The myth of the reactionary working class

May 9, 2008

Adam Turl examines the stereotyped view of the "working class" that has emerged center stage in the 2008 presidential election.

THE WORKING class is back--or at least the words "working class" are.

For decades, an army of pundits and academics argued that the majority of people in the United States comprised an expanding, satiated and upwardly mobile middle class--and that the very idea of a working class belonged to an industrial past long ago. The word "working class" went down the memory hole, and couldn't be brought out--even in roundabout ways--without invoking the specter of "class war" in mainstream politics.

As University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Leon Fink wrote in the Chicago Tribune:

When Al Gore unveiled a modest appeal to "working families" at the 2000 Democratic National Convention...[h]is Republican opponent, George W. Bush, immediately counterattacked, accusing Gore of unleashing "class war" on the country. The preferred term of address had long been "middle class"; even the AFL-CIO avoided the shoals of class rhetoric to try to co-opt the conservative family-values agenda.

Yet, today, virtually every commentator, from William Kristol to Paul Krugman, unblinkingly invokes the once-dreaded terminology in suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama cannot, as the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute put it, "penetrate working-class voters."

Chicago Teamsters at a rally to build support for a strike against UPS in 1997
Chicago Teamsters at a rally to build support for a strike at UPS in 1997

If "working class" has become common parlance again, it may be because there is a crisis facing the working-class majority in the U.S.--those who work for wages. Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, have fallen over the past three decades, while the size of the gross domestic product (GDP) almost tripled--a growth of riches that has accrued almost solely to big business.

But if the "working class"--and its much debated "bitterness" and grievances--is at the forefront of the 2008 presidential election, this "rediscovery" has brought along with it the reprise of longstanding myths--that the working class is, generally speaking, flag-waving, conservative, church-obsessed, tradition-oriented and mostly white.

As Fink continued in his article:

Today, "working class" has been effectively defanged of any radical, let alone subversive, intent. In fact, today's working class looks less the modernist, rationalizing force that Marx projected than a bastion of tradition--that unmoving "sack of potatoes" he identified with the peasantry.

Whether explicit or not, today's invocation of the working class is preceded by the word "white." And the resulting construct--white men and women who have not gone to college--are regularly presented as a mostly conservative bloc...[T]he working class that Obama can't reach looks to be populated by Archie Bunker and his like-minded descendants.

What else to read

Michael Zweig's The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret does an excellent job of analyzing the mostly hidden realities of class in modern U.S. society.

For more on recent developments in the U.S. labor movement and the potential for future struggles, see U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition by Kim Moody.

Adam Turl makes a detailed analysis of the changing structure of the U.S. working class in "Is the U.S. becoming post-industrial?" published in the International Socialist Review.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent history of labor struggles in the U.S., with chapters taking up the current challenges facing the working class movement.

THIS IS a stereotype, of course, and one with a long history. Fink invokes a distorted view of the working class--"Archie Bunker and his like-minded descendants"--that was an invention of the ruling class and mass media when it arose in the 1960s as part of an ideological counter to the growing influence of the 1960s social movements.

As International Socialist Review contributor Joe Allen has written, "In the late 1960s, the U.S. media and political establishment 'rediscovered' the working class, though not the real working class--which was white, Black, Latino and increasingly made up of women...The working class that they claim to have discovered was really a middle-class stereotype that portrayed the working class as white men who were in rebellion against the civil rights and antiwar movements and liberalism in general."

Images of workers in hard hats attacking activists were broadcast to in an attempt to show that "hard-working" Americans rejected "ungrateful" and "privileged" antiwar students. But surveys in the late 1960s and early 1970s showed that manual workers opposed the Vietnam War in similar numbers to the youths who made up the student antiwar movement and the GI resistance.

In the working-class city of Dearborn, Mich., for example, a 1968 referendum calling for immediate withdrawal passed with 57 percent of the vote. By 1971, union households along with minority households (which overlapped greatly) were among the most consistent opponents of the war in national polls.

Although racism continued to pervade every aspect of U.S. life--as was famously demonstrated when a white mob attacked Martin Luther King Jr. when he attempted to take the civil rights struggle north to Chicago--working-class and poor whites generally tended to be more sympathetic to Black workers than the "more well to do." One 1966 study showed that "the higher one's class or origin of class or class destination, the more likely that one prefers to exclude Negroes from one's neighborhood."

As a result of the continual impact of the Black liberation struggle on consciousness, by 1970, a majority of white Americans favored affirmative action, including quotas, to redress the impact of current and past racist injustices.

This isn't to say that racism didn't influence white workers. It did, as evidenced by some working-class support--including in the north--for George Wallace's 1968 "state's rights" presidential campaign, and in the busing struggles that continued throughout the 1970s.

However, the working class was not, as many depict it today, a homogenous bastion of racism and reaction.

TODAY, THE working-class that the mainstream media have "rediscovered" may include women, but it is still viewed as white and presented as holding generally conservative views.

As in the 1960s, this picture has little connection to reality. Most polls show that the U.S. population as a whole--and the working class in particular--has become more progressive on most social and economic issues.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the question of racism. In 1954, only 4 percent of those surveyed responded that they approved of marriage between "white and colored people." In 2007, 79 percent told a Gallup poll that they approved of interracial marriages.

In fact, unlike much of the media establishment, most people think racism is a problem in the here and now, not a thing of the past. A majority in a CNN/Essence magazine poll--including whites--said they believed racism to be a "serious problem." Eighty-five percent of Americans said they are "completely comfortable" voting for a Black presidential candidate.

To be clear, there are still large numbers of people who have racist ideas--who aren't "comfortable" voting for a Black candidate, who disapprove of interracial marriage and who don't think racism is a problem. And there are also contradictions in people's thinking about the pervasiveness and effects of racism. For example, the CNN/Essence poll found that a majority of both whites and Blacks said they didn't think racial discrimination was the reason why Blacks tend to have lower incomes and worse housing.

However, it can be said, in contrast to the media stereotype, that the working class--which, for the record, includes tens of millions of Blacks and Latinos, as well as whites, and tens of millions of people who did go to college--tends toward more progressive ideas on a whole series of political questions than the rich and the middle class.

Current polls show, for example, that 51 percent of Americans--the highest number since the 1930s Great Depression--support the longstanding socialist demand of taxing the rich specifically to redistribute wealth. A 2006 poll showed that 59 percent of people support trade unions--with support jumping to 68 percent among those who earn less than $30,000 a year.

But this isn't merely a question of economic issues.

A majority of citizens and permanent residents responded in a 2006 survey that they believed immigration to be "a good thing." Nearly 90 percent of Americans said they thought gays and lesbians should have equal rights at work. Support for gay marriage has grown by 19 percent since 1996, and opposition has declined by 15 percent. Even on abortion--one of the few areas where the right wing has gained ground ideologically--a majority of people still holds a favorable view of Roe v. Wade itself.

Also, in contrast to the picture of a fundamentalist hinterland existing between the coasts, polls also show that Americans are becoming less religious, that the religious are less consistent in attending church, and even that the younger generation of fundamentalist Christians are somewhat more left wing on some social justice issues.

SO WHY does the mythology of the reactionary working class persist? There are two inter-related reasons.

For one, this idea is useful in helping to divide and conquer workers on religious, racial, gender, national and sexual orientation lines--by presenting such divisions as unchanging and insurmountable. Secondly, the political weaknesses of the left and the labor movement in the U.S. mean that the logic of class struggle and solidarity has no echo in mainstream politics.

Take the example of the so-called "Reagan Democrats." The term has been resurrected in relationship to the 2008 election, but it was originally coined by the media to identify working-class voters who switched from their traditional loyalty to the Democrats to vote for the Republicans in the 1980s.

The backdrop to this was the late 1960s and early 1970s wave of militant strikes in transit, auto, textiles, the mines, the postal service and other industries. A number of these walkouts were wildcat strikes without official union sanction--and led by both Black and white radicals.

These struggles pointed to the potential for a reinvigorated and multiracial labor movement growing out of the social movements of the 1960s.

However, by the late 1970s, the ruling class had turned toward neoliberalism and began a counter-attack against labor and the left. It pushed for concessionary contracts with unions, two-tier wage scales, privatization, deregulation and slashing benefits.

This employers' offensive began under Democrat Jimmy Carter and was pushed further under Reagan. Instead of opposing this attack on workers, the party that supposedly represented working people--the Democrats--pushed through the first cuts. By 1984, a layer of loyal Democrats ended up voting for Reagan--the so-called "Reagan Democrats."

The Republicans pulled this off by appealing on a host of conservative "wedge issues"--stoking racism, calling for wars on crime and drugs, attacking women's rights. But the other element involved in this political shift was the failure of the Democrats to offer any challenge to the shift to the right. On the contrary, the Democrats concluded that they needed to follow the Republicans to the right to recapture the "swing voters."

Even after the Reagan Revolution began to peter out by the start of the 1990s, the Democrats remained in this conservative mode--symbolized, for example, by the "triangulating" of the Clinton presidency. Thus, for the past 15 years--with the exception of the period after the September 11, 2001 attacks--the U.S. working class has tended to be more progressive and left wing than the official, two-party political system.

This shows why it is wrong to assume that the situation described by author Thomas Frank in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?--that some workers vote against their economic interests for the Republicans because they have been won away from the Democrats on social issues--is permanent.

Instead, there is a problem of organizing the sentiment of large sections of workers around both economic and social issues into a political force that can have an impact.

As the 2008 elections have progressed, we've seen "class" take center stage, with Hillary Clinton--of all people--positioning herself, in the words of the New York Times, as a "working-class hero," ready to fight around all manner of "injustices," from high oil prices to mortgage foreclosures.

How is it possible that Clinton--a senator and former first lady who, with her husband, is worth more than $100 million--has been able to present herself as the working class' favorite daughter?

One reason is the gullible media that repeated her campaign's spin. Another is racism. The media brouhaha around Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright--pushed by both John McCain and Hillary Clinton's campaign--undermined Obama's "post-racial" campaign strategy (though it should be pointed out that millions of working-class white people have voted for Obama).

But it also must be said that Clinton and the media were able to paint Obama as "elitist" because he let them do it.

If he wanted, Obama could rally workers--Black, white and Latino--around a campaign that spoke to their concerns, with strong proposals to help working-class people deal with the consequences of being hammered by recession.

But Obama doesn't want to campaign on this basis. He wants to assure Wall Street and Corporate America, which have shifted sharply away from the Republicans to supporting the Democrats, that he is not a real threat. And so Obama tilts to the right--in a very similar manner to Bill Clinton's triangulation--to try to win over "swing voters."

The kernel of solidarity exists in every workplace and in every working-class community around the country. Organizing this kernel into movements to challenge racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia and corporate rule can force "official" politics left and extract real concessions.

At the end of the day, it is a truly reactionary ruling class that spreads the myth of the reactionary working class.

Further Reading

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