Who Lost the Working Class? | The Nation


Who Lost the Working Class?

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Equally, even those who consciously struggle to reject the stereotypes find it difficult to visualize ordinary working people as more than abstractions--the "hard-working husbands and wives with stagnant incomes and insecure jobs" who have become the clichés of the modern campaign trail. There is genuine concern and empathy for workers in these descriptions, but often a palpable sense of distance and disengagement as well. All too often, workers described in this way seem little more than the sum of their economic difficulties.

About the Author

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

The problem arises because most educated Americans have so extraordinarily little intimate human contact with working people. For many, the depth of the cultural divide only becomes apparent in the awkward and uncomfortable moments when they cannot find a topic for small talk with a tradesman or employee. They have never shared the intense sense of brotherhood that pervades working-class life, the continuous joking and casual conversation on a construction site, the satisfaction of working together as a team and "getting the job done right." They have never experienced the exhilarating sense of mastery that a framing carpenter can feel as he stands on a narrow beam three stories above the ground, looks down at the traffic passing below and thinks to himself that he feels sorry for all those poor bastards who are going to be stuck in an office all day long.

In short, most educated Americans have little sense of the texture and the complexity of working-class life, of its richness and satisfactions as well as its problems and discontents. And without an intimate and personal understanding of these things, it will always be profoundly difficult for liberals and progressives to convince working Americans that they should be trusted to represent workers' needs and interests in the political system.

Conservatives have always been acutely aware of this cultural chasm between college-educated and blue-collar America, and every key Republican political strategist, from Kevin Phillips and Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, has relied on it as a critical advantage in the struggle for the blue-collar vote.

Just how decisive this cultural distance is can be seen in a single, startling fact: When trade unions took the case for Al Gore directly to their members, they totally reversed the national trends. While 69 percent of white men who were not members of trade unions voted for Bush and only 28 percent for Gore, 59 percent of white men who were members of trade unions voted for Gore and only 35 percent for Bush. Among white trade-union women, 67 percent voted for Gore and 31 percent for Bush. Among nonunion white women, in contrast, Gore lost by 7 percent.

The significance of these results is difficult to overstate. They demonstrate that when workers are presented with a progressive message by campaign workers who come from an institution that is part of working-class life, and who share their culture and values, a substantial majority can be convinced to support progressive candidates and programs.

During the 1930s, union organizers were taught never to blame the workers if an organizing campaign failed. "It's not their fault for not understanding," the organizers were instructed. "It's your fault for not explaining it clearly enough." It is a motto today's liberals and progressives would do well to hang on the walls of the political campaign war rooms in the elections of the coming years.

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