Born and raised in Illinois, a resident of Arkansas, you would think Hillary Clinton would be more in touch with Middle America than New York City elite, Donald Trump or Brooklyn born, Vermont hippy Bernie Sanders. We’ve heard that we can’t trust Hillary Clinton because she’s too ambitious. She’ll do anything to win, no matter who she has to hurt. For many Middle Americans, there’s more to the story than that. It’s that those characteristics are associated with a specific type of person we went to high school with in our towns.
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania—a small town in Appalachia—not the middle of North America but Middle America is more than geography. It’s a way of life, a certain type and sense of community. In my town, there was the small business owner that everyone knew and liked. His name was on a restaurant and a convenience store. There were also the ones we worked for, who pissed us off sometimes because their kids got special treatment, but we still got along with them. We saw them all the time and they lived in our town, not high on some hill above us. Then, there were the people who did live on hills. Some of them were teachers. Yes, many public school teachers viewed themselves as elite and compared to us they were rich. There were doctors and lawyers who lived on “Snob Hill.” They were harder to trust. Outside of their offices, they didn’t associate with our parents and we didn’t associate with their kids. For many of us, HRC represents that upper crust of our towns whose family got to hang out at the country club while we worked in the supermarkets and fast food restaurants. Completely out of touch with the bread and butter issues we faced every day like putting food on the table, she was the rich kid in high school, who would use you for a vote, but look down on you when your back was turned. When we look at her, we see the kid who got to travel, wear nice clothes, and make fun of our torn up hand-me-down clothes. She was the kid who was on every page in the yearbook. She was in all the clubs and the teachers loved her.
In reality, Hillary went to an affluent public high school, but not one as divided by class as mine. She was a member of student council and the school newspaper, and of course recognized for her academic achievements. Like other presidential candidates, she didn’t have to watch her parents struggle or work to bring in extra cash for the family’s survival. But there’s something in the way Hillary talks about us that we don’t like. It’s different from the way that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump talk about us. When she talks about the middle class, we get a picture of those wealthy people in our small towns, who the rest of the world might look down on, but they are the very people looking down on the rest of us.
A lot of people I know in the Northeast say they are from Middle America or they grew up there, but which Middle America? Even if you were just “middle class,” you were probably a lot better off than many of us. Farmers were more middle class than my working class family, because they had land, big houses, and access to food. For a good chunk of my childhood, my father looked forward to hunting season so he could have enough meat to last through winter. Eating out at McDonalds was a special treat. My father would get angry when we got sick, because it was another doctor’s bill he had to pay. And I was always getting sick. Yet we were still better off than the poorer among us.
Many people in these towns don’t identify as middle class but are proud to be working class and they aren’t going to trust a politician who doesn’t speak passionately about the struggles they face every day. In an article on the poor people’s movement in Newark Jack Schuler quotes community activist Allen Schwartz who explains this clearly, “Most middle-class people are sealed off from working-class poverty and avoid seeing it firsthand.” Schwartz goes onto say, “The norm is people working with unstable schedules…People are treated as expendable, and then they begin to feel expendable.” It’s the same reason we couldn’t trust Al Gore. He and Hillary are both too middle class. They don’t sound working class, but ironically, Donald Trump does. We believe him when he states of his father, “It’s because of him that I learned, from my youngest age, to respect the dignity of work and the dignity of working people. He was a guy most comfortable in the company of bricklayers, carpenters, and electricians and I have a lot of that in me also.” He can describe the work we do. If we quizzed him on the day to day details of working class labor, he’d probably know the answers. When does HRC even mention us? We’re not even on her radar. We know she doesn’t genuinely like us. She doesn’t have our backs. We can’t depend on her if we need help with food, the bills, or childcare. We’d never even ask her because we’re not in her clique.
If Hillary wants to win us over, she has to do something bold. She has to start talking about us like she understands what our lives are really like. She has to show us that she’s not like all the other spoiled, rich kids who make fun of us. Her latest decision, playing it safe with a Kaine VP, is not going to cut it for the people she just flies over and forgets. There’s a dialogue in North Country that characterizes the problem working class Middle Americans have with Hillary. In it, Charlize Theron’s character, a woman trying to make ends meet by working in the coal mines, says to the lawyer dressed in her nice skirt and blazer, “Lady, you sit in your nice house, clean floors, your bottled water, your flowers on Valentine’s Day, and you think you’re tough? Wear my shoes. Tell me tough. Work a day in the pit, tell me tough.”
Maybe before Hillary speaks at the DNC, she should watch a little North Country or Norma Rae, grow some empathy, and start to inspire us. Maybe she’s afraid that if she really started to connect with us, we’d invite her down to the pit with us.
Angie Beeman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Anthropology & Sociology at CUNY-Baruch College.