‘Elite Doesn’t Mean Born With a Silver Spoon’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Myself with mother and father at New York Military Academy. See, I can be very military. High rank! #TBT #Trump

A photo posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

A previous reader note from Jon (“Confessions of a Liberal Urban Elitist”) expressed resentment toward rural Trump voters who accuse him of snobbery for choosing to live in a big city on the East Coast and leading a “Don Draper” life in advertising. Another self-described “liberal elite,” Alison, responds:

Jon’s note rings all too true for me, in many aspects. I am viscerally opposed to classification of young liberals like myself as “privileged.” I grew up in a very rural town in southern Alabama. My family—a lovable bunch of traditional conservative Christian Republicans—still lives in rural America. Now in my 30s, I am finishing a medical degree from a university in rural Ohio. My journey has taken me through poverty, unemployment, mental illness, and some generally awful times. While I cannot deny that I was born lucky to have the natural ability to understand science, capitalizing on that was not a privilege. It was tremendous work.

Melissa can also relate:

I have shared the thoughts of Jon during some of my darker moments since the election. I grew up in a mid-sized city (that went for Clinton, narrowly). My father was a drug addict and Mom worked hard to support us as a single mother. I didn’t have a lot of advantages, but I am smart. I graduated from college and worked in a clerical job instead of anything more.

The election of President Obama actually motivated me to go back and get my law degree and a masters in public policy at the same time. Suddenly I was working in government. I wrote legislation and did a stint on the policy staff for the governor.

I am one of those elites. Elite doesn’t mean born with a silver spoon. I’ve had a tough childhood, maybe tougher than some of those complaining about people like me. My relatives in more rural areas (aunts and uncles and cousins) seem proud of me. They tell their kids to stay in school so they can be like cousin Melissa. When they have legal problems, they will give me a call.

Yet, they are also the ones posting about how we need to drain the swamp and get the elites out of government. They voted for a man with no experience to the highest office in the land. They seem to not understand why someone would need some specialization to know how to govern. It makes me feel like my life’s work is useless to them.

I’ve come to realize that at least some of the anger they have is about the fact that working-class people have been told for decades that they are the backbone of America. We need them to sacrifice their health and safety on the factory floor or in the mines. They are the important ones, in the American narrative, not those guys in the city behind desks.

The fact is, they were never that important. Oh, we needed workers, but we didn’t need to make blue-collar work sound like a religious calling. We did it because when you tell people that their work is important, they will do it for less money. This is a simple fact.

It’s the same reason we say teachers have important jobs. Not that teaching isn’t important, but the deification of teaching is mostly grounded in keeping wages down. Yes, you are doing the most important work … which is why we can’t pay you. But please, keep coming to the office because your job is very important.

The market should set wages for these jobs, but the political ritual of naming some groups as “important” can knock a good 10 grand off the prevailing wage. People will go into work because they want to feel important. They will accept less money with the idea the suffering is necessary. There’s a reason why nurses are called the backbone of the medical world instead of doctors, and it’s all about preventing certain employees from demanding their worth.

Really, rural America bought the lie about being very important. And now that there aren’t enough jobs there to keep up the lie, they feel deceived. They want to think they are important again. Instead of realizing that they had been lied to by politicians for decades, they decided to throw in with the politician lying to them now.

If you’d like to respond to that blunt assessment from Melissa, drop us a note and we’ll include. In the meantime, regarding her point about nursing, I emailed Melissa’s note to my mother—a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and whose sister has been an ICU/ER nurse and nurse practitioner for nearly three decades—and she offered this on-the-go reply:

Nurses are the ones who actually take care of patients. They are the guardians against inappropriate or unsafe orders from physicians; the ones who actually observe changes in patient conditions; the ones who interpret to patients what the doctor says; the ones who are there to watch the family dynamics and who the patient advocates are. Nurses are the ones who really know how the patients are doing, not just what their numbers say. An experienced nurse can know when a patient is about to crash and often save lives, because they are with the patients all day long—not for a five-minute visit, maybe once a day, by a physician.  

And boy, do I agree with [Melissa]; we have deified blue-collar workers. Since we have not made the entry level to nursing a bachelor degree, we continue to treat all of them as blue-collar workers. Since it can be a very physically demanding job, we need strong people as well. (Hence her backbone metaphor.) But we don’t have enough men in nursing. It is still considered women’s work. Same with professional child care; we pay them so little but they have such an important role—raising new humans. It is so back assward.

Let me know if this is what you are looking for. Gotta go to earthquake training.

She lives in Portland, Oregon, and just finished 24 total hours of certification training to lead a neighborhood response team when The Big One hits. Speaking of earthquakes, and the urban-rural divide of Jon’s note, don’t miss Ron Brownstein’s latest piece:

The earthquake that elected Donald Trump has left the United States approaching 2020 with a political landscape reminiscent of 1920. Not since then has the cultural chasm between urban and non-urban America shaped the struggle over the country’s direction as much as today. Of all the overlapping generational, racial, and educational divides that explained Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton last week, none proved more powerful than the distance between the Democrats’ continued dominance of the largest metropolitan areas, and the stampede toward the GOP almost everywhere else.

His piece includes this graph—“Of the Country’s 100 Largest Counties, These 25 Provided the Greatest Democratic Margin of Victory”:

Update from Sam, a reader who grew up in rural white America, left it, is back now, but who’s torn about staying:

I totally get where Jon is coming from. Like him I read the Cracked article, and the essays from Michael Moore, and there’s a lot of wisdom there about the urban-rural/professional-working class divide. Another great analysis was in the Harvard Business Review and I mostly agreed with that article also.

I was born in Middletown, OH, of Hillbilly Elegy fame. I grew up in Franklin, a smaller town next door, and lived in even smaller, more rural towns in Ohio and Indiana as I got older. As an adult I have lived in more diverse, densely populated areas but now live in an inner-ring suburb and work in an Indiana hospital getting people signed up for Medicaid. The economic and cultural neglect of these areas is real. The paper plant my father worked at for 30 years closed, taking all its employees’ pensions with it into bankruptcy, just one of many such stories.

Small farms are disappearing and most of the jobs are low-paid temp work in a warehouse if you have a vehicle, a fast food gig or nothing if you don’t. Like the author of the Harvard Business Review pointed out, paying somebody whose parents had social standing $15 an hour to work in McDonald’s is not going to make them feel better about their place in the world. The opiate epidemic has absolutely ravaged this area. Meth is a rural problem, but it doesn’t kill you instantly. Heroin does, and nobody is cooking it in their trailer; it comes from outside the community.

These issues don’t get the political attention they deserve, and while the people I help are better off than many of the inner-city poor, they also don’t have the public transportation and high concentration of social service agencies the inner city has to help people, and many of the community institutions that served that function are in decline. So yes, I get why people voted for Trump. I was shocked at first, but given time to reflect, I understand where they’re coming from.

And yet ...

When I was in the 7th grade I witnessed a gay black boy in my class get viciously bullied. Two older white boys were looming over him and calling him all the things a gay black boy can be called. I truly believe that if I hadn’t happened upon this scene, he would have been beaten. His family moved away shortly afterward. I’m 33 years old, so this was not so long ago, and if those white boys are voters now, well I think I know who they voted for.

When I was 15 I became an atheist. All those people saying how bad our politically correct culture is, and how people feel silenced? Well you better believe I felt silenced as an atheist in small town America. I was told I was being disrespectful on occasions just for stating my beliefs. Not insulting religion or the religious, just saying I didn’t believe in it myself was considered offensive.

In high school, emotionally sensitive boys were bullied. Non-athletic boys were bullied. A quarterback tried to rape a girl at one school, was transferred to another school, to continue being a quarterback. Once I overheard another school athlete brag to one of his friends about how he’d forced his girlfriend to have anal sex. I had to sit next to him at graduation.

I’ve been casually asked if I’m a Feminazi, like that’s the actual description for my beliefs instead of a hateful slur. When my husband was trying to become a history teacher, he was at a bar in his hometown once and got called “college boy” like it was an insult. Some of these bullies I know became cops.

So excuse me if I feel a little damned superior sometimes. I loved living in a diverse area where I had undocumented Hispanic immigrant neighbors who offered me tequila and carne asada on the weekends. I loved having a Thai restaurant down the street and seeing Muslim African children at the playground with their veiled mothers chatting nearby. And yes, I love reading the news, and learning about the world, and helping people get government assistance.

Now that I’ve returned to the rural white America of my youth, I miss diversity. And I can’t forget the traumas of being different, of being curious and progressive, and worldly in this place.

Most of the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are decent, good people, and it’s wrong to paint them with a broad brush. I’ve certainly rolled my eyes at the elitism and ignorance of urban professionals who don’t have the first clue about what life here is like. You can’t just erase the struggles of conservative, small-town Americans. Those struggles are real. But I don’t want to be erased either.

I grew up here, but I don’t feel like I belong here. There are millions and millions of people like me who aren’t being mentioned in the think pieces about the denizens of Red State America. The author of that Cracked article talked about how even though he grew up in a rural town, he’s now urban and therefore liberal. Well what about those of us who are still rural, yet liberal? The advice now for Millennials is to colonize conservative areas, reverse the political segregation that is dividing this country.

Well guess what, I can’t wait to be able to afford a home in the city again. I want Indian food and public transportation and cocktail parties. If I could have those things here, maybe I would stay. If I felt like my lifestyle and preferences weren’t sneered at, maybe I would stay. If I didn’t have to have awkward conversations with people who are racist on a regular basis, maybe I would stay.

I want good things for the good people around me. But I often feel like they don’t want me. And why should I go where I’m not wanted?

Cultural bigotry is a two-way street. It’s wrong when prissy elite professionals do it, and it’s wrong when coarse blue-collar workers do it. The liberal elites may own popular culture, but the conservatives owned my childhood. They have good cause to resent being treated with disdain, and so do I.  

Here’s one more reader, Jacob, regarding his “liberal views forged in Appalachia”:

I can related to Jon in some ways. I’ve seen the Trump voter in my childhood hometown in which I spent 18 years and still visit due to my parents living there. More than 75 percent of my home county voted Trump in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. It was never a surprise to me that a town like mine would be scared enough to vote for the most unstable presidential candidate most can remember. In many ways I understand exactly why they did. In fact, despite my liberal views, minority status, and opposition to Trump, I understand them.

Rural NC saw significant change as I was growing up. It wasn’t much—a Latino grocery store here, a few more Mexican immigrants in the elementary classrooms over there. Being in an agricultural town, our community depended on the labor of illegal immigrants that most individuals in our 95 percent white town refused to do. Even when the manufacturing jobs left the community, we were happy to take unemployment and blame the new faces in town.

Being Latino myself, I was lucky that I had a white mother. My mother being a teacher, and having a slightly fairer complexion I was spared from most (but not all) taunts of “go back to Mexico” that many of my Latino friends had to endure.  My father was never so lucky: Death threat, and verbal abuse persist in his factory job to this day. “You can’t work in the factory like me” echo like the first words I every truly understood as a child.

I did work hard. I graduated top 5 in my class, received a full scholarship to a private liberal arts college—where again I felt like a minority, only this time it was poor, Latino, and with a lack of exposure to different cultures. I’d never interacted with African Americans, Asians, Muslims, Jews, or anyone else who wasn’t white, Baptist, and suspicious of foreigners.  

You see, in my little hometown the people don’t go to college. If they do it’s often at for-profit colleges where they rack up loans and start life multiple steps back.  They don’t trust outsiders, because quite frankly they had little access to them until the ’90s, and they had even less knowledge of what existed beyond “sinful” Asheville, NC. These are people who do work hard but fail to see how the industries and jobs they known their whole lives will soon no longer exist.  

These people more than anything are terrified of losing what they have only ever known. Trump to them will help keep their community safe, keep their community from change, keep their community Christian—and they might even get rich and have more jobs (or so they believe). Most times I wish the people in my hometown could do a cultural exchange program, to see that all blacks aren’t dangerous, that Muslims have family values just like they do, and that those illegal immigrants they see are working damn hard and against odds to hopefully have success for themselves and their children.  

I write this as I sit on a bus late from work in Silicon Valley back to “the city.”  I’m still working hard each day. The difference is now with Trump, I’m willing to work a little bit harder.  I’ll be more active in politics and continue voting for those I know can make the world better for ALL of us.