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The economy has been brutal to American workers for several decades. The chance to give one's children a better life than one's own -- the promise at the heart of the American Dream -- is withering away. While onlookers assume those suffering in marginalized working-class communities will instinctively rise up, the 2016 election threw into sharp relief how little we know about how the working-class translate their grievances into politics.
In We're Still Here, Jennifer M. Silva tells a deep, multi-generational story of pain, place, and politics that will endure long after the Trump administration. Drawing on over 100 interviews with black, white, and Latino working-class residents of a declining coal town in Pennsylvania, Silva reveals how the decline of the American Dream is lived and felt. The routines and rhythms of traditional working-class life such as manual labor, unions, marriage, church, and social clubs have diminished. In their place, she argues, individualized strategies for coping with pain, and finding personal redemption, have themselves become sources of political stimulus and reaction among the working class. Understanding how generations of Democratic voters come to reject the social safety net and often politics altogether requires moving beyond simple partisanship into a maze of addiction, joblessness, family disruption, violence, and trauma. Instead, Silva argues that we need to uncover the relationships, loyalties, longings, and moral visions that underlie and generate the civic and political disengagement of working-class people.
We're Still Here provides powerful, on the ground evidence of the remaking of working-class identity and politics that will spark new tensions but also open up the possibility for shifting alliances and new possibilities.
Sociologist Silva (Coming Up Short) presents an informative study on the political inclinations and widespread disengagement of working-class people in Pennsylvania's Coal Region. This encapsulation of two years of interviews with 108 people paints a disturbing picture of pain and hopelessness. Many interviewees recall histories of abuse and assault, heroin habits, constant financial insecurity, racism, and PTSD. Consequently, most are, as one explains, "more worried about survival than the shit show of politics." Silva's study overlapped with the 2016 presidential election; overwhelmingly, those interviewed voted for Trump, even lifelong Democrats. Silva elucidates this choice, often in the interviewees' own words: some espouse white supremacist beliefs, but many describe being attracted to Trump's "unapologetic honesty" and promise to bring jobs back to the region. Silva demonstrates how the personal feeds into the political, how people project their frustrations as well as their pain, disappointment, and anger onto political candidates and onto each other (subjects blame and indemnify each other for taking advantage of entitlement programs and for lacking the motivation to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps), dashing the potential for a large-scale, unified movement for working-class rights. This work, focused as it is on values and politics in a region with high electoral significance, will especially interest readers of Hillbilly Elegy and armchair political oracles.