Politics & Law

Angry old white men

Claude Fischer

Tea PartyThe April, 2010, New York Times survey of Tea Party supporters found that they skew toward male, white, and old. Journalists’ reports on Tea Party events suggest that TPA activists skew even more those ways. The reports also suggest that TPA activists hold a wide set of grievances far beyond their objections to taxes and to Obama. They demand to have their “country back.”

Dispossessed in the household

18th-Century America was a society of households each ruled by a property-owning white man. Just about everyone else – wives, children (including older boys awaiting their own households), servants, slaves, apprentices, farm hands, spinsters, widows, orphans of relatives, and the destitute whom the town officers had “bound out” – lived or were supposed to live under the legal, political, and moral authority of a patriarch.

Such men were the only ones thought to have “competency,” the economic independence to be real citizens in the emerging American democracy. Everyone else was a dependent and a subject; they lacked “competency.” Occasionally, town officials would remind lax men to rule their households with a tighter fist, if, for example, their servants misbehaved or their wives were too proud.

Over the course of American history, these dependents – perhaps most importantly, the women – became increasingly independent. Generation after generation, the patriarchs lost more and more power over those dependents. (Historian Carole Shammas wrote a particularly nifty, short book on this topic.) Wives, for example, gained some control over their own property and a greater right to divorce; young men – and young women – grasped independence by leaving farms for emerging industrial jobs; journeymen moved out of the masters’ houses to their own homes; and so on.

As with most social changes, the dispossession appeared first among the more affluent and educated classes. In the 19th century, couples in these groups “re-negotiated” the terms of households. Wives took on greater authority in the home by, for example, displacing fathers in the role of premier moral instructor to children. In the latter part of the century, observers applauded a new trend: More middle-class men were going straight home to their families after work, bypassing the bar or men’s club, and there participating in the emerging sentimental, “feminized” family. (Margaret Marsh tells the homecoming story here and here.) Many historians describe this as the era when middle-class men were “domesticated.” We could also say dispossessed.

Such trends spread slowly and for much of working-class, immigrant, and rural America, it took much longer. But by the end of the 20th century, women and youths were independent everywhere. Older men no longer could simply command and be obeyed.

Dispossessed in the community

Roughly in parallel, the power of older, property-holding, white men over the wider community also waned: Propertyless men gained the right to vote, grassroots religious movements (fueled if not led by women) challenged established church leadership, slaves were freed, immigrants flooded into politics, employees organized against their bosses, women voted, courts discovered more and more individual rights – including the rights of children against their parents, an emerging welfare state gave workers new options (when the New Deal started up work programs, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge complained to President Roosevelt on behalf of southern landowners: “I wouldn’t plow nobody’s mule for fifty cents a day when I could get $1.30 for pretending to work on a DITCH”), and minorities of all sorts who had once known “their place” stepped out, organized, spoke up, and successfully pressed their claims. Old white guys, especially affluent, Protestant ones, had to give ground. No wonder they’re ticked.

It is a delicious irony that currently the lead spokesperson for angry old white men is a bodacious, young, entrepreneurial woman. But when Sarah Palin energizes claims to “take back” the country, she is pressing to give the country back to the angry old white men.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history

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Comments to "Angry old white men":
    • John Browne

      The bias of the universities against people who believe in limits on the federal government (like tea partiers) only demonstrates how our universities are not really independant bodies of thought. They are a political propaganda arm of the US government funded to indoctrinate the population towards big government systems. Unfortunately even if you major in science you have to get indoctrinated with this political propaganda about why Karl Marx and the New Deal was so great. In US History they can’t cover Marx so just mainly wax poetic on the New Deal. I never even heard this latest one about how Roosevelt took all the white mans ‘power’ away. Yet another reason for them to love big government! Never mind this emotional hatred of white males is promoted by a major university as the ‘right’ kind of thinking.

      “18th-Century America was a society of households each ruled by a property-owning white man.”

      His first ‘fact’ is a false statement. There were households ruled by blacks. There were free black men in America even in the 18th century. There were households ruled by woman. There were households ruled by Indians. There were households ruled by Latinos. Probably Chinese and others too. Why make it racial or gender biased? All the ‘minorities’ (ie the majority) which UC Berkley is trying to rile up with this lie also did this allegedly horrible crime of ‘ruling’ their household. The professor laments that the state did not rule, and attempts to equate social progression with government expansion. Here the author denegrates humanity claiming we really haven’t progressed, and only because of government brainwashing young minds and other systems of control has humanity progressed socially. He believes progress happens from the top down when its really the bottom up.

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    • Mike Reynolds

      Poppycock!!!! American White Males have become a thing of the Past in the workforce. We sent tooooo many jobs overseas and now the economy crunch has made many of us Homeless or having to “Retire” early. We did it to ourselves, we had a Standard of Living that caused immigrants to take the American jobs we didn’t want or Thought we couldn’t afford to take. NOW, they rule us. I am 59 and living in Tijuana, Mexico….just trying to make ends meet until 62. Can NOT find even Minimum wage work, ‘Cause Nobody will Hire an Old White Man. Never collected Unemployment, went on Disability or even owned a Food Stamp. My reward is fighting to survive. The Good ‘Ole USA is History…and we are to blame for it.
      P.S. Anybody got a job for a (Very Pleasant just got Old) White guy?????

      [Report abuse]

    • Grey Ghost

      I too am an angry old white guy (50′s).

      The article has a factual base of evolution.
      My feelings regarding “Taking the country back” center on the apparant
      thiefery by our government representatives, i.e.
      A unapproved $3T borrowed Bail Out package we can not afford
      nor wisely use for a return on investment.(Taxation without
      proper representation)

      Government jobs that now average about $70k yr vs. private sector
      at $40k. Government was to the servants of the citizens, now
      the private sector are all economic slaves to the government.

      Reverse descrimination. Old White guys do not have a required
      percentage for employment, loosing out to less qualified protected
      persons for jobs. It was explained to me as “retribution” for
      past history. Well, I argree with some retribution, but have a
      Class Action Suite against those families that were the profiting
      offenders, most families were all economic slaves that earned their
      way up and immigrants that were considered minorities at their time
      including many poorEuropean Whites.

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    • Jesus B Ochoa

      I am an old brown man (76 if I make it to September, which is not as as certain as it would seem) who has been happily engaged in combat with young, middle age and now old white men. It has been a labor without end.

      A really good article.

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    • Anthony St. John

      I wish you the best in all your efforts Jesus, especially for a much longer life so you can continue your happy combat with white guys. I am 72 myself and I am constantly amazed by the fact that being 70 something today is a heck of a lot better than I thought it would be when I was a kid.

      For what it is worth, I am an old California white guy who married his Nanjing born classmate. We now have a terrific Latina daughter in law whose parents grew up in San Felipe, and have recently been blessed with most wonderful granddaughter whose ancestors are from three different continents. One might call her a California Combo, and we think she is the most beautiful reward for living our lives in California.

      My greatest prayer is that We The Peoples of the World shall solve our racial, tribal, national, political, religious and gender problems soon so we can all focus on solving our environmental, resource and economic problems before they get completely out of control.

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    • Anthony St. John '63

      Claude, I admit to being an angry old white guy, but I definitely do not agree with the kind you characterize in your post.

      My motto of life borrows from that of Mother Jones:
      “Fight Like Hell For The Living” to protect and preserve acceptable quality of life for future generations of humanity.

      In fact, I really am most angry at both republican and democratic political leaders, especially including both Clinton and Bush whose administrations have resulted in the ongoing destruction of the legacy of the Greatest Generation.

      However, our political parties are not the only American failures, almost all our other institutions have failed including courts, law, Wall Street, corporate, educational, journalism, medical and religious.

      So here we are today with totally dysfunctional federal, state and local governments that are not only unable to protect and preserve American Democracy and the Rule of Law, but they are also enabling other dysfunctional groups to overthrow existing institutions.

      Our present condition is either a state of chaos, or we are as close to political, social and economic chaos as we have been since the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

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    • Mike Dayton

      Writing from Montgomery County,Ohio, one of the depressions ground zero’s, one in every five jobs that were here in 2000 no longer exist. It is not even that they were moved, they were vaporized. Five major GM plants are gone along with the supporting machine shop and tool and die infrastructure. Still, like the turning of the seasons the nearby agri businesses roll on. I would like to make threes points:
      1-even high levels of skill are not protection in a globalized environment. This old status quo is partly a tea bagger impetus.
      2-Post WWII men of a certain age expected that they were de facto members of the establishment, if only through duration. One of the genius moves of the Reagan boosters was to get industrial workers and front line managers to identify with the boardroom set. If goals and rewards were aligned this would have been a great thing. They were not. This feeling of being conned (or Econned!) is also a partial source of “tea and sympathy” which is much of what the partiers do. It is mutually reinforced bereavement at of social position.
      3-There is a new class divide that is as yet unnoticed. It is between those whose lives are changed, their communities dispersed, their skills devalued and their jobs made commodities and those who do the or cause the devaluation, dispersal and devaluation. On one side are the “causers” and the other the dispossesed who may be of equal talent but lack the desire to make all other life choices subservient to economy and career. Some still strive for a life of balance and dignity.
      It is perhaps no accident that 24-year-old Ivy League educated English Lit majors at Goldman have more real world affect on lives than a member of the House of Representatives!

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