A few days ago, the National Review’s Kevin Williamson caused something of a storm when he published an article entitled “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction.” The article might as well have been called “Establishment Conservatives Really Aren’t Racists: We Hate Lots of White People, Too.”
Williamson’s thesis is that the white working class is largely responsible for its own degraded condition, apparently because way too many of the roughly 100 million white American adults without college degrees are shiftless drug addicts, who “whelp” babies they can’t take care of, while suckling on the teat of our overly-generous welfare state, instead of moving from their dysfunctional Rust Belt ghettos to places where good-paying jobs are going unfilled. (In a remarkable oversight, Williamson fails to say where those places might be).
Williamson’s thesis is not exactly novel. Indeed, it’s part of a series of conservative screeds that could be called “Working-Class White is the New Black.” The problem with “those people,” you see, isn’t that their jobs, their communities, and their whole way of life have been destroyed by global capitalism. It isn’t that being thrust to the margins or the heart of poverty tends to create stresses that break apart families. It isn’t that economic calamity leads to substance abuse as an eminently predictable form of self-medication.
After all, these sorts of structural explanations for social breakdown are only supported by social science, which, like reality itself, is known to have a strong left-wing bias. Williamson and company’s right-wing critique, by contrast, is supported by the very interesting theory that roughly two-thirds of America’s white population suddenly developed poor moral characters, around the time that "The Brady Bunch" went into syndication.
Ah yes, "The Brady Bunch." Behold conservative cultural studies, as brought to you by the National Review:
The manufacturing numbers — and the entire gloriously complex tale of globalization — go in fits and starts: a little improvement here, a little improvement there, and a radically better world in raw material terms (and let’s not sniff at those) every couple of decades. Go back and read the novels of the 1980s or watch "The Brady Bunch" and ask yourself why well-to-do suburban families living in large, comfortable homes and holding down prestigious jobs were worried about the price of butter and meat, and then ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone complain that he couldn’t afford a stick of butter.
OK I asked myself, and the answer is: last week. Does Williamson actually know any middle-class -- let alone working-class or poor -- Americans? The average income of the other half, the bottom 50% of American households (that’s 160 million people) is $26,520 per year. That’s barely more than $2,000 per month, before subtracting payroll and state taxes. If your entire household is living on $2,000 per month, you can bet you’re worried about the price of butter and meat.
But let’s get back to "The Brady Bunch." Leave aside the absurdity of citing TV mogul Sherwood Schwartz’s fantasy creations as evidence for the actual economic circumstances of middle class professionals in the early 1970s (For example, the Bradys had a live-in housekeeper, because lots of people in Schwartz’s social circle had one). Consider what sorts of costs the real-life parallels to the fictional Bradys were dealing with.
It’s true that butter and meat cost about 20% less in real dollars than they did 40 years ago. On the other hand: the real-life North Hollywood house which Schwartz used for the exterior shots of the Brady home sold in 1973 for $61,000 ($325,761 in 2016 dollars). According to the popular real estate website Zillow, buying this house today would cost $1,791,835. Now real estate values in Los Angeles have skyrocketed, but in the nation as a whole, the inflation-adjusted cost of a new home has almost doubled since the early 1970s, while median household income has barely budged.
If the Brady children had gone off to college, they would have paid, in 1975, an average of $541 per year to attend a four-year public university, and $2,290 to go to a private school (the 2015 dollar equivalents are $2,387 and $10,088). Today, average tuition is, in real dollars, three times higher at private schools and four times higher at public institutions.
When "The Brady Bunch" came on the air, Americans were paying $2,171 per year, in 2016 dollars, for health care. Today that figure is four and half times higher.
In sum, while over the past four decades real median household incomes have stagnated (and those of working class households have declined), housing prices have doubled, higher education costs have tripled and quadrupled, and medical costs have risen even more.
That establishment Republicans such as Williamson are deluded enough to believe that the last 40 years haven’t been an economic disaster for working class Americans, and that therefore their personal struggles provide an appropriate occasion for sanctimonious moralizing, helps explain why Donald Trump is winning the battle for the Republican nomination.