After the 2016 election, when white working-class voters turned out for Donald Trump, the New York Times and the Washington Post sent their reporters to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see just what had happened. And off they went, like D.C. commuters sent horribly astray by a GPS that mistakes Buffalo for Bethesda, or cultural anthropologists dropping in on a particularly primitive society.
That’s how the Post’s Wesley Lowery came to spend a few days slumming in McDowell County, West Virginia. Lowery’s editors had chosen well, for the county has one of the lowest life expectancies and highest rates of drug-induced deaths in the United States. Males live an average of 63.9 years and females 72.9 years, compared to the national average of 76.1 for males and 81.1 for females. Between 1985 and 2013, the national lifespan increased 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women, but in McDowell County, it declined 3.2 years for men and 4.1 years for women. The county gave nearly 75 percent of its votes to Donald Trump.
McDowell’s coal mines had closed, and the unemployment rate was more than double the nation’s average. Without work, the county’s young men got their kicks at a weekend night fight club where they tried to beat each other up in return for a chance at a prize. That was the subject of Lowery’s story, one long sneer at his social inferiors (“All-you-can-brawl in small-town West Virginia,” Washington Post, March 29, 2017). “That $1,000, that’s a whole lot of beer, man.” The fights are scheduled just after the government welfare checks are delivered, which enables the spectators to buy their “$3 hot dogs drenched in warm chili.” Between rounds, scantily clad ring girls dance for the crowd, with what Lowery unchivalrously described as “varying degrees of rhythm.” The reader was encouraged to enjoy their humiliation through photographs meant to make them look trashy.
Lowery’s essay in redneck porn played to the prejudices of the Post’s readers. It invited them to hug themselves in self-delight for their social, educational, and moral superiority, and reinforced their belief that the pollution-spewing coal-mining industry that Trump had praised deserves to die. It told readers that the lower orders had brought their degradation and falling longevity on themselves. They are creatures of broken marriages, illegitimate births, drug dependency, and general beastliness. And better still, the Post told its readers what to think of Trump voters in general.
How different things were in the older literature of poverty. In 1936 Fortune magazine commissioned James Agee to report on the lives of three Southern sharecropper families. The piece was never published, but later became Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the most famous account of Depression-era poverty. Unlike the Washington Post reporters, Agee was sufficiently abashed to recognize the obscene voyeurism behind his reportage. A generation later, Michael Harrington revealed in The Other America that, for the poor, little had changed. He brought his readers face to face with the hidden poverty of the ghettos, sweatshops, and small farms of America. His book is credited as the inspiration for Medicaid and Medicare.
The earlier writers described the poor with compassion, as fellow Americans. At times, the programs they proposed—such as the War on Poverty—were ill-conceived, but there was no sense of moral superiority in this literature, even over those who might have brought their poverty on themselves. The desperately poor were broken in body and spirit; while they didn’t belong to anyone or anything, they still were our brothers in humanity and citizenship. If they lived their lives at a level beneath that necessary for human decency, we were called upon to do something about it. In Harrington’s case, that had meant living with them in one of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker hospices—not an experience today’s purveyors of redneck porn will have shared.
We’ve left the world of James Agee and Michael Harrington and entered a very different one. We’ve always been divided along racial lines, and it was a sign of moral progress to know that this was wrong. But today our class divisions are broader, and we’ve lost the sense that this is something for which we should be ashamed. As a norm, equality no longer much matters, for both the left and the right. There are several reasons for this, but an incident from my childhood sticks out in my mind as the principal explanation.
When I was a child in public school, an imbecilic, hydrocephalic boy was one day brought to class. He could not talk, but from the way he smiled, he seemed very happy to join us. I imagine his parents felt the experience would be good for him, and that our teachers—the Sisters of Charity—thought the experience would be good for us.
I’d like to report that his fellow students befriended him, but we didn’t. We were six or seven years of age, and a little shy and formal. And worried too, perhaps, that we’d open ourselves to ridicule if we did so. No one mocked him, but then no one sought him out, either. He lasted no more than a week among us, and I never knew what happened to him, but since then not a year has passed when I’ve not recalled him. I can see his face, and count it a shame I can’t remember his name.
What the experience taught me was that moral choices require right habits more than right reason, and that we’re more likely to learn them from the gospels than from political intellectuals. The Sisters of Charity schooled us well. They didn’t distinguish between Mitt Romney’s makers and takers, between big and little brains. I thought my hydrocephalic classmate had presented me with a moral challenge (which I had failed), but I fear that too many intellectuals on the right would consider this mere sentimentality. Here’s one of them, George Mason economist Bryan Caplan, warning us against sympathizing with the slow-minded:
Are low-skilled Americans the master race? . . . Economists are used to rolling their eyes when people object to better policies on the grounds that some special interest will suffer from the change. It’s time to cross the final frontier, and start rolling our eyes when the special interest is low-skilled Americans.
The economist can tell us how to choose rationally in order to advance our own interests. What he can’t do is teach us empathy or fraternity. He might explain how to build a society in which I and others might flourish, through bargains with other clever people and friendships that are wholly transactional, but that’s simply the morality of an efficient insurance contract. I will help you because it is in my interest to do so, because I expect a return favor from you.
What empathy and the moral sense require is something other than the economist’s rational calculation. Morality is not a means of pursuing our rational self-interest, but an end in itself that proceeds from a good and not necessarily a clever heart. The kindness I should have shown to my hydrocephalic classmate would have been its own reward, if any reward there was. The last chapter of Job, while canonical, might nevertheless be regretted.
That was something we used to know. Before the advent of modern, secular liberalism, America’s elite was Christian, in the high and dry manner of the Episcopalian businessman or the Unitarian lawyer. God had greatly provided for them, and they were wonderfully comfortable in Zion. Their religious observances were largely ceremonial, and they might have thought the religious enthusiast ridiculous, but some things were still forbidden. They were not permitted to mock the Irish serving girl or despise the Italian coal merchant. In their speeches, they would loftily speak of a common humanity, in the manner of Nelson Rockefeller. Since he was dyslexic, Rockefeller couldn’t read his speeches, but he’d carry some 4x6 cards to which he’d refer. On one of them he wrote BOMFOG. And when he saw the card, he’d solemnly invoke the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God.
When the religious imperative is stilled, however, the serving girl seems brassy and the coal merchant surly. They stand before us and impertinently demand our regard, ignoring our superiority and asserting a false equality, one no longer meaningful if God is dead. Nietzsche understood the Judeo-Christian basis for their insistence upon respect, and called this a “slave morality” and the product of ressentiment. Call it resentment or call it religion, but the moral imperative remained so long as some semblance of religious belief remained. But when that was gone, the resentment was all in the other direction, by the masters of the universe against the polluting West Virginia coal miners, by the new class against the deplorables.
Without religious belief, everything is permitted, said Dostoevsky. That makes equality a tough sell. Among the wiser socialists, it has led to a new respect for religion as a foundation for their deepest beliefs. The religion that tells us “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble,” must after all have some connection to equality. Without abandoning his atheism, therefore, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was willing to debate then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and announce his openness to learning from the egalitarian content of religious traditions. And clever Marxists today are more likely to read the Gospel According to St. Matthew than Das Kapital. But none of this seems compelling to the secular members of the new class, right and left.
Walter Berns once quoted to me these words from the Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. “Is that an empirical statement?” he asked me. It’s not, of course. What makes us equal is belief in the human dignity of everyone, a belief rooted in our religious traditions. That’s why the left’s casual indifference or outright hostility to religion is self-defeating when it clamors for a stronger social safety net. If God is not great, if we’re so much wiser than that now, then religious duties to the poor can be ignored as well. We’ll have to look elsewhere for a requirement to support universal healthcare, and the atheist can find plenty of reasons not to do so.
The religious believer must have a concern for the welfare of his fellow man, and for his fellow citizens in particular. That’s why religion has a gravitational force in politics, why it drags everyone but the faux dévot to the left or the middle of the road on social welfare policies. Take away faith, and the economist’s rational self-interest will counsel selfishness, as will our self-love. It’s only the foolishness of religion that demands something more from us.
F. H. Buckley is a foundation professor at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School. His next book is The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed.