of non-Hispanic white Americans had risen steadily since 1999 – in sharp contrast with the death rates of blacks, Hispanics and Europeans, who in many situations suffer from the same economic problems”.
The cause of this, suggested Professor Banzhaf, was “a ‘sea of despair’ among white, working-class Americans, which all too often leads to [largely preventable] ‘deaths of despair’ – from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide”.
“Obviously, if we are going to successfully attack these major problems, we must understand the victims much better,” he said.