Working class people are approximately 63% of our population, but they are all but invisible in the upcoming national election.
What you don’t see can hurt you. While President Obama and other democrats have numerous policies designed to “lift up” people from the working class, they offer little verbal validation for a working class way of life in the United States. A great deal is made of the American Dream, how anyone should have a chance to get to the top. That’s great, but as someone who has lived in both working- and middle- class worlds, I can’t see why they can’t seem to find anything good in working class lives. Why does President Obama sound like he assumes everyone wants a highly competitive, ever self-improving, middle-class life?
I know, I know, he talks about the “middle” class but he really mean working class as well as lower middle class. But do the democratic candidates really get working class life? While democrats fret they will be called socialists if they even use the term working class, Republicans are well-tuned to the particulars of working class cultures, use them freely to their political advantage, even as they dismantle any hope of a decent life for working class (and many lower-middle class) folks. They don’t need the words “working class” because they get the attitude.
Hence, President Bush, while passing the most regressive education reform in over 50 years, called his plan “No Child Left Behind.” President Obama, attempting to pass an education plan with real promise for all, calls his plan, “Race to the Top.” The republicans can cynically manipulate American politics, and particularly white working class voters, only because they understand the values they must pretend to hold: solidarity, “us” over me, and the value of common sense.
But President Obama and the democrats seem oblivious to the particulars of working class cultures and the meaning of the language they use. “Race to the Top” sounds like just another iteration of the individualistic policies and politics that have ravaged real-world benefits for working class people, who have always found their strength in numbers (and collective action). The plan Obama has proposed is not just for “the few,” but it sounds like it is. Therein lies the solipsism of the upper-middle class–everyone must want what we have, we are the winners!
Many working class people are just fine with not discovering their inner genius and don’t even want a life at The Top. Indeed, they value being common. They just want to make enough money to support their families and take a vacation each year. They want affordable health care, sick pay, and the right to organize for these things at work; not to change classes and the nature of their work. The working class has been the hardest hit by the new economy (that has doubled the number of millionaires). They simply want to continue or restore their community-based lives, their cultures of solidarity and mutual aid.
What’s wrong with being working class? In my research, family members old enough to remember pre-union work always picked the title “working class” over “middle class,” when given a choice between the two. Why? Pride. They remember that workers built America. Think about it: every thing we use, drive, or eat comes from working class people– our homes, the food we eat, the chairs we sit in, the paper we load into our laser printers, the keyboards under our fingers. Every. Last. Thing.
When Rick Santorum called Obama an educated snob, he was touching a raw nerve in working-class Americans. Sick to death of the notion that all of us are supposed to Be Somebody, most working class Americans simply want their ordinary, “everyday” working-class lives back.