Justin Gest: The New Minority?

Dr. Justin Gest

“How can white people feel marginalized, feel like a minority in the societies they once defined?”

It's a question Justin Gest explored with an audience at Florida State University on Tuesday, as he presented findings from his book, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Gest, an assistant professor of Public Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, has completed a groundbreaking academic study of Brexit and Trump supporters that provides context to the largely unprecedented shifts of white working-class voters in British and American politics.

The event was sponsored by the Center for Leadership & Social Change and the Division of Student Affairs.

Gest began with what he called “oral histories” of two places: Youngstown, Ohio, and East London. He told the audience tales of the white working class individuals who once made up the majority these factory-driven towns. Youngstown began to decline in 1977 on a day known as Black Monday, when mills began to close without warning, causing 55,000 workers to lose their jobs over the next five years. East London faced a similar problem when their local factories started closing down due to London’s increasingly globalized economy. The white working class residents found themselves in an even more unfamiliar situation as immigration numbers began to climb, he said.

Gest used stories of these towns, with their former glory and subsequent decades of devastating economic and social decline, to help the audience explore feelings of empathy toward members of the white working class—something that many people are not inclined to do if they come from a different socioeconomic background, he said.

At the most basic level, the white working class may feel marginalized based on numbers, he said.

Gest told the crowd that it is reasonable for a group that once made up the majority of a population to feel very outnumbered by new additions from outside groups. He pointed out that only 2 percent of America’s Congress comes from a working class background. Gest reminded the audience that it can be disheartening not to see who you are reflected in a government that claims to be the voice of the people. Additionally, Gest explained that white working-class people are often subject to judgment based on the combination of their whiteness with their class, resulting in labels like rednecks, hicks and hillbillies.

Some members of the audience were not easily convinced, however. One audience member asked how an individual could be expected to have empathy for a group often held accountable for verbal and even physical abuse against others. While there are many reasons one could criticize members of the white working class, as Gest explained, the group has faced a huge amount of political, social and domestic disorientation that will require patience on everyone’s part to overcome.

Gest’s research takes this unique angle on the white working class and uses it to explain Donald Trump’s recent campaign victory. He touched on the possibility of a third party vote making the most sense to members of the white working class, especially in the case of last year’s election; however, he explained that the United States’ election process invariably results in a two-party system with very few options to give voters.

So, why Trump? What is the motivation behind “Make America Great Again?”

“If it was just ‘Make America Great,’ there would be someone else in the White House today. And the curtains would be a different color," Gest said. "But because of that word, ‘again—’ What does ‘again’ do? It suggests that things used to be great, and today? Not so much.”

This idea central to Trump's campaign really appeals to the white working class, Gest said. These voters, he added, have a similar perception of reality in the sense that rather than thinking of what reality ought to be, they focus on what reality once was. Gest claimed that Trump’s slogan “may not be, as many people think, a referendum on race, but on the past.” So while at first it may not make sense for the working class to favor Donald Trump—the face of the American elite—it makes much more sense when considering their vote as an attempt to return to their former glory.

— Charlie Andelman