John Derbyshire On Today’s Forgotten Men—The American White Working Class

The other day I mentioned former Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Amity Shlaes in connection with her 1994 piece “Black Mischief” in the London Spectator. Ms. Shlaes has a new book coming out a week next Tuesday, a biography of Calvin Coolidge. I’ll be reviewing it here on VDARE.com.

Ms. Shlaes is probably best known for her 2009 libertarian-contrarian account of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man. She borrowed her title from an 1883 essay by classical liberal William Graham Sumner. The Forgotten Man is the hapless middle- or working-class schmuck who ends up paying for the grand schemes of social improvement foisted on a nation by politicians, political entrepreneurs, ideologues, and do-gooders.

I liked the book well enough, but I liked the title even more. Sumner had identified an enduring truth about modern democratic society. There is at every time some group of persons, in some kind of pickle—“some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination” (Sumner)—on whom politicians and the media shine the benevolent light of their countenances, vowing to take measures to relieve that group of its troubles. And there is another group of persons, barely noticed or mentioned, and including no members at all of the light-shining classes, who will be stuck with the price of that relief, to their great disadvantage. Those are the Forgotten Men.

This came to mind as I was reading Wednesday’s New York Post. Although a sensibly conservative paper on many important topics—law-enforcement, public finances, fracking, the “human rights” rackets, the evil of public-sector unions—the NYP is clueless on immigration. In Wednesday’s issue, it is editorializing about “bringing in from the cold the 11 million illegals already here and instituting a guest-worker program.” [ Immigration: Fix it! January 30, 2013]Any regular VDARE.com reader can take an axe to these weary clichés: eleven million is surely an underestimate, we already have visa categories for every conceivable type of guest worker, etc.

It was, however, not the NYP’s editorial pages that got me thinking about the Forgotten Man, but the news pages. It covered Barack Obama’s speech in Las Vegas, as of course it should have done; but it decorated its coverage with three “case studies” to illustrate the problem the President claimed to be addressing. [Obama’s immigration ‘campaign’, By Geoff Earle, January 30, 2013]

  • Case Study #1: Martha Guolotuna, owner of an autobody shop (apparently a clean one) in the borough of Queens, who “departed Quito, Ecuador, for a new life in the United States 18 years ago.”
  • Case Study #2: Yenny Quispe, occupation not given, who “has been in America for 10 years after fleeing Peru with her mother and brother to escape her abusive father.”
  • Case Study #3: Tania Gordillo, apparently unemployed, who “came to the United States in 1995 from Ecuador and learned what it’s like to be undocumented.”

The main impression these thumbnail “case studies” give is a whiny sense of entitlement. Ms. Guolotuna wants to “be treated like everyone else.” Ms. Quispe has “been waiting a long time.” (Though not as long as a Family First Preference visa applicant from the Philippines, which currently requires an 11-year wait—in, of course, the Philippines. For a Fourth Preference Filipino/a the wait time is 19 years.) Ms. Gordillo is “tired of constantly looking over my shoulder.”

Remedies for her fatigue come easily to mind. Has our domestic production of I’m-entitled whiners really fallen so low we need to import?

And entirely left out of the Post story is the Forgotten Man. Could it not have included just one case study of an American who has been disadvantaged by our government’s long failure to enforce the people’s laws on immigration?

Of course, it could, and there are some obvious examples one might bring forward: for example, Danielle Bologna, in hiding after being deprived of her husband and two sons by an MS-13 gangster.

To be fair to the Post, though, there is a fundamental difficulty here, the one William Graham Sumner identified.

Dramatic cases like that of poor Mrs. Bologna aside, the Forgotten Man is forgotten for a very understandable reason: the cost to him of bad policies accumulates slowly, imperceptibly, spread across millions of others like him. He is the proverbial frog being proverbially boiled. At the end of the process he is, like the frog, considerably worse off; but at no point did the gentle downward trajectory in his fortunes jar him into defensive action…or excite the sympathies of politicians or Post reporters.

In the matter of our foolish immigration policies, and our government’s failure to enforce them even in all their foolishness, the Forgotten Man is the working-class American: the adult citizen who must put in forty hours of more of drudge work every week in order to maintain a home and feed a family, or the teenager seeking money and work experience in his school summer vacation.

The adult citizen’s wages have stagnated or declined; the teenager has no recollection of a happier time to compare with.

That mass immigration depresses working-class wages is obvious, and well-documented. Surveying the economic history of the U.S.A. in the 20th century, it is tempting to see it all Marxistly as a long conspiracy by Capital to keep down the price of labor.

There was the Great Wave of European immigration that petered off in WW1, then ended decisively with the 1924 Immigration Act. By that time, though, the Great Migration of rural blacks from the South was under way, keeping up the supply of cheap factory labor until the Depression, which ended with WW2.

The 20 years following WW2 are looked back on by nostalgists of the Pat Buchanan stripe as a golden age for U.S. labor, with well-paying jobs for all able-bodied citizens (including even a second phase of the Great Migration). This, our Marxist-conspiracist might argue, was an anomaly, defying gravity by virtue of other advanced nations being in ruins, or trapped in Communism. Downward pressure on working wages was re-asserted with the 1965 Immigration Act, and median family income has been basically flat since the early 1970s.

I am temperamentally skeptical of conspiracy theories myself. But looking at the legions of billionaires bankrolling both parties’ campaigns in November, one can’t help but be suspicious.

The frog-boiling process may have been gradual enough to keep the working class peaceful, but it has left them mightily disgruntled.

Least gruntled of all are white non-Hispanic workers, who in addition to seeing their wages stagnate or decline have been insulted by race preferences (“Affirmative Action”) and disproportionately shut out from government jobs, which have been fenced off as a make-work reservation for low-ability minorities.

The consequences were plain to see in last November’s election. The white working class, seeing nothing to hope for from either party’s presidential candidate, stayed home.

The interesting question here is why, in an open and democratic society, such a large quantity of disgruntlement has found no political expression.

The most depressing explanation—and so naturally the one I favor—is despair. The white working class understands that the game is up for them. They are the Forgotten Men, and they know it.

It has long been an article of faith with economists that as technology changes the labor market, it always does so in such a way that more jobs are created than lost: the redundant blacksmith opens an autobody shop, and so on. (Let’s hope he doesn’t find himself competing with Ms. Guolotuna.)

This is not necessarily so, however. It is not a physical principle built in to the structure of reality, like the Laws of Thermodynamics. It has just always been the case. To suppose it will go on being the case may be an instance of extrapolation bias. In fact there are signs we may have reached, or passed, Peak Jobs—that jobs are now being destroyed faster than they are being created.

It may be that the white working class know this in their bones, and have just given up. After forty years of relentless downward pressure on wages under administrations of both parties, with welfare an increasingly attractive alternative to employment weighed down with swelling taxes and health-care bills, with entertainment and political elites ever more arrogant in contempt for them; it may be that the white working class has sunk into irredeemable apathy.

They may even believe they are drifting into a future of the Frederick Pohl or Neal Stephenson type, where most work has disappeared, only a small elite have jobs, and the non-elite masses are kept pacified with welfare, low-grade entertainment, and robot-produced consumer goods.

The fate of the current Open-Borders efforts by Congress and the President will be a test of this apathy theory. If indeed the white working classes are so demoralized and passive that they will accept this further insult to them, to their livelihoods, and to their children’s future, then we shall indeed have “comprehensive immigration reform” and the inevitable following surge of tens of millions more cheap workers.

If, on the other hand, there is a successful 2007-style push-back against “reform,” then there is life in the American white working class yet. And we sad augurs will mock our own presage.

If—though this may be too much to hope for—if, in addition, there were to be just one big, noisy demonstration by non-Hispanic whites, preferably with a few windows broken in government offices, I might even believe that the war against the white working class that has been going on all over the Western world this past forty years, might be entering a new, more hopeful, phase.

Aux armes, citoyens!

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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