In the run-up to the 2016 election, sociologist Jennifer Silva conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with black, white, and Latino working-class residents of a struggling coal town in Pennsylvania. Many of the people she spoke with were nonvoters in 2016 and before. Their politics, she writes in her new book We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America, were often a hodgepodge of left and right. Their views could appear “incoherent or irrational” on the surface: Many of them trusted Donald Trump because of his wealth, for example, even as they supported higher taxes on the rich.
Many of the people Silva interviewed were profoundly cynical about social institutions, government, marriage, and family ties. They had often suffered trauma, such as domestic violence or military-related PTSD, and were in near-constant physical and/or psychological pain. Instead of placing their hope in systems that have failed them repeatedly, Silva finds, they worked to recast their own stories of pain into opportunities for individual self-improvement. Organized into groups of brief profiles from the town she anonymized as “Coal Brook, Pennsylvania,” the book is an unsparing and empathetic portrait of a diverse corner of blue-collar America.
Silva, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, was raised in a working-class family in Massachusetts. Her father dropped out of high school to join the military, and she was the first in her family to get a bachelor’s degree. When we spoke on the phone last month, we talked about working-class white people’s affinity for Trump, the rise of conspiracy theories, Hillbilly Elegy, and the lessons that 2020 presidential candidates can take from her research. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ruth Graham: You set out to talk to working-class Americans about their political views and policy preferences, but you had to change your approach. What happened?
Jennifer Silva: I had this interview guide of questions all about voting history and policy preferences and political behavior. And I did ask all of those questions, but I didn’t really get the answers I was expecting. Many of the people I talked to were very dismissive of the idea that politics mattered in their lives. Some of them would kind of openly laugh, or just say, “None of this matters. Like, you don’t actually think how I vote will actually affect the country?”
At one point you showed up to an interview on Election Day wearing an “I voted” sticker—
He just started looking at me like, “Wait, you don’t think that actually matters?” So I joked, “Oh, I’ll just take it off.” And he was like, “No, really you should take it off.” … We read in the news that we’re in this moment where it’s a battle for the soul of America, but they’re way beyond that. They don’t think there is any America left.
So with all this deep cynicism, how did people in “Coal Brook” talk about themselves as Americans?
For white working-class men and some of the older white working-class women, there was a real sense of loss, kind of a sense that they had built this country. The men would talk about having broken their bodies to build this country and were really proud of that. They felt like it was all falling apart, and they did actually blame corporations and politicians. … Some of the white men also felt like, you know, America has been taken away from them by immigrants or refugees or people of color. So the sense that they had was that politicians basically were serving the interests of minorities in order to get votes and had forgotten about white people.
And it sounds like it was even grimmer, in a way, among younger people.
For younger people, and also for the newcomers and people of color, it was even more radical than that. It was, well, did America ever mean anything? This whole country is built on exploitation and greed and every time there’s a war, why are we even fighting other soldiers in other countries? They weren’t buying into any kind of patriotic dreams or ideals. They were just saying, this country wasn’t built for me and it doesn’t work for me and why would I be patriotic?
I was surprised by it, partly because when you read about working-class Americans, the image is always, you know, God-fearing, highly patriotic, hanging up flags.
You were doing these interviews in the run-up to the 2016 election, so did you have a hunch that Trump might do better than pundits were predicting at the time? He did end up winning Pennsylvania.
Some of the working-class people, especially white working-class people, were very earnest about how they thought maybe this billionaire and businessman who hadn’t sold out for votes, how he might actually really care about them. And also the outsider narrative—“We need someone who isn’t a career politician”—was coming through very strong. In early 2015, Bernie Sanders and Trump were the two that most of the people I talked to liked for their kind of outsider authenticity.
I was really struck by the fact that even the people who were Democratically inclined in other ways just really didn’t like Hillary Clinton.
They really didn’t like her. They didn’t like the idea that she was a career politician and also very elite, and they also were nervous about a woman being in charge.
The gender politics are both interesting and discouraging. An interview subject named Bree told you she could vote for Bill Clinton again because she doesn’t judge a man for being a “slut,” but she couldn’t respect a woman who stays with him. She said she’d “rather have President Dickhead than President Sellout,” referring to Trump and Hillary Clinton. Another woman told you she just doesn’t trust women, period. What did those kinds of conversations tell you about how a different female candidate, even one without Hillary’s particular baggage, might fare?
The women were in this in-between spot. They had been through abuse and infidelity and a lot of trauma in a lot of different relationships that hadn’t worked out. Some of them had kids with different fathers and they were very ashamed about it, but so much of their personal narrative was about learning to not hold themselves to these older standards, and try to be a little bit more forgiving of themselves. Those tensions came through when they talked about political candidates. So they want to say, “Of course a woman can do anything a man can do.” But then they also still saw men as having more authority, or still held women to these standards of having to be sexually pure, having to be more honest. Sometimes what they say seems very contradictory, and I think it’s because they themselves aren’t quite sure what to do about gender right now.
It seemed like the only people who expressed real optimism in the book were the people of color you interviewed, most of whom had moved to Coal Brook in pursuit of cheaper housing or safer neighborhoods, or just to start over. Can you talk a little bit about why those conversations felt more hopeful?
So many books about working-class politics are just all about white people. We’d hear about people of color only through the voices of the white people. So I started talking to the newcomers [to Coal Brook], and there was more hope. They had moved and maybe they were able to afford an apartment, or they felt like their kids were a little bit safer in Coal Brook than in Brownsville, New York. They had a little bit of hope that they would be able to create a better future for their children. But it wasn’t a starry-eyed hope. This guy named Rafael was like, “I’m 36 years old and I’m not even living for myself. It’s all for my kids; I’ve given up.” It’s a dark outlook, but he also believes that the future can still be better for his children.
Conspiracy theories seemed to come up a lot: 9/11, Sandy Hook, and so on. What did you make of that?
That was totally unexpected for me. I’d just be sitting there in a conversation, and especially the men would start talking—they’d pull out their cellphones and say, you know, of course the government lies to us every day. Of course the government created Ebola. Of course the government is trying to control our minds through this technology. It wasn’t really a left-wing or right-wing story. There were pieces of both ideologies in it. And then they would use their phones and go and look things up and find these very alternative websites. In a way they’d feel smart and empowered by this idea that they weren’t believing CNN. They were finding out the truth on their own and they weren’t going to be fooled by the media.
As I was reading, I kept thinking about J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy. And then at the end of the book, you address it directly. In the appendix you also write about really feeling intense anger at his book.
I know he had been through a lot of pain, but it did seem like the way he came to terms with that was he had this story of how he embraced self-discipline and hard work and started to triumph over his past. He had this one line about how poor people are buying TVs to make themselves feel better instead of looking at themselves and holding themselves accountable, and they need to stop blaming systems and start blaming themselves. And it just didn’t resonate with what I heard. … Many of the people I talked to did blame themselves and feel like it was their responsibility to improve their lives.
You interviewed working-class young people in Massachusetts starting in 2008 or so, for your previous book. This is a slightly different cohort, but did you notice any big changes between the conversations you had in 2008 and in 2015 and 2016?
I did hear much more critique of institutions and especially critique of the way that social institutions have been corrupted by greed or money [this time]. I think that maybe comes out of the recession, and the way that banks had betrayed people. I heard a lot of anger at the lack of taxation of the very wealthy, and also anger about how much inequality there was. And so when people like Bree are like, “Of course we should be taxing billionaires more, and of course we should be redistributing money,” that was surprising to me to hear.
People really liked Bernie.
The same people who liked Trump liked Bernie. Bernie wasn’t too radical for them. They agreed with him that workers need to be paid more money and the health care system needs to be totally reformed and billionaires should be taxed more. They pretty much agreed with that. So yeah, they did really like Bernie, and I think probably still do.