Illustration by Luis Grañena of white working class
© Luis Grañena

When I started university in Britain in 1988, political correctness didn’t exist. If a woman tried to speak at a students’ meeting, the cry would go up, “Get your tits out for the lads!” The ritual climax of bar conversations was a double entendre about homosexuality. But, in 1993, I went to study in the US and discovered PC. The American students I met didn’t make racist, sexist or homophobic jokes. When I returned home and told British friends about this strange new world, they explained that it was because Americans were humourless. This wasn’t actually true. The Americans were much funnier than the Brits with their eternal gay jokes.

The attempt to shut out any views deemed undesirable has since got out of hand on some US campuses. On recent visits I have found the policing of speech chastening. One liberal, male, feminist professor told me of a fairly anodyne analysis that he didn’t dare publish for fear of being hounded as sexist. Even many liberals now want to roll back PC speech codes.

But, in fact, PC’s basic demand — respect all groups — needs to be rolled out more widely. We now have PC for women, and racial and sexual minorities. If we had it for the working classes, too, that could change the political climate. Two rather different politicians — Donald Trump and Nelson Mandela — have shown us the outlines of a working-class PC.

TV programmes in western countries rightly don’t make fun of blacks, gays or Jews any more, but the white working class (WWC) enjoys no such protection. A genre of “poverty porn” TV (think Benefits Street and Wife Swap in Britain) mocks the WWC as wasters enjoying their morning beers on the sofa. 

The WWC are known as chavs in Britain, canis in Spain and “white trash” in the US. Chav-based fancy-dress parties — a distant relative of “blackface parties” — enjoyed a brief fad among British students. Prince William attended one while at his military academy, Sandhurst, as Owen Jones recounts in Chavs, his 2011 book on the demonisation of the working class in Britain.

But the WWC are excluded more often than they are insulted. They get screened out of elite settings based on their accents, first names, clothing, diet, schools, geographical origins (“flyover states”) and sometimes even their body weight. JD Vance, who somehow made it from the WWC to Yale Law School, describes in his book Hillbilly Elegy a recruitment dinner for a Washington law firm where applicants were essentially tested on whether they knew how to order wine and use a butter knife. The aim, obviously, was to keep out hicks. “Diversity” — a PC mantra of American and British elites — doesn’t seem to include WWC people. If they do get recruited, they often get paid less.

Many in the WWC feel that the elite pays respect to every minority except theirs. The fuss made on Fox News and in the Daily Mail over an imagined “war on Christmas” is, in part, a demand for respect for the WWC’s cultural traditions. For years, when the WWC was recognised as a group pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, it was often just to be accused of enjoying “white privilege” — not something they feel they’ve had much of lately.

Many WWC people now vote populist not because they are racists, nor because they imagine the populists will magically solve their problems, but because populists give them respect while simultaneously dissing the snobs. When Trump goes on about the virtues of steelworkers, he sounds like a Russian revolutionary in 1917. Meanwhile he pummels the PC non-WWC media.

Trump won’t bring back the old steel jobs. But he knows that winning elections nowadays isn’t about “the economy, stupid”. It’s about language. This is one thing liberals can learn from him. Hillary Clinton’s pro-WWC policies counted for nothing after she called some of Trump’s voters “deplorables” — typically, at a closed-doors fundraising event for LGBT causes where she presumed no WWC people would be present. It was at another fundraiser in San Francisco in 2008 that Barack Obama spoke of “bitter” jobless small-town Midwestern voters who “cling to guns or religion”.

Respect matters. Mandela understood this viscerally, because respect was one thing apartheid denied to black people. He built a political strategy on respecting his opponents. While jailed for 27 years by Afrikaners, he learnt their language, studied their history and ended up persuading them to give him the keys to South Africa.

Mandela also showed us what a realistic, modern, working-class PC could look like. Hardly any working-class people today are steelworkers. Far more of them work as carers, cleaners and cashiers. Mandela grasped that. As South African president, he would stand up if the tea lady walked into his room, and remain standing until she left. In jail, he had shown equal courtesy to his WWC guards: Mandela’s respect was race-blind.

Once, in London, he visited the offices of the PR firm handling South Africa’s account. He said a cheery hello to the firm’s directors, who were lined up at the front door to receive him, but he then continued down the corridor, walked into the porters’ room and greeted the surprised denizens like long-lost friends. It will take a politician like that to win back the WWC.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

Letter in response to this column:

Questions for leaders in these polarised times / From Geoff Upton, London, UK

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article