If you want to make sense of this insensible election year, lend a hillbilly your earby Diane Roberts / October 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Americans—white Americans, anyway—used to cherish the fantasy that the United States doesn’t have a class system. Your parentage didn’t matter. Your accent didn’t matter. Where you went to school didn’t matter. If you had talent, gumption and a rock-ribbed work ethic, you, too, could get rich. Or become President. You could reinvent yourself, turn James Gatz into Jay Gatsby or change your name from Drumpf to Trump, in the way that America reinvented itself, transforming from a fractious British colony to God’s chosen nation, the indispensable, exceptional country free from the social shackles of the Old World.
That was the story. The truth is, the American class system has always been with us, however much we clung to the ideal of what Alexis de Tocqueville optimistically called our “equality of conditions.” In times of relative peace and prosperity, class is overlooked. When people feel forgotten, overwhelmed by market forces, or let down by their institutions, then the flimsy red, white and blue bunting falls off our democratic edifice, revealing that America is as stratified as any European palatinate.
It happened when Andrew Jackson was elected as the seventh President in 1828, riding an upswell of populist scorn for the Virginian gentlemen and New England intellectuals of the old republican ascendancy. Jackson was famous for his military prowess—and his indifference to the rule of law. He set off an international incident in 1818 when he invaded the Spanish territory of Florida, attacking native villages and summarily executing two British traders accused of helping the Seminoles. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, it may be happening again. A rich man with a talent for channelling the resentment of working-class whites towards a government that they feel ignores them is promising to up-end convention and speak for “forgotten Americans.” As Trump has taken to saying at campaign appearances: “I will be your voice.”