The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class

Photo by Robert Ashworth | CC BY 2.0

On an airplane late last November, I sat next to a white, professional, Midwestern Catholic woman in her fifties who confessed, grudgingly, to voting for the US’s 45th president. She disavowed racism yet lamented “quotas” in education and hiring. Such views recapitulate an ongoing debate over whether support for Trump owes more to economic dispossession—many working and middle class whites feel anxious and abandoned in the global economy—or to racism, a white backlash against efforts to end discrimination and injustice.

This debate glosses over a crucial confound, however: what it means to be white and middle class depends on conceptions of race and class which are historically intertwined. Although elite and urban white professionals have maintained their social and cultural standing in a globalized economy, stable jobs have disappeared for many—not just in manufacturing, but in managerial positions. And while high-paying, skilled tech jobs (a form of “knowledge” work) concentrate in urban enclaves, middle class labor increasingly revolves around low-paid service work in the precarious “gig” economy, that is, temporary work without benefits or security.

Although this economic transformation has garnered plenty of attention, especially in the wake of the 2016 election, fewer have discussed the link between the rise of creative urban professionals, on one hand, and the cultural dispossession of non-elite whites. US political divisiveness corresponds to geographic sorting that has accompanied the gutting of the middle class, illustrated, for example, by white re-urbanization and gentrification. Whiteness has long stood in for class status, ensuring respectability and legitimacy for those who imagine themselves the protagonist of the (white) American narrative. For many whites, losing economic status entails a profound loss of selfhood and cultural belonging—not only economic anxiety, but cultural anxiety.

It may seem counterintuitive for white, middle class Christians, for example, to feel persecuted when they remain a national majority and dominate positions in government and corporate leadership. But Trump’s (narrow and unpopular) victory amplifies the grievances of whites dispossessed culturally, in a broad anthropological sense.

Rise of the hip creatives

Given the entwined history of race and class in the US, it’s not surprising that middle class whites experience loss of identity in racialized terms, blaming immigrants, Muslims, and people of color when their livelihoods are threatened. The economic shifts associated with neoliberal globalization exacerbate divides between urban and professional whites and increasingly precarious non-elites, in ways that play out as much through taste and cultural consumption as through economic anxiety.

White elites have long leveraged racial distinctions to divide and conquer, of course. These distinctions are not biologically given nor inevitable byproducts of “tribalism;” rather, modern racial categories took shape during the colonial encounter from the 16th century onward—and still underpin the dominant social and economic order. When English settlers first arrived in North America, for instance, they distinguished between Christians and heathens in early legal statutes. But, in the process of enslaving indigenous people and Africans, the colonists devised new legal terminology for the children of slaves and free people (the term “Negro” came first; “white” appeared later). According to emerging conceptions of race, such statutes determined who could inherit property versus who became property—that is, the legal and political rights comprising personhood.

Today, whiteness continues to be linked to class status (and cultural position), where “white” often stands for “middle class.” Poor whites, in contrast, are racially marked, denigrated for example as “white trash” (poor people of color require no special designation). Take Millennials—this generational moniker typically refers not to all young people born in the 80s and 90s, but to tech-obsessed, white middle class youth.

But the economic shifts of the past fifteen to twenty years have warped the middle class and the nature of work in new ways. It’s no accident that as actual making moved offshore, creativity became the new hallmark of professional labor. Creativity came to characterize an emerging, urban professional middle class (what Barbara and John Ehrenreich once termed the “PMC”) in the late 1990s (although originality, novelty, youth, and so forth have been associated with middle class consumption and productivity for longer, since at least the 60s counterculture, if not 19th century bohemians). Thomas Frank traced out this shift in 1960s “Mad Men”-era advertising in his 1996 Conquest of Cool, arguing that “scientific” media industries came to espouse creativity and individuality as part of the same cultural shifts driving youth counterculture, rather than co-opting it.

Richard Florida in 2002 described middle class “knowledge” workers (those who create not goods but ideas, trafficking in the information flows of Manuel Castells’ network society) as a new “creative class,” arguing that creativity drives economic productivity in the postindustrial era. But unlike an earlier generation of young professionals, Florida’s media, technology, and other creative workers prefer diverse, multicultural urban centers with nightlife, art, music, and, that harbinger of gentrification, hip cafés. David Brooks had lampooned the cappuccino-sipping “bobos” (“bourgeois bohemians”) of the 1990s for their admixture of non-conformity and corporate ambition, “the members of the new information age elite” who traded in “intellectual capital” to climb corporate ladders. Florida reworked the upper middle classes as the new drivers of both the economy and of hip, creative cities.

Much of Florida’s thesis has not borne out prescriptively—cities like Detroit and Cleveland that invested in lifestyle attractions have been disappointed with the economic results, nor are the coolest coastal cities necessarily financial powerhouses. What Florida diagnosed accurately, however, was middle class re-urbanization, as young white professionals moved to underserved urban areas, reversing decades of white flight, and unlike their predecessors, settled down and stayed.

Stuff the white middle class likes

Widening U.S. political polarization since the 1990s—height of the so-called “culture wars”—likely reflects the geographic sorting of the knowledge economy. Urban areas, according to political scientists, have become more uniformly left-leaning while rural areas are more conservative. Political scientist Wendy K. Tam Cho, for example, found that blue districts were bluer in the 2008 presidential election, and red districts redder, than in previous elections: “the geographic expression of rival partisan preferences appears to have heightened over previous elections.” Despite concern that ideological conformity enables extremism, Cho notes that most people move for economic reasons.

While hip creatives flocked to arty cafés in revitalized urban cores, the middle class elsewhere was undergoing detrimental changes. After the 2008 economic crisis, high tech and skilled jobs recovered, as did low-skilled, contingent service work; it was the staid middle that evaporated, resulting in “the transformation of America from an industrial to a service economy that has privileged the educated elite and limited the possibilities of social mobility for those without higher education,” as anthropologist Kaushik Sunder Rajan notes. Describing disenfranchised whites, especially men, he goes on to say: “What is left is a once-socially privileged but now economically disenfranchised demographic that sees no opportunity, only threat—to both livelihood and entitlement—often from others who do not look like them.”

Anthropologist David Graeber links the hollowing out of the middle class—highly paid knowledge work at one end, unreliable service gigs at the other—specifically to the “financialization” of the economy in which businesses profit not from manufacturing goods, but from (often obscure) financial instruments. At the same time, the managerial classes (the Ehrenreichs’ “PMC”), newly aligning themselves with financial elites, replaced working class constituents in leftwing politics (such as Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats”). The PMC became the face of capitalism to the increasingly dispossessed working classes, excluded from both wealth creation and the credentialing institutions (i.e., universities) necessary to join the upper-middle echelons.

The transformation of the middle class reverberated through consumer tastes and preferences. By the late 2000s, for example, hipster style was difficult to disentangle from “stuff white people like” as the eponymous humor blog dubbed it. The blog, Stuff White People Like, traded on the insider humor of hip urban professionals. But “white people” here stood for left-leaning creative professionals, conflating race (and politics) with class, as Danny Rosenblatt (2013) observed.

In many ways, the late 2000s hipster represents the latest version of Brooks’ cappuccino-sipping Bobos or Florida’s urban creatives. Aesthetic tastes that once signaled nonconformity—piercings, tattoos, dyed hair—became markers of urban cool. This shifting meaning of countercultural taste, from margin to elite, is not new, of course. But, as Stuff White People Like illustrated, these tastes came to define an increasingly uniform urban, liberal, white professional class that benefits from the “new” economy that leaves behind, as blog creator Christian Lander phrased it, the “wrong kind” of white people.

The end of white men

The deterioration of white middle class stability contributed to the renewed rightwing momentum of the Tea Party in the late 2000s. Resentment was mounting against mainstream Republicans during the financial crisis of 2008, which combined with anxiety that Obama’s campaign capitalized on digital technologies more effectively. Rightwing bloggers advocated for a more decentralized, social network-based politics that coalesced into various Tea Parties, as anthropologist Charles Pearson chronicled in his PhD dissertation on rightwing social media. These decentralized groups capitalized on social network sites to mobilize voters in the 2010 mid-term elections, successfully toppling many moderate Republicans. The Tea Party revolution set the stage for replacing culture-wars era “family values” conservatism with an anti-establishment libertarian, nativist agenda.

As Adam Haslett recalled in the Nation, Fox News has been fanning rightwing extremism since the Clinton years. The fledgling network gained ascendancy during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, merging culture war moralizing with tabloid titillation. But ultimately, Haslett contends, the emotion the Trump campaign cultivated was not outrage, nor even grievance, but shame. And it’s precisely shame that many feel when they lose their livelihoods, especially for men who experience unemployment as a loss of masculinity. In her 2012 book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin detailed the difficulties for white middle-class men, particularly in company towns, when respectable jobs abscond. She describes wives who take over traditional breadwinning roles because they are willing to take less prestigious—and lower-paying—positions. Although masculine domination is not yet on the out, Rosin’s account captures the gender politics of a postindustrial service economy that upends traditional gender roles and undermines many men’s sense of self.

It should not be surprising, then, that the nationalist “alt right” flourishes in the misogynist world of online trolling, as illustrated by the “Gamergate” backlash to feminist and anti-racist critiques of gaming. Many on the left struggle to understand how devout conservatives voted for a glitzy New York real estate mogul turned reality TV star. But Trump’s election brings into stark relief the threats many white people perceive not just to their economic position, but their basic sense of self and belonging.

The unbearable whiteness of the vanishing middle class

In post-election malaise last November, I desperately wanted to understand Trump voters, especially reluctant ones. My seatmate on my flight home was similarly frustrated with the state of US political debate, and (despite having voted once as a Democrat) felt maligned by East Coast liberals.

A high-level manager at a financial institution, she had grown up in rural Iowa and was living in suburban Minneapolis. Although she had succeeded professionally without a college degree, she eventually obtained an associate’s required for upward promotion. She disliked Trump and agonized over voting. But she hated Hillary more, perceiving the candidate as irredeemably corrupt, despite her desire for a woman president—“just not that one.” The morning of the election, she told me, she lay awake, torn, but ultimately her pro-life views trumped other considerations—mainly the prospect of a conservative Supreme Court justice.

In many ways, she fit the profile of the reluctant Trump voter—white, financially stable, without a four-year degree, and anxious about her children’s economic future. She worried her sons had lost resources in school that went instead to English-language learners. She resented immigrant families she knew, convinced they were having “anchor babies” rather than abiding by the rules. And she felt censured for her views by liberal family and colleagues, wagging her finger in imitation of a niece who belittled her views on feminism and gay rights.

This sense of persecution reflects feeling excluded from the credentialed class and the cultural sphere of coastal elites. Advocates for an egalitarian world are right to decry the primacy of white feelings over the privations of the marginalized, especially because marginalization underwrites a devastatingly unequal social order. But it’s also necessary to ground the perceived loss of standing and cultural recognition—of feeling the white, Christian, middle class experience has been decentered—in the reorganization of the middle class and the perverse incentives of global capital. Countering support for nativism and authoritarianism in the US and elsewhere means facing these broader cultural and economic shifts.

Jordan Kraemer is an anthropologist of media whose work addresses the role of social media in emerging middle classes. She is currently a visiting scholar at NYU where she’s completing a book on social media in Berlin, forthcoming from Penn Press.