Who Lost the Working Class? | The Nation


Who Lost the Working Class?

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The key question that arises from Lamont's work is to determine how these values influence workers' thinking about specific social and political issues. While focus groups are often used to gain an understanding of what a group of people is thinking, they are not designed to systematically study the process by which opinions are derived.

About the Author

Andrew Levison
Andrew Levison is the author of two books about American workers, The Working-Class Majority and The Full Employment...

One approach is presented in Talking Politics, by William Gamson. Gamson drew together 188 participants into thirty-seven small groups and presented each with newspaper clippings and editorial cartoons on four political issues. Gamson documented how these blue-collar people evaluated the materials and, working as a group, tried to draw conclusions. What Gamson found was that working people tend to blend three distinct kinds of information in analyzing an issue--information from the media, personal experience and popular wisdom or "common sense"--and to insist that conclusions had to make sense in terms of all three approaches. This is quite unlike the route of many educated people, who prefer to rely entirely on the conclusions of specialists (for example, economists or scientists). Moreover, Gamson found that popular wisdom and common sense are conduits through which workers bring their values to bear on political issues. Statements described as "common sense" are in fact often expressions of basic values.

The most dramatic recent example of how this process affects actual politics occurred during the first debate between Bush and Gore. Although most commentary focused on Gore's physical appearance and mannerisms, a significant difference also existed between the way the two candidates presented their ideas. While Gore presented a barrage of facts and figures in support of his proposals, Bush frequently replied with simple statements to the effect that the surplus belonged to the people, not to Washington and that he believed in the people, not the government.

While many liberals perceived these remarks as superficial clichés, subsequent opinion polls showed that viewers tended to see Bush as someone who had values similar to theirs, while Gore was perceived as a politician who would "say anything to get elected." Gore's heavy reliance on facts and figures, and his failure to engage Bush's aphorisms with equally clear statements of the "common sense" behind his proposals, was perceived by many blue-collar workers as reflecting an absence of solid underlying values.

The massive rejection of Gore by blue-collar workers on Election Day, however, was not due solely to a failure to communicate his views effectively. It also reflected a profound distrust of government programs or activism of any kind. Democratic strategists were well aware of the massive suspicion and distrust many workers feel toward the Democratic Party in particular, and workers' perception that it caters to a wide range of liberal interest groups but rarely pays attention to them. But what was not so obvious was that this antagonism predated the late 1960s and actually began in the 1950s, when American workers' view of themselves underwent a subtle but profound transformation.

Two books that help to explain the collapse of the relationship between blue-collar workers and the Democratic Party are Samuel Freedman's The Inheritance and Lillian Rubin's Families on the Fault Line. Freedman's book follows three working-class families through three generations, from the early 1900s to the Reagan years. Rubin's book analyzes extensive personal interviews she conducted in the early 1990s with 162 working-class families.

By focusing on a few individuals, Freedman, a former New York Times reporter, is able to show in extraordinary detail the way in which the New Deal reforms improved the lives of ordinary Americans. For one family a WPA job meant not just an escape from poverty but from a sense of shame and humiliation as well. For plumber Silvio Burigo, the Wagner Act revitalized the trade-union movement and launched his career as a union official.

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