Listening to an interview with historian Nancy Isenberg, author of the new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I was struck by Isenberg’s reference to the United States as a “democracy of manners” – an idea, she says, which came from an Australian writer.
“We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different,” Isenberg argues. Our democracy is all about manners; success is all in the performance. I highly doubt this is a unique American phenomenon, but in building off Isenberg I will keep this post in the American context.
From Andrew Jackson to the current presumptive Republican nominee, populist candidates have been successful by showing themselves able to play the part of a poor, white American – to eat the right foods, to say the right things with the right mannerisms. These are the candidates you want to have a beer with.
Importantly, the actual background of these candidates is not particularly relevant. Jackson did grow up in rural Appalachia, but more recent populists have come from among the upper tiers of society. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the act.
Embracing a democracy of manners is a failure of genuine democracy. It encourages citizens divest their civic responsibilities to actors who can merely play the part of representing them.
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isenberg’s book, but I get the impression this democracy of manners is a core challenge which creates a self-perpetuating cycle along several dimensions. In dismissing the fundamental human value of the white poor, white elites create a class they can scapegoat for all of society’s ills. Obvert racism among white poor allows upper classes to pretend as though racism only exists among the uneducated poor. It creates a class who will protect themselves by tearing down any other groups poised to breach elite power.
And, through the democracy of manners, it creates a class that will continually vote against their own self-interest, supporting candidates who look like them and talk like them, but who ultimately serve elite interests.