Despite the media narrative, the white working class was not ignored by both major political parties. Neither were its struggles ignored.
Shortly into my professional journalism career, in 1999, I found myself at a steel mill in Georgetown, South Carolina, covering the first of what would be a series of lockouts and downsizings before it was closed permanently a few years ago. At its peak, in the 1970s, it provided jobs for roughly 1,400 families. Many of those jobs did not require a high school diploma.
I know of illiterate managers making enough to buy a house, cars and help their kids get the higher education they never could.
I was there when grown men cried in their dusty overalls and hard hats just days before Christmas, wondering what they were going to do and was there when a smaller group of them had smiles a mile wide when they got to return. I cracked jokes with them in the union hall and had passionate backs-and-forth with management.
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We never stopped covering that story as it became two mills, then four, then ten – as a complex mix of factors began affecting all sorts of manufacturers and textiles.
We wrote about it from every angle, the negative economic impact that results when a plant is moth-balled; the attempts by officials to adjust by attracting new industry and tourists; the efforts of employment officials to secure retraining and education for middle-aged men and women who didn’t have other marketable skills; the ability (or inability) of families to cope with a kind of instability and uncertainty they had never faced.
There has been a steady drumbeat of such stories by newspapers and TV stations throughout our region and the country. They humanized the struggle of everyday blue collar workers while trying to explain the myriad global economic factors at play.
And, frankly, most of those stories sympathetically featured the kind of white men many are now falsely claiming were left behind or left out of the broader national conversation about economic struggle. When many in their families got addicted to drugs, we told those stories and searched for solutions that were more compassionate than the ones the media unearthed during the 1990s crack epidemic that hurt mostly black people. And we profiled the heroes they found through right-wing talk radio and spent months this election cycle writing empathetic stories about them.
This was occurring as Democrats expended an enormous amount of political capital to bring health insurance and better health access to these families while being fought by the GOP every step of the way. A Democratic president put his neck on the line to save an estimated 1.4 million auto manufacturing jobs that saved the domestic auto industry. His party implemented a Wall Street reform package that was the most comprehensive in a generation and included a consumer protection bureau with teeth – which has protected everyday Americans in ways often forgotten or not even realized.
Despite their well-documented stressors, the white working class remains on the positive side of economic disparities of every measure when compared to people of color.
These families just experienced the largest annual increase in incomes on record, with most of that going to the poor and middle class during an unprecedented streak of job creation that has pushed the jobless rate to 4.9 percent.
Their story has been told, repeatedly. We ignore that reality because it’s easier than asking why so many of them voted to make a man president who ran on open bigotry in the 21st century.
Issac Bailey is a former (Myrtle Beach) Sun News columnist and editor.