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Book discussion highlights analysis of the white working class in Europe and the US

Justin Gest (George Mason University) and Christopher Way (Cornell University)

In the midst of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of populist right parties across the European continent, social scientists have begun to propose explanations for this transatlantic explosion of nationalism, populism, and push back against the forces of globalization. Justin Gest, an assistant professor of public policy from the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, is one such social scientist, and his recent book The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, argues that feelings of marginalization by working class whites are a critical component of these anti-globalization trends.

The New Minority examines white, working class communities on both sides of the Atlantic: Youngstown, Ohio and Dagenham, England. Both cities once counted themselves as thriving communities for working class people, but have fallen on hard times as the US and UK have deindustrialized since the 1970s. White working class decline reaches back decades in both cities according to Gest. For example, while the Ford Motor Company used to employ 55,000 people in East London, today that number has dropped to just 4,000. Similarly, Youngstown was formerly considered “the steel capital of the world,” and today the city has a “post-apocalyptic” feel with a population that has declined from 167,000 in 1960, to just 67,000 today.

Gest’s lecture and the discussion of his book took place on November 10, just two days after the election of Donald Trump. Much of the analysis of Trump’s electoral success focuses on working class whites living in the Midwest, and while Gest says he did not see the election result coming, he did see a group that was “understudied and misunderstood.” Gest’s research suggests that a connection between the marginalization of working class whites and the rise of right-populist parties is transatlantic in nature, and that there is opportunity for this phenomenon to continue to spread as Marine Le Pen campaigns to become the president of France.

Gest’s discussion of his research and book was followed by commentary and criticism from Christopher Way, associate professor of Government and director of the Cornell Institute for European Studies, Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government, and Pauliina Patana, a graduate student from Government. Much of the discussion focused on themes concerning the extent to which racism or Islamophobia contribute to support for radical right candidates and parties, and that, paradoxically, voters living in areas with lower numbers of immigrant tend to be more likely to oppose immigration and the effects of globalization more generally.

While the seminar concluded with more questions than answers, the transatlantic nature of this sociopolitical trend dictates that the reemergence of far right populism will be an important topic of research for social scientists in both Europe and the United States in the years to come.