Waste people. Rubbish. Clay-eaters. Hillbillies. Recent books that reckon with the long, bleak history of the country’s white poor suggest their plight shouldn’t have caught the rest of the country off guard.
Sometime during the past few years, the country started talking differently about white Americans of modest means.
Early in the Obama era, the ennobling language of campaign pundits prevailed. There was much discussion of “white working-class voters,” with whom the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, were having such trouble connecting. Never mind that this overbroad category of Americans — the exit pollsters’ definition was anyone without a four-year college degree, or more than a third of the electorate — obliterated major differences in geography, ethnicity, and culture. The label served to conjure a vast swath of salt-of-the-earth citizens living and working in the wide-open spaces between the coasts — Sarah Palin’s “real America” — who were dubious…
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