The View From The Back Row

Journalist and photographer Chris Arnade discusses a country divided by meaning, morality, education, and economics.

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In 2016, pundits speculated endlessly on that mysterious place called Trump Country. To many in the Beltway, much of America was a foreign country, to be analyzed statistically rather than in person. Chris Arnade, on the other hand, was determined to escape his coastal bubble. Arnade got into his old van, and has spent the last several years traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, interviewing people all over the country, discovering their joys, sorrows, discontents, and aspirations. In the process he has produced a set of photographs and stories, depicting the everyday Americans who are left out of the media’s understandings of the country, and who feel left out of the 21st century economy. Arnade spoke to Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson about what he has learned in his travels.

NR: You’ve traveled over 100,000 miles across America talking to people from all stripes of life. What are some of the misconceptions that people have about the country they live in? What are some things people think they know about America that are totally wrong? 

CA: Everyone knows we’re a divided country, but I don’t think people understand exactly how deep that division is, and what the true nature of it is. I was a banker for 20 years. I lived in Brooklyn Heights, I sent my kids to private school. I was paid well; I had a Ph.D. in physics. I was kind of the New York neoliberal elite who valued science, valued rationality. And that elite built a world over the last 30 years that is massively unequal. I think everybody knows statistically that we have massive wealth inequality and continued racial inequality. But we kind of pat ourselves on the back and say we’re an egalitarian society in other ways. We’ve given equal legal status to gender, sexuality, and race. And so we kind of think we’ve addressed many of the issues. But when you go out in the country, you realize that we’re massively unequal, and we’re unequal beyond economics. We’re unequal in terms of the way we live, how we choose to live, unequal in our valuation framework, what we view as moral, what we view as right and wrong, what we view as the goals. And beyond the obvious racial differences, which are huge—I spent, as much time in poor minority neighborhoods as I did in poor white working class neighborhoods—the most salient division I see beyond race is education.

NR: Yes, you’ve described this framework for thinking about educational inequality, what you call the “front row kids” versus the “back row kids.” The kids who did well in school and advanced to the top of the economic ranks, and the kids who were sort of left behind, and the differences that creates in their worldview. Could you talk a little bit about that framework and what that division in worldview really is?

CA: Right, the front row kids and the back row kids. Now within that there are some divisions and complexities obviously. But the most salient thing about it is that it’s not about political party. It’s non-partisan. “Front row kids” means both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. The front row is anybody who comes from an elite school, Princeton, Harvard, the Ivies or has a postgraduate degree, Ph.D. They’re mobile, global, and well-educated. Their primary social network is via college and career. That’s how they define themselves, through their job. And within that world intellect is primary. They view the world through a framework of numbers and rational arguments. Faith is irrational, and they see themselves as beyond gender. You can describe this using other frameworks, like “the Acela corridor” types.

On the Democratic side, you can think of the Matt Yglesias types in the media, these kinds of global technocrats, policy wonks. Their framework is: “Give me a problem and I’ll devise a maximally optimal solution using my data.” Most importantly, though, they view their lives as having been better than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be better than their own. And for them, that’s still true.

The front row kids have won. They’re in charge of things. They are the donor class in politics, they’re the analysts and specialists who scream every time someone has a policy difference they disagree with. “You can’t do X, you’re going to cause a global world war.” Or “You can’t get rid of NAFTA,” “you can’t do Brexit.”

NR: What about the “back row kids,” then? What is that segment of society, and what is the difference in its worldview?

CA: It encompasses a lot of types of people, but it’s defined by its difference with the front row. It’s not just the “white working class,” it includes minorities, black kids who are stuck in east Buffalo or central Cleveland or Bronx in New York. Mostly they don’t have an education beyond high school degree and if they do it’s kind of cobbled together through trade schools and community colleges and smaller state schools. Their primary social network is via institutions beyond work such as family. And their community is defined geographically, meaning they generally don’t leave where they grew up. They might leave for 5-6 years to go to the military, take jobs that bring them to Alaska for a few years, but they’ll come back.

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All photos © Chris Arnade 2017.

And they have different kinds of worldviews and values. They find meaning and morality through faith, which is also a form of community. And if you read the work of [Harvard sociologist] Michèle Lamont, she writes about the ethos of the decency of hard work. It’s the idea that you don’t necessarily use your brain to advance, you use your strength and you use your commitment. You’re going to play by the rules, you’re going to break a few rocks, you’re going to work hard. It’s also, and here’s where I’ll sweep a lot under the rug, a kind of traditional view of race and gender.

This group of people views their life as worse than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be worse than theirs. And that’s rational, from their perspective. After all, they’ve lost. Their kind of worldview has been devalued, because it’s the front row kids that have been in charge: the globalized, rational meritocracy versus the more traditional concepts of morality.

NR: You mention rationality. One of the things that seems to puzzle elites as they try to understand these other parts of society is that they feel the grievances there are genuinely irrational. From their perspective, free trade has been good for everybody, it’s made everybody better off than the alternative. And so they don’t understand these kinds of populist backlashes in the form of the support for Trump (or Bernie Sanders), because they feel like the rage and the desire to destroy the elite is a failure to recognize their own self-interest. After all, why would you vote for someone whose economic policies are irrational, or who, like Trump, might destroy the universe? It just doesn’t make sense. They don’t know why people hate experts, since experts have expertise, and expertise is good!

CA: Well, let me approach it this way. I think that when you talk about any group’s failings as being atavistic, because of laziness, because of weakness, because of some other failing, you’re doing it wrong as a progressive. So when we progressives look at poor minorities and, from a sociological perspective, the frustrations and deviances that are there, and when conservatives say “Hey, there’s more crime in black neighborhoods because they’re more violent” or “There’s higher unemployment because they’re lazier,” we liberals rightly push back. We say “Whoah, let’s look at the structural issues here. Let’s look at the structural racism that denies them access to jobs. Let’s look at the structural inequalities in the educational system which provide a harder route for them to leave.”

And I’d say you have to do that for all groups, instead of dismissing them as irrational. And that includes the white working class. You have to look at the context of what they’re facing. So from their perspective, knocking over the system probably makes sense because their worldview is being devalued. It’s being devalued monthly, has been devalued for 25 years.

Now, some of that devaluation I agree with; I believe the idea that you should get supremacy from being white and male should be devalued. But regardless of what you disagree with, that devaluation is happening. And they’re also being devalued economically. And then, even further, their whole worldview, their sense of place and meaning, is being eroded.

So let’s talk about NAFTA, you alluded to NAFTA and free trade. Mathematically it works, because the winners win more than the losers lose. So on a net basis, you say: “Hey look! The data says everybody wins.” There are three fundamental problems with that. One is that winners never share with the losers, that just doesn’t happen. Secondly, what you’re measuring is a very narrow framework of what’s valuable; you’re making the assumption that everybody wants more stuff, having more stuff is what meaning’s about. But the back row finds meaning through their connections, their community, through their structure. When they lose, they’ve lost everything. When the factories go, the town and community fall apart. Their churches hollow out. Their families start facing problems with drugs. So when your sense of meaning and place and valuation comes from your community, and your community gets eroded, that’s it. Game over.

NR: And this something quite real, it’s not an illusion, it’s not just on paper. You’ve traveled all over, and there really are communities like that, that have just been hollowed out. And you’ve extensively covered the drug epidemic.

CA: I didn’t get into this because I wanted to write about politics. I got into this because I was writing about drugs. And I always kind of glibly say that wherever I went to find drugs, I found hope leaving. And where I found hope leaving I saw Trump entering, if it was a white community. Drugs don’t just go into a place because people are lazy; drugs go into a place because drugs work and help. They’re a get-meaning-quick scheme. So is fascism, so is populism. Both these things give a sense of meaning. People use drugs because they think their life is stuck. It’s a form of suicide, and for them, it’s a way of finding some relief from something that seems like it’s not working. That they’re humiliated and devalued, and they want to find a way to fight back against that. And drugs are just one way to do that, with another way being fascism and populism.

NR: So the rise of Trump is definitely some kind of response to despair and hopelessness, then.

CA: Oh, hell yeah. But I would go even further. First, just because I say I’m not surprised this happened, doesn’t mean I’m justifying it. But what I’m saying is: if you want to put a recipe together to create populist fascist white identity politics, we’ve done it over the past 20-30 years. We’ve created a system that’s immensely unequal, created a ruling class, which is educated and uses their education to elevate themselves and demean anybody else. And we’ve rendered it not simply economic, but cultural as well. These divisions are massive. You can blindfold me and put me in any town in the United States and I can tell you within five minutes if it has a college in it or not.

There are these marches across the country that are taking place against Trump. And they’re great. I approve. I don’t like Trump. But there’s a meme that’s going around now that says: “Look it’s all across America. It’s even happening in Texas! And Arkansas! But it’s happening on a goddamn college campus in Texas and Arkansas. I spent a week and a half in two towns, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan, separated by 35 miles. One has a college, one doesn’t. Which one do you think voted for Trump? First time they ever voted for a Republican.

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To go back to the question of the rationale for being “irrational”: you have to put people, the way they think, in context. When people are faced with constraints, or when they view the world as having a different goal from themselves, from their perspective they make the right choices. So in my mind, voting for Trump, they felt like they had limited options. They’re backed into a corner, and they’re looking at the system that they feel like is devaluing them every year so they’re just going take a hammer and break it.

NR: Which is actually a kind of rational thing to do in that situation, given the set of values they hold.

CA: I even put it in mathematical terms for people, because I used to be a Ph.D. in math. I can give you the economic framework for it. If you look at their probability outcomes, their downside is limited, the upside is not limited. So you break the system, you want volatility.

Now you can ask the question, what about the black working class? Why aren’t they doing it? Well, there’s some huge differences there. One is the front row kids have made a very valiant attempt to elevate minority communities, and that’s great. I applaud that. So blacks, minorities know who butters their bread and they say, “Ok, I’m gonna go for that.” But in addition, if you look at this election, one of the things I wish I had written more about: I spent time in black working class neighborhoods, and I didn’t hear a lot of enthusiasm for Hillary. I heard a lot more distaste for Trump on college campuses than I did in poor black communities. They rendered their frustration, not by voting for Trump, it was by not voting. Or by a mute cynicism. They’ve been so, so eroded for such a long time that there has been pressure to just kind of throw their hands up, and give up on the political process. The black back row is frustrated, but they’ve been frustrated for 80-100 years.

NR: So there’s class divide in non-white communities, too, and the front-row/back-row framework isn’t just about the white working class versus a kind of racially diverse elite. And perhaps the difference in expectations makes a difference to the amount of rage there is.

CA: And their lives are getting marginally better. Marginally. If you look at the rate of change, it’s going up from a very low base. In many cases, that’s what matters.

But if I had to kind of get one point across about the elite, it’s this: they speak a different language. They don’t know how different their worldview is. They have no clue. And it took me 3 ½ years to figure it out.

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NR: You’ve suggested that that is actually going to prevent them from understanding when Trump is succeeding and failing, because what he does will send different messages to different groups of people.

CA: Yeah. So, for example, right now, this immigration action, from the measure of the front row, has been a disaster. But measured from the other valuation framework, not so much. He’s doing what he said he was going to do. The outrage is not shared everywhere. They like that Trump drives the media and the elites crazy. Trump is a genius at knowing how to find that gap and exploit it.

NR: There’s actually a quote from him where he says something like: “There are two audiences. There’s New York society bullshit, and I don’t care what they think because they’ve always hated me. And then there’s America, and America has always loved Donald Trump.” So that’s what he says.

CA: Think about this: what does he spend his life doing? He spends his life selling cheap meaning to people, people who feel meaningless or humiliated. The biggest buzzword I would use to describe what I’ve found in Trump country is “humiliation.” And a desire for pride.

NR: You wrote a piece suggesting that “respect” was the big thing that they all cited as wanting.

CA: At our core, everybody wants to feel valued as a part of something larger. And right now the front row has that. At least up until this election, they had that. They generally can look at their lives and say: “I’m an adjunct professor of Greek History at Bumblefuck University…” Uh, don’t use Bumblefuck.

NR: We can change it.

CA: At Cornell. Anyway, they have a source of pride. But that person has a lot more in common with a bond trader than a truck driver.

NR: Liberal professors definitely don’t think they have more in common with bond traders…

CA: Well, that’s my whole frustration. That was the revelation I had over the last 2½ years. You have to view it from a framework of valuation and morality. And also culture, it’s not about economics. You have to use the old framework of is something banal or sacred? Is it profane or is it sacred?

I often use my favorite example, which is McDonald’s. I grew up in a white working-class town, so for me, it’s kind of rediscovering what I already knew. But McDonald’s, which is viewed with contempt, is actually a center of community, it’s where people gather. McDonald’s is not a joke.

And actually, I can link this back to Trump and explain how he exploits this. Remember when he sends his VP to eat in Chili’s in Times Square? The front row kids went ballistic. Fast food is profane, it’s low culture, it’s banal. It’s without meaning. And they went insane. But viewed from the back row’s perspective, McDonald’s and Chili’s and Applebee’s and Wal-Marts are a central part of the community.

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NR: I seem to remember there was a moment during the campaign when Trump said something like “Oh, Melania is a great cook, she makes the most wonderful meatloaf.” And then people said “That’s not being a chef! Anyone can make that.”

CA: He does that intentionally. Because he knows getting the front row to scream will cause them to do what they do when they get mad. They’ll use scorn and derision. They’ll mock. Because that’s what you do when you’re an educated person. To engage with someone, to even bother to argue with them is beneath you. So they mock. Look at Jon Stewart. Look at all the fucking Comedy Central people. You mock the opponent because to engage with them is beneath you. Now when you’re at the bottom, in the back row, your form of engagement is anger, is bitterness, is violence. Because the people above you refuse to engage, what are you going to do?

NR: Well, if you’re not mocking them you’re fact-checking them. That’s the other weapon.

CA: Right, because that’s your valuation framework. Let me give you another example. I was a banker. I liked TARP. For however many fucking years of my life, I supported TARP. I supported all the goddamn neoliberal acronyms: NAFTA, TARP, TPP, all of it. So I can have an argument with a macro person. I go into town to McDonald’s, because I hang out in churches and McDonald’s when I go into town. So if I go in there and I say “Well, TARP will help.” They’ll say, “Yeah, but why are you giving 20 billion dollars to Wall Street?” And I can say, “Well, actually, the money was used to buy assets, and the assets increased in value, and then we got paid back.” And they’d say: “Well, what the fuck? Look at that factory over there: that’s been, kind of sitting there.” And you look out the window and there’s a factory that’s all rusted and boarded up. “That used to employ lots of people. Where was our bailout?” And you have those conversations 30 times and you say: “Maybe I should stop saying ‘Well, actually.’” Maybe I should listen. It’s always a “Well, actually.” And these are clever arguments, but ultimately they just benefit you.

NR: That’s how I feel about a lot of these arguments for why things like the TPP benefit people in the statistical aggregate. Because even if that’s the case, you’re still not really granting people their humanity, because you’re treating them as numbers on a balance sheet, and you’re the one who is in charge of moving the numbers around and doing what’s best for them, and you don’t care if they understand, they’re just supposed to be grateful. 

CA: Again, you’re judging things within a framework that benefits you, a data framework. This mentality says: “We want data geeks. We’re rational people, so we want to do two things: We want to maximize GDP, and we want to do it efficiently.” That’s the neoliberal mantra, which is Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton. And when you take that worldview, and you take that framework, the natural thing to do is to hand that power to businesses, to deregulate, because that’s how you can maximize GDP and be most efficient. Let’s give industry whatever it wants. And you maximize GDP but you steamroll everything in the process, forgetting about the consequences.  Forgetting that that may not be what everybody wants. People don’t just necessarily want uber-efficiency and more stuff. They might think meaning comes from having a community, having a network. Being valued, not just having 5 iPods, but having one iPod and four friends!

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NR: I saw something similar in the way some Democrats were frustrated that people didn’t appreciate Obamacare enough. “You’ve all been made better off, I don’t see why you’re upset.” But if it’s complicated to use, and it’s policy being made from afar, and people aren’t being engaged in politics or included, they can get better off in the narrow statistical aggregate, and still not appreciate it, for a very rational reason.

CA: One thing elites don’t get about the working class—and there are differences, but in the aggregate—is that they don’t want handouts from above. They would much rather have good jobs than handouts. And both conservatives and liberals have misused this notion. But it’s true that people want things that give them a role, that respect them. Obamacare is complicated. It did get a bad rap, because this tribal division in the U.S. means things can get knocked just because they have the wrong label attached. But I’m on Obamacare, and it’s a nightmare to use. I can’t tell you how much I just want to kill myself every time I have engage with it. It’s not easy to use.

NR: I think about the difference between the way that policies look on paper, versus the way that people actually experience them. One of the major problem with a kind of technocratic attitude is that it’s not sympathetic to the real-life frustrations that people have, because these are often things that are never going to show up in the numbers. So unemployment rates might be going down, and that’s great, but the kind of jobs there are might be qualitatively worse.

Anyway, your writings are not particularly hopeful about the prospects for the divide. And post-election, you don’t seem to have much hope that the media is going to help. Their realization seems to have been “Oh, we should have visited more parts of the country,” but there’s not really a change in how well they understand people different from them, just a sort of recognition that there is another America and it’s powerful and angry. And so you don’t think the front row has much hope.

CA: Nope, not much, and also, just to make this clear, I don’t have much hope the back row is going to understand the front row either. It’s a two-way street. I happen to believe the front row is in power so there’s more of an obligation for them to understand the back row. Although currently, the back row has gained power for a short period here.

NR: Well, they’ve sort of gained power. They elected Trump, but Trump isn’t exactly “back row.” I mean, elite Democrats are furious. But all the people that Trump appoints, and all the people that are going to be running the country, they’re not necessarily people from the angry working class.

CA: I do think he is going to burn the very people that voted for him, not so much because he doesn’t have intentions of working for them as because he’s just incompetent himself. But I also disagree because, despite the people that he has around him, I think his overall arc is towards his supporters’ valuation framework more than it is towards the front row valuation framework. I just think he’s personally corrupt, and he’s incompetent, and he’ll get taken advantage of by the people around him.

NR: Also he doesn’t actually care about people.

CA: Oh no, he doesn’t. I mean, this whole thing is just another scam. He’s been doing that all his life. But he’s certainly not helping the front row with his policies, and he has no intention of doing that. He may help his buddies, some front row people might be smart enough to glom onto him and sell out and be corrupt. But overall 8 years of a Trump administration is not going to do the front row well. It will do the back row better than the front row, I would speculate, if he wasn’t incompetent.

But I think ultimately the division we have is close to unsolvable. There’s no policy that’s going to address it, because I think it is so social and cultural. It requires almost a national kumbaya, the front row going back and living in different communities and opening their mind, and it requires the back row to drop a little bit of their anger. I just don’t see that happening in either case.

NR: Well, we’ll leave it on that somewhat hopeless, discouraging note.

CA: I hope that wasn’t too negative.