On the eve of the November 2020 presidential election, Americans often present increased polarization as the result of Trumpian extremism or America’s complex racial history but David Paul Kuhn’s The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution
(Oxford UP, 2020) cautions Americans to look back to the 1970s with an eye to class to better understand our political tribalism.
On May 8, 1970, just four days after the killings at Kent State, New York construction workers brutally attacked peaceful protestors in Manhattan’s financial district. Though the police had advanced knowledge of the attack, they provided little protection to the protestors and over 100 were severely injured. The Hardhat Riot
recalls this often forgotten violent attack to illuminate the nuances of the current polarization in the U.S. – asking us to shift the lens from race to class, especially white working class men.
For Kuhn, the riot occurred at a turning point for two distinct groups: “hardhats” and “hippies.” The anti-war protestors were mostly the college-educated children of affluent, suburban, middle-class families. The blue-collar construction workers and tradesmen increasingly felt the effects of the economic and social realities of a post-industrial nation. A strange confluence of events – especially the concentration of construction workers at the World Trade Center site juxtaposed with the student protests near Wall Street – sparked the attack. Kuhn highlights the bitterness and anger held by the workers towards an intellectual middle class distanced from the draft and consequences of the war in Vietnam.
In Kuhn’s telling, the hardhats become the stand-ins for the white-working-class voters who were part of FDR’s Democratic Party but became the members of Nixon’s Silent Majority. The protestors are “hippies” and liberal elites disconnected from the dangers of serving in Vietnam. New York City also stands in for what would soon happen to the rest of the country as a result of deindustrialization. The book’s larger claim is that the “two tribes” of the Hardhat riot contextualize Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 – and the continuing resentment from white, working-class voters in the United States.
In the podcast, Kuhn details how the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s ineffective and self-serving “investigation” of themselves ironically enabled this carefully researched book based on their own squashed information. In a 40-page document, the NYPD acquitted itself but ACLU affidavits meant that the documents used to create the report were preserved and provided Kuhn with remarkable contemporary accounts. Kuhn was able to compare those accounts to his contemporary interviews of these same witnesses and participants.
David Paul Kuhn is an author, reporter, and political analyst who has served as a senior and chief political writer for Politico, RealClearPolitics, CBS and other outlets. Many listeners may be familiar with his articles in the New York Times, Washington Post Magazine, Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the Los Angeles Times – as well has his work as a political analyst on networks ranging from the BBC to Fox News. He has two previous books – “The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma” (St. Martin’s, 2007) and a novel, What Makes It Worthy published in 2015 that addressed the tabloidization of American politics and the power dynamics between the press and public officials.
Benjamin Warren assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @SusanLiebell.