Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Working Class

George Packer has an interesting article about the legendary "white working class" (as they exist in Ohio at least) and the central role this block of voters play in electing our presidents. The article was full of interesting anecdotes and quotes, but there are a couple that I think fairly encapsulate the piece:

In Snodgrass’s shoes, it hardly made sense to draw a paycheck. “You’re working for what?” she asked. She hadn’t finished college, and the two jobs that kept her “constantly moving” brought in a little more than forty thousand dollars a year, but after the mortgage (a thousand a month), car payments (three hundred and fifty), levies for supplies at the girls’ public high school, fuel, electricity, stomach medicine, and a hundred dollars’ worth of groceries each week (down from eight bags to four at Kroger’s supermarket, because of inflation) there was basically nothing left to spend. She could cut corners—go out for a McDonald’s Dollar Meal instead of spending seven dollars on a bag of potatoes and cooking at home. But that meant the end of any kind of family life for her nieces.

“These days, you have to struggle,” she said. “As a kid, I used to be able to go to the movies or to the zoo. Now you can’t take your children to the zoo or go to the movies, because you’ve got to think how you’re going to put food on the table.” Snodgrass’s parents had raised four children on two modest incomes, without the ceaseless stress that she was enduring. But the two-parent family was now available only to the “very privileged.” She said that she had ten good friends; eight of them were childless or, like her, unmarried with kids. “That’s who’s middle-class now,” she said. “Two parents, two kids? That’s over. People looked out for me. These kids nowadays don’t have nobody to look out for them. You’re one week away from (a) losing your job, or (b) not having a paycheck.”

She remained uninspired by Barack Obama. His Convention speech had gone into detail about his policy proposals on matters like the economy and health care, which seemed tailored to attract a voter like Snodgrass, but they filled her with suspicion. His promise to rescind the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans struck her as incredible: “How many people do you know who make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars? What is that, five per cent of the United States? That’s a joke! If he starts at a hundred thousand, I might listen. Two hundred fifty—that’s to me like people who hit the lottery.”

Snodgrass reacted with equal skepticism to Obama’s proposal for expanding health care. “It scares the heck out of me,” she said. “If the employers are going to cover more, we’re going to get less in our raises. My raise every year is like a cost-of-living raise. How are they going to be able to give me more money?” The margin of error in her life was so slim, she felt, that any attempt to improve lives with ambitious new programs could only end up harming her.

Snodgrass sat talking for much longer than she had initially offered; by the end, her words tumbled out in a plaintive rush, as if under some inner pressure. “You want somebody there who’s going to take care of us,” she said. “I’m very scared about who they put in there, because it’s either going to get a lot worse than it is or it’s going to keep going where it is, which is bad.” She almost gasped. “Just give us a break. There’s no reprieve. No reprieve.”

Snodgrass's stress and anxiety is palpable, and she's someone we can all relate to. Who hasn't wondered where money would come from to pay the bills, or wondered what they'd do if and when they lost their job, or known someone who had to wonder those things? Snodgrass is so beaten down by her economic circumstances that she questions whether it's even possible for anyone to help her at this point. However there's another element of this group that I find it a little more difficult to relate to:

“I think the party-line Democrats are having a hard time with Obama,” Bobbie Dunham, a retired fourth-grade teacher, told me. When I asked if Obama’s health-care plan wouldn’t be a good thing for people in Glouster, she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it. If it’s actually happening, I’d say that’s good.” But she and the others had far more complaints about locals freeloading off public assistance than about the health-insurance industry and corporations. Dunham declared her intention to write in a vote for either Snoopy or T. Boone Pickens. “I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.”

I asked where she had learned that.

“On the Internet.”

And of course, there's the subject of race:

Patrick himself feared that Obama’s race would threaten his own security and well-being. He said that it would be only natural for a black President to avenge the historical wrongs that his people had suffered at the hands of whites. “I really don’t want an African-American as President,” he said. “I think he would put too many
minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion.”

Trade unionists in the Obama campaign know better than anyone that their candidate is not an easy sell with the working class, including some of their own members. This summer, the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O. sent out a brochure offering “Straight Answers to Real Questions . . . About Barack Obama”: Is he a Christian? Was he sworn in on the Bible? Was he born in America? Does he place his hand over his heart when he says the pledge? The S.E.I.U., whose membership includes prison workers, put out a flyer in Ohio that insisted, “Barack Obama Won’t Take Away Your Gun . . . but John McCain Will Take Away Your Union.”

Lisa Hetrick, a registered nurse and the secretary-treasurer at the S.E.I.U.’s regional headquarters in Columbus, fumed that her son was supporting McCain because of national security, and that her husband was wobbling because of firearms. Like everyone else at the office, Hetrick had a story about a racist colleague, relative, or friend. “Oh God, it’s terrible,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do! They’re rednecks.” She mentioned a prison worker and union member down in Chillicothe who, four years ago, had berated her for not enlisting him and his colleagues to volunteer for Kerry; when she made sure to call him this time, he told her that he wouldn’t work for Obama, and she understood the reason to be race.

What Packer's article is really about, is understanding why people of this particular socio-economic class either do or do not vote Democratic. As he explains, citing research on the subject, these voters have drifted away from the Democratic Party because they concluded-rightly-that the Party was doing little for them. Over the last three decades it has become considerably more difficult for white blue-collar workers to guarantee themselves or their families any economic security, let alone the prosperity they once enjoyed during the Fifties and the Sixties. The Democratic Party has done nothing to reverse that general trend (and in fact, many leading Democrats have long been supporters of the very globalization that has eroded the living standards of blue collar workers) and the Republican Party has made repeated appeals to their distrust of government and their social beliefs. Partisans like ourselves are quick to chastise voters for voting against their interests (as if it's silly to vote on principle or morals alone) but who can convincingly argue that they are voting against their interests when Democratic Presidents and Congresses have abetted their decline?

However, it is beginning to seem as though the modern Democratic Party is interested in taking up the mantle of these voters once again. Everyone's buzzword is middle class, but that's only because everybody-many of these people included, who are actually poor-think they are middle class. What candidates like Obama hope to address now is not only matters like the acute financial crisis on Wall Street, but the matter of growing inequality of wealth, declining living standards, lack of health care for millions of Americans and so on, problems that are fundamental to our economic system and consequently require systemic change.

That being said, it should also be acknowledge that there is a certain subset of voters who the Democratic Party will not reach. Anyone who thinks that Obama is a secret Muslim because he's 2/3 African is not someone that is likely to be persuaded by the rhetoric of hope and change. Anyone who thinks that he's likely to support the interests of blacks over the "white race" because he's black himself (a view I also heard expressed by a voter on NPR this morning) is not someone who can be reached by appeals to economic insecurity. I say this because politicians are quick to laud themselves as "regular joes" in an effort to appeal to these voters, and there's been something of an idealization of the white, working-class voter. I see no sense in Democratic politicians pandering to racists who won't vote for their party regardless of how frequently you go hunting or how many beers you drink; these people are naturally attracted to white candidates who they think are like themselvesand who they think value the things they value. So be it.

Nonetheless, I do feel like the Democratic Party, and politics in general, is on the cusp of change in this election. Fundamental problems are being recognized and addressed, even by Republican candidates, and perhaps finally we might see a time when politicians take the money of large corporations and vote in the interests of their most economically insecure constituents anyway. Time will tell.

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