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Batya Ungar-Sargon on the Campbell Conversations

The American Dream is a touchstone for this nation, but is it now out of reach for many citizens we used to regard as middle class? This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor for Newsweek. She has a new book about workers in America, titled "Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women."

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. The American Dream is a touchstone for this nation. But is it in danger of dying? My guest today is Newsweek opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon. She's written a new book about workers in America titled “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women.” Miss Ungar-Sargon, welcome to the program.

Batya Ungar-Sargon: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure and an honor to be here with you and your audience.

GR: Well, we are really glad you were able to join us. So, let me just start with the real basic question. Briefly, if you could, how did you get the idea to write this book now?

BUS: It's a great question because everybody told me not to write it, but it seems to me like the most important issue of our time, I think the 2024 election is going to be decided by the working class. The issue of class has become increasingly important in America, and yet we don't talk about it at all. And we certainly don't hear from working-class Americans. It strikes me as though they have been almost deplatformed. The voices we hear in the media are almost exclusively now the college-educated, and it has become increasingly clear to me over the last five years that the real divide in America is actually not left versus right, that most Americans are actually kind of somewhere in the middle. The real divide is the class divide that separates out the college-educated from the working class. College-educated Americans over the course of their careers on average, make $1 million more. They have much more access to home ownership. They are much healthier, they live much longer, and their lives are insulated from the kinds of precariousness that plague working-class life today and I really, really wanted to tell that story in the words of working-class Americans. So that's why I wrote “Second Class.”

GR: Well, I want to get into some of the things you just raised there, particularly as they might relate to, political issues, but, well, let me let me stick with this for now. So you gave a hint of this at the end, but what was the process that you use to go about researching and writing the book?

BUS: I wanted to interview people whose lives were interesting enough to carry the story and carry the narrative and keep reader’s interests, but also who represented larger trends in the working class. I mean, we're talking about the majority of the country, 100 million workers, right? So I went to, Joe Price, who's a professor at Brigham Young University, and he has, a team of graduate students. And what he'll do is he will rent them out to journalists who are less familiar with the data side of things, like me, you know, English majors like me. And what I asked them to do was to look at the American Census Survey. I asked them to compare 2000 to 2020 so that I could have a sense of emerging trends, and I asked them to give me a kind of bird's eye view demographic breakdown of the working class. Who is the American working class? What are the races? What are the ages? What are their homeownership rates? What, industries give higher, homeownership rates than others because homeownership is so important to the American Dream. I wanted just the pure data, and they gave me this amazingly delicious spreadsheet with all of the data that I was looking for. The breakdown by the numbers, by industry, by region, etc. and I used that to guide my search for the characters in the book so that I knew that I was looking for people who were representative of larger trends.

GR: Well, it's interesting, and the book works that way because you do, you weave in both, data and graphs along with these stories. So it's a nice combination of things. You say at the beginning of the book that you were surprised about the view toward hard work, that you heard from almost all the people that you spoke with, and that that really intrigued me. And I wanted to ask you why first of all, did that surprise you? And then secondly, what was the view toward hard work?

BUS: It surprised me because I think that we in the knowledge industry caste, as I've come to think of it, tend to think that nobody could possibly want some of these jobs. I spoke to janitors and cleaning ladies and, bellboys and, barbacks and waiters and, certified nurse's aides who spent, you know, a 12-hour night shift changing the diapers of the elderly. And I think in our caste, we think no one could possibly get any dignity from this job. Nobody wants to clean toilets for a living. And therefore, we think it's okay to, you know, outsource these jobs to illegal immigrants or offshore them, you know, manufacturing or what have you to China and Mexico, as we did for so long. And I think that's why I was so surprised by it. But what I found was to a person, people get immense self-esteem and dignity from their work, whatever their jobs are. And what makes some of these jobs undignified are the conditions and the wages. It's not the work itself. The people I interviewed, and you'll read this from them in the book, in person after person. They saw work as a spiritual inheritance that they got from their parents that they were unbelievably proud of. They remembered seeing their parents get dressed for work every day, and they felt so proud to be connected to that. And I do think there's something uniquely American about this, this kind of Protestant ethic of work, right? That's tied into a capitalistic vision that we admire enterprise. We admire effort. And the problem is, is that these people work so hard, and yet their efforts are no longer equal to securing them the most modest version of the American Dream, and a secure and stable life for themselves and their children.

GR: And I want to go back to the title of the book. How is it, then, the elites, I mean, you've given some hints about this already, but how is it that elites have betrayed the working class and probably the middle classes as well? Betrayed in what way? It's a pretty strong word.

BUS: Yeah. So we tend to think of the economy, or at least we talk about it, in the chattering classes, in the political classes, as though there's some sort of inevitability to the way everything turned out. You know, obviously globalization was going to happen. These are just the winds of progress pushing things forward. But the truth is, is that a lot of the things that happened in the economy that resulted in the downward mobility of the working class, which turned them into second-class citizens, as I argue, was the result of very intentional policy, often by Democrats, actually, in the name of progress, perhaps, you know, unintentionally, bad. But, you know, essentially what happened was we created an economy that is extremely rewarding if you are in the knowledge industry and you go to college and extremely punishing if you work in a working-class job that we actually still totally rely on to survive. And that is where the unfairness of this comes in and where I tried to keep the anger out of the book. The book is mostly in the voices of the working class, but it is an outrage that we did this because we do still rely on their work. They do work so unbelievably hard in physical labor. And yet, through a series of policy choices, whether it was President Bill Clinton signing NAFTA into law and shipping 5 million very good manufacturing jobs overseas to build up China and Mexico's middle class, or President Barack Obama, who defunded vocational training leading to this massive dearth of skilled trades in the United States, and also the closing off of a very sure avenue to the American Dream for working-class Americans or even President Biden effectively decriminalizing illegal border crossing, which has resulted in millions and millions of people entering the country, which has an effect on a of direct downward depression of the wages of the working class, because that is who these illegal migrants compete with when they find work. These were all policies that contributed to the situation in which working-class people can no longer be assured of a stable life, despite working so hard.

GR: I'm Grant Reeher, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Batya Ungar-Sargon. And we're discussing her new book. It's titled “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women.” I wanted to follow up with you on that, and thinking about some of the policies that might also contribute to that, and you mentioned some interesting ones there from those administrations. Three, that struck me in thinking about this were a little more simple in a way, but we've had since 1980 three sort of big rounds of tax cuts. one during the Reagan administration, another one, during George W Bush and then the last one during Donald Trump. And, while those put more money back in everyone's pockets, they certainly seemed to be more favorable toward that uber elite financially and economically, that class or would you put those and in that same sort of group of different kinds of policies that that might have exacerbated this?

BUS: You know, the high watermark for working-class wages was 1971. That's when they started to sort of stagnate and drop off. And the share of the GDP that is held by the billionaire class, you know, the Uber Uber rich has not significantly changed since the 70s. What has significantly changed is where in the 70s, the largest share of the economy was in the middle class. Today, over 50% of the GDP is held by the top 20%. So this college credentialed, you know, multiple degreed, top 20%. The professional class is actually the ones who have, secured the big shift in GDP. There's been a middle-class squeeze. So a lot of working-class people were squeezed downwards, but a lot of upper-middle-class people were squeezed upwards. And that has been where the real shift in GDP has happened. And that's why I think, you know, the tax cuts really don't, they didn't have as much of an impact. And the reason for that is that working-class Americans don't believe that what has changed for them has been an insufficiency of redistribution from the top to them. They don't actually want redistribution, which comes back to the first question you asked me about the dignity of work. They don't feel entitled to the taxes of people who make more to them, them and they don't want them. They find it kind of insulting. What they want is higher wages, better health care, affordable housing, opportunities for their children. And you can't really, tax cut your way or tax your way to any of those outcomes. Higher taxes and the redistributive model is actually very good for the poor, for the dependent poor, but it doesn't really help the working class. In fact, the opposite. They often see those taxes as their taxes. And when you look at the tax cuts, I mean the Trump tax cuts are very good example of this. It's true that the rich overall got more money, but the percentages of tax cuts, the highest were for the working class and the middle class. And so working-class people felt that those tax cuts put money back in their pockets as well, and they don't have the kind of resentment towards them that the, the, the sort of credentialed elites do.

GR: Interesting. And on that point, in a way, you have a lot of interesting graphs, in your book and this is radio, so it kind of makes it hard. I can't share them, but I did I did want to ask you about one of them that relates to what you just said, and I'll describe it. You've got a graph of the rise of three things since 1965, corporate profits and then per capita GDP, which you were just, referring to, and also the productivity of labor, in other words, for a given amount of effort, how much does that labor produce. In all those three they kind of follow the same line. They've risen pretty similarly, and they've significantly gone up since 1965. And then you have a fourth line, which is the real average wage, and that one is mostly flat. And it really is an arresting way to kind of show who's getting better off in the last 40, 50 years of this economy and who's not. And I don't know if you wanted to comment on that. You've already spoken to it. I think, but.

BUS: I, only to say it is an outrage and it is an outrage that sort of neither party really had, an answer to because, you know, like I said, the, you can't really redistribute your way to higher taxes, right? I mean, to higher wages. Right. That's not a thing that the left really has had a response to. I mean, unions are a big theme in the book. And of course, unions secure higher wages for working class Americans. And yet the vast majority of the unionization efforts today are in the kind of, white collar spaces, you see journalists unionizing and nurses and not, not, not, white collar, but, certainly, you know, on the higher end of, of the working class, you know, people who who are, you know, they're called desk unions, right? This is where a lot of that energy is. Working-class Americans are not more likely to see in unions, a great champion or a way to that higher wage. And I think a lot of that has to do with the union's reversal on immigration and the Democrat's reversal on immigration. So I'm sure your listeners remember, you know, in the 90s, it was the Democrats who believed in securing the border and massively reducing the number of immigrants entering the country because they understood that the only real way to raise wages is to limit the supply of labor. Right? It's a simple supply and demand. If you bring in 10 million people, and they are way more likely to be employed in, cleaning, in landscaping, in elder care, the wages in all of those industries are going to plummet because there are simply so many more available workers. And one of the best ways that you can actually help wages that working-class people know firsthand, right, is through limiting the supply of labor, through reshoring of manufacturing, through a lot of these policies that actually, President Trump, really made a centerpiece of his campaigns. And working-class people notice that. And the thing that I would say, I guess, to people in our class who feel a little bit suspicious of this, maybe people will say, well, maybe the working class are wrong about what's good for them. They're just xenophobic. They don't like immigrants. To that, I would ask, what is the likelihood that a person who has $50 in their bank account and, you know, four children to feed and, a car to fill up with gas to get them to school and back, that somebody like that is wrong about which economic policies put money back in their bank account. I mean, what is the likelihood that somebody living on a shoestring budget is wrong about what policies have an impact on them? To me, it just seems so unlike from times in my life where I was living on a shoestring budget. You just know. I mean, the winds, right, they impact you in such an immediate way. I think it's worth trusting these people about which policies have helped them. And by the way, I interviewed people who were Democrats and Republicans in the book. Very little distinguish them when it came to policy, because they saw both parties as effectively having abandoned them. And that's why they're not polarized. They don't hold it against people who vote for the other party. I mean, it would never occur to them to hold it against somebody because they have very little spiritual investment in the political system, because it has done so little to help them.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of Newsweek, and we're discussing her new book, which is titled “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women.” You know, I wanted to ask you about this concept of the middle class and one of the things that has historically marked ideas about the middle class in America is how many Americans think they're in it. And, you know, yeah, you can get poor people who say, I'm middle class, and then you get people in this top group that you've been referring to, that think of themselves as middle class. Do you, did you get a sense that that is part of the change, that you noticed that self-identification in that wide swath is now narrowing it? More people are recognizing, hey, I'm not there anymore, or I'm looking down on this from my more elite status. Do you get a sense of that?

BUS: Yeah, I definitely did. I think, you know, it's so hard for us to remember this, but there was a time when, you know, being a janitor, being a manicurist, being, a person who, you know, sat and watched over elderly people. People who did those jobs were middle class. Like, it's so hard for us to remember that there are people still in Las Vegas, a town where you cannot employ illegal immigrants because the casinos are so tightly regulated, women who and men who clean hotel rooms in Las Vegas make a living wage. They make $26 an hour. That's definitely not the case in most of America and it's really mind-boggling when you start to realize that, you know, the kinds of jobs that we think of as poor people jobs today, there was a time in America where these jobs, you know, people had had health care, people could become homeowners. I mean, still today, 50% of people who clean homes for a living are homeowners. And that's because there are still many places in America where, you know, you could be pretty poor and still afford a home in much of Red America, by the way. And so when you think of housing as a crucial component of the American Dream, it's really Democratic cities and metro areas that are really have dropped the ball on this due to zoning laws. And there's a big chapter on that in the book. So I think, yes, there has been a shift in how working-class people see themselves. I did have the experience where I would talk to people and I could tell over the course of my interview with them, or the course of the few days or week I spoke I spent with them that they had started to see themselves as working class as a result of the conversations that we were having when before they didn't really have a language for it. That happened with a number of people, and now they will email me, you know, articles and, you know, there was this sort of thing that happened where a class consciousness started to emerge, you know, in, in the people that I was, you know, spending so much time with. I definitely think that as, as the American Dream and a middle-class life has become increasingly out of reach, people, people would use the word lower class to talk about themselves and their situation and that was also very heartbreaking.

GR: Yeah, well, on that point, I was curious of all the people that you spoke with, was there one person that you carry with you now more than anybody else that was either like the hardest for you to hear their story, or perhaps their situation made you more angry than some of the other ones that you could just briefly talk about.

BUS: You know, I was actually much more angry than any of they were, which was one of the most heartbreaking things about it was a lot of working-class people blame themselves. They don't have this concept of like, they're so patriotic and they still love this country so much and believe in this country. And, a lot of them, they didn't really have a language for the kind of like, you know, class rage that I sort of felt on their behalf many of them, felt that Trump was a champion for them. And even many of the Democrats that I interviewed admitted to me that he put money in their pockets. And there's something outrageous about that, you know, they're that somebody who has $51 in their bank account might potentially have to vote for someone who they think is more likely to take that money away from them. You know that there's this it's an outrage that the Democrats have lost the majority of working-class voters in this country, and that's increasingly working-class voters who are Hispanics and who are Black men are now turning in in a big way according to polling towards Trump. And I know it's very hard for people who are Democrats to hear that but it's such an outrage that people who used to see the Democrats as their champions now view the Democrats as the party of these over credentialed elites and the dependent poor, and they don't see themselves reflected and their interests are actually in tention with both of those groups. Right. As we spoke about earlier, if you think about it, you know, the over-credentialed college elites are the consumers of low-wage, illegal labor. And so hiring illegal immigrants actually puts money back in the pockets of people who have a college degree. While it is effectively wage theft of working class people who used to be able to have the American Dream if they were a janitor, if they were a hotel cleaning lady, if they were a line cook, and really no longer can because of policies put in place, by the Democrats. And, I, I want to stress it would be so easy for the Democrats to get these voters back. And I can talk a little bit about that, if that's of interest.

GR: Yeah, yeah. Let me just remind people who were who we're talking to. If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher, and my guest is Batya Ungar-Sargon. And we've been discussing her new book, which is titled “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women.” Yes, that's exactly where I was going to go. So I'm glad you brought that up. Which is okay, so you've painted this problem for the Democratic Party. So, so and this problem can be traced back to 1980, at least. There was a famous focus group done on Macomb County, Michigan voters, in that era where this kind of thing that you're talking about came through loud and clear. So what is what can the party do? What can they what can they do to get these folks back?

BUS: So it's actually a lot easier than I think many people realize because they don't speak to working-class people. And so working-class people are a cipher to them. They assume that they project all of this onto them, this white rural rage. Right. That was the latest book describing it. To me, this is just an alibi, right? To let themselves off the hook for having abandoned these workers. But it would be very easy to get them back. And the reason I know this is because of this, the vast majority of people I interviewed, whether they vote Democrat or Republican, they agreed on the policies that would help them. So you ask me for examples, I'm going to talk about two women that I interviewed, Linda, a big Trump supporter from West Virginia who drives an Amazon truck. And Amy, a certified nurse's aide in Florida, is married to a woman and, voted for Biden. These women agreed on almost everything. So Amy told me this is the gay nurse's aide. She told me she thinks parents who take children to, a drag show should be put in prison. She told me she thought that it should be unbelievably difficult to transition, she was very upset about funding to Ukraine. She did not understand why we were funding that war. She worried that immigrants were going to take American jobs, and she felt that they had lowered the wages for people who were working class. She was very worried about health care. Every year she spends all of her savings on these unbelievable premiums and deductibles that her terrible health care plan has. And she'll never be able to afford a home. Linda. her number one issue, she would say, is the price of groceries. She is very upset about homeless veterans and homelessness in general. This is the Trump voter, right? She's extremely pro-gay. And when a family member kicked her nephew out of her home for being gay, she welcomed him with open arms. These are women you're going to meet in the book. She loves that Trump is pro-gay. She loves that he courts unions. She loves working for Amazon. And she also is not a homeowner. She lost her home with her husband when his factory was shipped to Mexico in 2000. So these two women, you could create a policy and agenda that would both of them would vote for how? Okay, well, what are their top issues there?

GR: I got, I got I got to interject here. We're getting low on time and I want to squeeze one thing in. So if you could make that point quickly let me ask you my final follow-up.

BUS: If a candidate came out of the gate and said, we're going to significantly limit the number of immigrants coming into this country and back health care from the government's point of view, make it impossible for people to have bankruptcy-related to medical expenses. That person could get 60% of the vote tomorrow.

GR: Wow. Well, let me just what I heard and what you just said, and we'll have to end it here is that one of the things that the Democratic Party then might do is emphasize class in the way that you are talking about it, and perhaps de-emphasize some of the social identity issues that they have been pushing. Would you agree with that?

BUS: I would agree with that. But it's even easier than that. If they took a hard line on immigration, they would turn this ship around tomorrow because they have the health care piece and the Republicans don't.

GR: Gotcha. Okay. We'll have to leave it there. That was Batya Ungar-Sargon. And again, her new book is titled “Second Class: How the Elites Betrayed America's Working Men and Women.” I highly recommend it. It's a good read. It's substantive, but it's very interesting and readable as a story. So, Batya thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BUS: Thank you so much for having me. God bless you.

GR: You too. It's been, you've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.