This dynamic has changed, in Hochschild’s account. Access to the line that delivers the American Dream in exchange for hard work is now both limited and unevenly granted. Worse yet, white working-class citizens perceive others—mainly minorities and immigrants—to be unfairly cutting ahead of them in line. And members of the white working class believe the government, rather than enforcing the fair process they had come to expect, is increasingly aiding and abetting these line-cutters. Their strident opposition to welfare programs—which, in their view, support those who don’t work—and policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which, to them, encourage illegal immigration—are akin to the loud protests we hear when people cut ahead of us in a line.
Adding further insult to injury, when they protest about these line-cutters, they are subjected to moral scolding—called bigots, racists, and rednecks. Having lost confidence that the government will help them, they place faith in their church, friends, and family, which makes them appear even more parochial and rigid. “It has to be said: The line-cutters irritate you,” Hochschild writes. “They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do. So do your friends.”
As I read Hochschild’s analysis, my thoughts turned to a different sort of resentment the white working class is feeling. Even as it stews over people cutting into its ever slower-moving line, it also envies another faster-moving queue: the special one reserved for people with means—the ones who travel business or first class. The affluent people in this line believe they have earned their preferred status through a meritocratic process that has assessed and rewarded their ambition and enterprise. This group becomes accustomed to its special privileges and comes to expect them everywhere, from legacy admissions to college for their children to special seating at sports events to VIP treatment at theme parks. It begins to believe that there should be a special line for innovators and pioneers who have sacrificed time with friends and family to achieve their personal best—those who want to reach for the top, to be number one. Yet even preferred status is not enough; those on any fast track can always see a still-faster track. If the first-class line is short, flying on a private aircraft from a terminal with no security lines is even faster.
People on the fast tracks don’t always empathize with the complaints of those in the working-class line. They see this group as resistant to change and unwilling to adapt to the requirements of the new economy, which demands higher education, technical skills, and geographic mobility. They see them as clinging to outdated traditions and becoming more and more out of touch with changing realities. Recall the uproar over candidate Obama’s 2008 remark about how economically-disadvantaged, small-town Americans “cling to guns or religion.” The folks in the working-class line, meanwhile, believe those in the privileged lines have rigged the system in their favor. While they lose jobs and their place in line, the privileged get bailouts and golden parachutes, protected even from their own failures.