The Invisible Majority: Class and the National Election

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.

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Barbara Jensen is author of Reading Classes, On Culture and Classism in America (2012, Cornell University Press), available from Class Action’s online store.

3 Responses

  1. agymah

    i’ve observed 9 presidential elections (1980 to present) and in none of them have any of the candidates of the 2 permissible parties ever mentioned “the poor specifically nor “the working class” generally. it’s always, the middle class this, the middle class that. note: i say “permissible parties” because the democrats and the republicans collude in actively barring all other political parties from meaningful participation in what effectively is no more than a 2-ring circus in which we, the electorate, neither elect nor select (thanks to the electoral college system).

    so. what’s happening in this current season is nothing new. for politicians, the poor and working class simply do not exist on the political landscape. why? i think the reason is that they’re aware that the poor and working class, for the most part, are safe bets–either republican or democrat. so they aim their rhetoric at “the middle class”, whom they assume to be “educated”, hence likely to switch allegiance.

    which brings me to the term “middle class”. i disagree with the notion that the working class wants only to be common–to feed and clothe their families, have a beer at the need of the work day and a vacation every year. just take a look at those working class folks who win the lottery or otherwise enjoy a monetary windfall–they invariably embark on an orgy of consumption. so, what is the middle class, really, but the working class whose consumerist aspirations (their “culture”, if you will) rest on a thin crust of personal debt? there really is no such thing as the “working class” and “the middle class”. if you lack the wealth with which to sustain yourself without working, you’re working class whether you like it or not.

    politics is about power–gaining it and wielding it. and your average politician will use whatever rhetorical device that he/she deems necessary to gain the power that he/she is seeking. so if it means appealing only to “the middle class”, that’s what he/she will do. obama is no exception.

  2. agymah

    i’ve observed 9 presidential elections (1980 to present) and in none of them have any of the candidates of the 2 permissible parties ever mentioned “the poor specifically nor “the working class” generally. it’s always, the middle class this, the middle class that. note: i say “permissible parties” because the democrats and the republicans collude in actively barring all other political parties from meaningful participation in what effectively is no more than a 2-ring circus in which we, the electorate, neither elect nor select (thanks to the electoral college system).

    so. what’s happening in this current season is nothing new. for politicians, the poor and working class simply do not exist on the political landscape. why? i think the reason is that they’re aware that the poor and working class, for the most part, are safe bets–either republican or democrat. so they aim their rhetoric at “the middle class”, whom they assume to be “educated”, hence likely to switch allegiance.

    which brings me to the term “middle class”. i disagree with the notion that the working class wants only to be common–to feed and clothe their families, have a beer at the end of the work day and a vacation every year. just take a look at those working class folks who win the lottery or otherwise enjoy a monetary windfall–they invariably embark on an orgy of consumption. so, what is the middle class, really, but the working class whose consumerist aspirations (their “culture”, if you will) rest on a thin crust of personal debt? there really is no such thing as the “working class” and “the middle class”. if you lack the wealth with which to sustain yourself without working, you’re working class whether you like it or not.

    politics is about power–gaining it and wielding it. and your average politician will use whatever rhetorical device that he/she deems necessary to gain the power that he/she is seeking. so if it means appealing only to “the middle class”, that’s what he/she will do. obama is no exception.

  3. The poster whose screen-name is agymah (above), is unerringly correct that, in today’s post-American-Dream United States, anyone in the 99 Percent is genuinely Working Class.

    Meanwhile capitalism has imposed on the U.S. — and is imposing on the entire planet — an economy identical to that of Europe at the time Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto.” This is precisely why that ultra-revolutionary document is even more relevant now than it was in 1848 or 1917. Capitalism in any era is based on the elevation of infinite greed to maximum virtue, just as capitalist governance is always maximum profit and absolute power for the Ruling Class, total subjugation for all the rest of us. All that differs is the terminology: today we are more likely to speak of the One Percent (rather than label our oppressors “the Bourgeoisie” or “the Ruling Class”), just as we now call ourselves “the 99 Percent” as often (or more often) than we self-identify as “Working Class.”

    However– thanks largely to increasing activism (and the renewed popularity of “Manifesto” as ideological sustenance) — “Working Class” is regaining the defiant pride with which, as Ms. Jensen correctly states, it was formerly associated.

    Apropos the steadfast refusal of Democrat and Republican politicians to mention impoverished people or even acknowledge the Working Class, their exclusionary language demonstrates much more than merely capitalism’s overwhelming terror of Communism and socialism in general. Its most important revelation is the extent to which the two parties agree that to name “the poor” or “the Working Class” is to violate what has become the greatest taboo in U.S. politics. This is because to speak of “the poor” or “the Working Class” is to tacitly acknowledge not only the innate savagery of capitalism but how capitalism has destroyed, probably forever, all the former promise of the (now doomed) American experiment in constitutional democracy. Thus the Democrats and the Republicans prove they are nothing more than factions within a single Ruling Class party. They confirm this ugly truth by the near-unanimous votes by which the two parties approve any legislation that revokes or nullifies our Constitutional rights.

    Such revocations and nullifications are, of course, the essential prerequisite to the (inevitable) transformation of capitalism into fascism and fascism into the same sort of murderous tyranny we witnessed as Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Thus the only meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans is the speed with which they intend to transform the U.S. into a de facto Fourth Reich. The Democrats favor the more gradual, boiled-frog approach to the imposition of fascism — for example Cinton’s so-called “welfare reform” and the Obama/Biden “austerity” plan to shrink Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — while the Republicans prefer the blitzkreig method: the Romney/Ryan termination of the entire social safety net and the genocide so inflicted.

    In this context, any politician who dares acknowledge the existence of economically oppressed classes — “the poor,” “the Working Class,” even “the 99 Percent” — also implicitly affirms the necessity of revolution.

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