Dale M. Coulter is an associate professor in the School of Divinity at Regent University.
America is a patchwork of regional and local identities, stitched together by a shared history and the values and political structures enshrined in the Constitution. Despite the immortalization of cultural assimilation in the 1907 play “The Melting Pot,” Americans have preferred the richness of regional and local flavors to a bland, everyman America. More like PBS’s “A Chef’s Life,” with its focus on the food and traditions of eastern North Carolina, many Americans remain rooted in the folk culture of their region, whether it’s the way of life found in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, or the Great Lakes of the Upper Midwest.
The vast majority of those who inhabit the regional folk cultures of America’s fruited plains belong to what historian Christopher Lasch called the “petty bourgeoisie.” By this, Lasch meant the confluence of the working class and the lower middle class — small proprietors, artisans, tradesmen and farmers. They at one time unionized against the forces of industrialization and now have voted against globalization, and they share the same set of values and thus a common perspective.
Regardless of which political party is in power, the petty bourgeoisie will repel efforts to impose a form of politics that seems to dismantle their regional and local identity. Populist resentment is the backlash against such measures.
The distinctive viewpoint of this group, its valorization of community and hard work, stems from the way in which regional and local identities organize around family, church and neighborhood. The values of the petty bourgeoisie are a moral conservatism, egalitarianism, respect for work and loyalty, a preference for solidarity over social mobility, and a concern for communal structures over individual advancement. These priorities are evident in the preference that the majority of Americans have for staying close to their hometowns and the likelihood of returning to one’s state or region. Saturday Night Live’s recent sketch of “Black Jeopardy” with Tom Hanks hit on how this shared outlook can cross ethnic lines.
Since the values of the petty bourgeoisie remain embedded in the folk cultures, regardless of where the individuals reside, they also transcend socioeconomic distinctions. This partly explains why Donald Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton by a four-point margin among whites with a college degree. A person who begins in a blue-collar family and moves into the professional class of white-collar employment does not necessarily leave behind the provincialism of family, church and neighborhood. And new and old values can coexist — the affirmation of egalitarianism and solidarity explains how the petty-bourgeois mind-set could affirm equal pay for equal work while also vigorously defending motherhood and the right of women to stay at home and raise their children.
Pitted against the petty-bourgeois world is the voice of the expert who, in Lasch’s words, offers the promised land of progress as “the true and only heaven.” And fueling the working classes reactionary fire is the tendency of a cultural elite to look down upon petty-bourgeois values as a backward form of anti-intellectualism that needs to embrace the progressive vision of a global and cosmopolitan future.
In the United States, many see increasing environmental regulations, gun-control measures and efforts to redefine familial structures as destructive to their communities. Such a viewpoint was merely reinforced by claims of prejudice against Islam, homophobia and xenophobia among media elites.
The populism of Middle America stems from the view that the traditional world of the petty bourgeoisie is under threat from the “politics of the civilized minority.” It is a culture — a way of living that is being defended. But in the face of external threats, folk cultures can succumb to the temptation to tribalism and a politics of envy and resentment. The racist rhetoric in certain sectors of the electorate is the manifestation of the instinct to protect folk identity. This is the dark side of populism.
Nevertheless, it would be reductionist to view recent events solely through the prism of race, just as analyses of “working-class” concerns should not reduce everything to economic factors. The potent mix of immigration, wage stagnation, job loss and disintegration of moral values were kindling that Trump’s populist rhetoric ignited. This may be why Midwesterners who previously voted for President Obama cast their lot with the president-elect. In 2004, Obama’s populist speeches against George W. Bush’s “trickle-down” elitism and his easy familiarity with religion tapped into the concerns for church and community. In 2016, Trump built on this anti-elite narrative and applied it to Obama’s policies and Clinton’s character.
In America’s past, religion supplied the balm of spiritual discipline in order to resist the temptation to resentment and self-righteousness. Grounded in a transcendent hope, this discipline made forgiveness possible, humanizing the opposition. It channeled resentment into activism that sustained a conversation about how to find liberty and justice for all. Martin Luther King Jr. saw how hope and forgiveness nourished non-violent resistance “until justice rolls down like mighty rivers.” Even with the rise of the “nones,” especially in white America, religion retains a vital role at the level of folk culture. To try to privatize the influence of religion upon American culture rather than seeing it as a way to facilitate ongoing conversation among various folk cultural identities would be a mistake. The moral discourse within religion is precisely what is needed to curb the dangerous extremes to which populism can go.
All politics is still local, and local culture is often where the strength of American identity resides. In the year where folk artist Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize and anti-establishmentarian Donald Trump won the presidency, it may be time to acknowledge the vitality of folk cultures while also helping them to resist the darkness of a tribal politics of resentment.