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Joan Walsh explains "What's the Matter With White People"

January 14, 2013

Once Obama had won Ohio in 2012, everyone (besides Karl Rove) knew that he had won a second term. Ohio was so important because it represented the white working class, the people who both parties claim they represented, the people who had lost their jobs after  the 2008 economic crash. In Joan Walsh’s book “What’s the Matter With White People: Why we long for a golden age that never was,” which was published in August, she explains how the white middle class used to make up the Democratic Party after the New Deal and why they turned to the right during the Nixon era.

Walsh does a great job describing how the New Deal created programs that allowed the middle class to go to school and get benefits from their jobs. When her Irish Catholic relatives immigrated to the United States, they were able to do well by following the American dream and working hard as firefighters in New York City. Walsh’s father even told her that she was “black Irish,” which to her did not only represent the Spaniards that may have been her ancestors, but the struggles her ancestors went through coming to America.

To Walsh and her father, their success story meant that they had to do their best to support civil rights. Most of her family did not agree, which meant that her father watched his brothers participate in the violent Hard Hat Riot, which pitted construction workers against anti-war protesters. Walsh thinks this was the beginning of the white working class feeling as if African Americans were taking their jobs and that they were getting things handed to them and not working as hard as they had to. She writes about how Pat Buchanan, who was an integral member of Nixon's campaign, knew how to divide the Democratic Party and succeeded in doing so. From then on, Democrats were seen as the college-educated elites, such as Walsh’s father, while her uncles and cousins turned to Nixon and have stayed Republican since.

She goes on to describe how unions were turned into the bad guys, how helping the poor turned into what people called “dependency” during the Reagan era while the rich were getting tax cuts and how race pulled the Democratic Party apart again when Hillary ran against Obama.

Though some may find Walsh’s political views controversial at points, which she knew when she picked such an intense title, it is impossible to not be drawn into her story, no matter what one thinks regarding her politics. She tells the simple story of an Irish Catholic family who benefited so much both from government programs and from their own hard work. She is a person who wants everyone to have equal rights and wants everyone to be able to experience the American Dream the way that she did. Walsh is able to connect her family’s history to the struggles that are going on today, with one side of the spectrum not believing that Obama is from this country and the other side calling her a racist every time she critiques Obama for something. Though she supported Hillary in 2008, she also believes in Obama, but thinks he could have done a better job standing up to Republicans.

When she wrote this book, she didn’t know that Obama would win a second term. Though he did manage to get a good amount of working class votes, the battles in Congress are still the same. They are still about those like Walsh who want to increase government spending so that people can benefit from programs that make the American dream possible versus conservatives who want to cut spending but still want to let the rich receive tax breaks.

Walsh does a very good job of explaining why it’s important to pay attention to history to figure out why we have the problems we do today. America is growing more multicultural, and she hopes that people will be able to find a way to come together and work on economic inequality.

-Rachel Witkin

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