In the last decade of his life, Joe Bageant came full circle. He and his third wife, Barbara, were renting a small, wooden house in Winchester, Virginia, the town where he grew up and from which he had fled repeatedly over the years—always returning, though never long enough to stay. In the late 1970s, he’d come back from Idaho for a while, after his father developed a bad heart, and moved into a mobile home in a poor part of town. During those years, Bageant worked as a reporter at the conservative local paper, the Winchester Star. He and a few friends had tried, and failed, to organize the reporters to join The Newspaper Guild; he quit soon after and moved West again.
Now, as he contemplated the onset of old age, Bageant was back in Winchester once more, gray-bearded, overweight, wearing determinedly unfashionable fishermen’s outfits, and hanging out with friends from a half-century earlier. He’d talk about everything from making raccoon stew to the state of the union. Underneath it all he was, almost obsessively, writing about and analyzing his poverty-stricken childhood, and contemplating the displacement of the rural poor by the rise of agribusiness and the post-World War II service economy.
Over many years—in articles, online essays, and, later, books—Bageant (pronounced “Bay-gent”) had been something of a lone voice, trying to convince his readers that America’s class divisions are as significant to the American story as its race divide; that the myth of American exceptionalism when it came to the absence of class is just that, a myth.
The sixty-four-year-old was a sort of Michael Moore character without the self-promotional gimmickry, remembering—perhaps romanticizing—a vanished world of hard, honest labor and damning the rise of an increasingly vulnerable underclass, numbering many tens of millions, among white, rural Americans and their displaced urban descendants. For these men and women, undereducated and underinformed, the community ecosystem upon which they had previously relied for sustenance no longer existed. The small-town and rural manufacturing and farming jobs they had once been able to count on had vanished; and the work that replaced those jobs, more often than not, paid abysmally and came with no benefits.
What Bageant wrote was, in many instances, offensive—but always brutally insightful. In America, attempts to describe working class culture frequently devolve into “blue collar” humor that celebrates parochialism and an ignorance of the larger world. Bageant saw the humor in his subject matter, but the laughter was always laced with tragedy. For him, blue collar ignorance was a product of, and a gateway to, exploitation. It was a symbol and a symptom of injustice. And he explored the political conditions of that injustice with an incandescent fury:
They are purposefully held in bondage by a local network of money families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople in whose interests it is to have a cheap, unquestioning, and compliant labor force paying high rents and big medical bills. They invest in developing such a labor force by not investing in the education and quality of life for anyone but their own.
Working class Americans, Bageant wrote sardonically in his second and final book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, were “clubbed into submission long ago, and now require only enough medication for our high levels of cholesterol, enough alcohol to keep the sludge moving through our arteries, and a 24/7 mind-numbing spectacle of titties, tabloid TV, and terrorist dramas. Throw in a couple of new flavors of XXL edible thongs, and you’ve got a nation of drowsing hippos who will never notice that our country has been looted.”
Like Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Bageant was preoccupied with the question of why millions of working class Americans have routinely voted against their economic self-interest over the past several decades. “Sometimes I think the gop emits a special pheromone that attracts fools and money,” he wrote in his first book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, published in 2007. How else to explain, he asked, the rise of an anti-tax, anti-government, hyper-conservatism among America’s white poor?
Unlike Frank, however, Bageant came to the problem as an insider, as a man who grew up as part of the white, working poor of the South, as someone who understood their prejudices and their fears, their heartache at vanishing ways of life, and the methods by which they measured the good life. He understood working class cynicism, a lack of faith in either political party’s ability, or even desire, to make their lives genuinely better. And he understood their resulting fatalism.