Beyond death, taxes, greed, and gravity, there’s little we can count on to remain constant in this world. But as sure as the day is long, you can bet on this: The elite assholes and self-interested charlatans who flood so many of our media channels will always jump at the chance to tell you that they know what “ordinary” working people are about.
Just who all these “average” Americans are is often—and deliberately—vague. But the baggage of our dominant cultural assumptions tends to plug the holes left by lacking details. What emerges is a recycled composite of the working class as a predominantly white, primarily male, and presumably Christian batch of English-speaking citizens who make their living in the roughneck trades (industrial, mining, farming, etc.). Even if it’s acknowledged that the demographics of this ill-defined mass are more complicated than that, the boiled-down essence of what “everyday” people want and think is not. And that essence is batted around like the helpless plaything of pundits whose professional, ideological, and class interests so often depend on their ability to summon the spirit of the working class without getting too bogged down in the flesh-and-blood complexity of workers’ lives. As the frenzied media spectacles of the 2020 election cycle and presidential impeachment proceedings gobble up our political universe, we can expect an endless chorus of talking heads invoking the mute specter of working people in their professionally hedged, assumption-laden “analyses” about Trump’s “working-class base,” white-working-class “swing voters,” “populism,” etc.
We should be infinitely suspicious, then, of any media figures—from any side of the political spectrum—who give credence to these reductive stereotypes in their self-serving rush to speak for the working class. Every week on my podcast, Working People, I interview workers from around the country, from all walks of life, and every week I’m reminded of this imperative truth: The working class is much bigger, more diverse, and more complex than any of us have been led to believe. (There’s actually a good chance that you’re part of it… and a good reason why you’ve been convinced not to think so.) No one can speak for it or its members. They can speak for their damn selves—and I asked a number of them to share their thoughts on these issues. So listen up.
Scott is a maintenance electrician in Chicago, represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). He’s worked at the same place for 10 years. And when media personalities play up working-class stereotypes to fit their own political narratives, it pisses him off.
“Yes, it bothers me!” he told me, especially because “it comes from people who want to feel above ‘the worker’ by assuming they ‘get’ them better than workers get themselves.”
It’s not as if the stereotypes are entirely unfounded—of course there are many thick-necked, Christian, white working-class people in the “heartland” who have reactionary tendencies and think things like “political correctness” and “identity politics” are the great scourges of our day. And there are plenty who don’t. Again, the working class is incredibly big and diverse—the most diverse economic class, in fact—but boiling the complex humanity of working-class people down to reductive stereotypes has always been an effective way for the ruling and managerial classes to justify workers’ lot in life (and, consequently, their relative absence from the mainstream media’s imitation of the public square).
As Scott puts it: “Even though a lot of working-class people do have informed, thought-out politics, plenty do not, and I just don’t believe the ratio is that different [among] workers and management, or capitalists. Almost everyone at my workplace is demonstrably smarter than Trump. The idea that working people are uniquely thoughtless comes from a place of arrogance. Or from a place of intentional malice, where genuine concerns for across-the-board wage increases or social democratic policies can be conflated with the culture of bigoted Teamsters.”
Katelyn O’Brien, a trans woman and a pipe fitter who works for a shipbuilding company in Virginia, agrees. As a transgender, blue-collar worker, she has certainly faced prejudicial treatment in the past, and she is regularly confronted with the challenges of navigating conservative attitudes in a heavy-duty industrial environment, to say nothing of the legally sanctioned structural barriers to equality in the workplace. She is one of countless others who often feels like a living contradiction: a person whose struggles—and whose very existence—are ignored, questioned, or written off as pure “identity politics,” “boutique” outliers beyond the “bread-and-butter” concerns of a working class to which she belongs.
Nevertheless, she is adamant that workers can get right what so many pundits get wrong: “There are a lot of people who aren’t as educated and will believe some things they hear, but some of their beliefs are dispelled when they meet an actual person…. Even articulate words from the mouth of a transgender coworker can be well considered in shipyards and industrial areas when those words are clear about the importance of organized labor to wages and safety from hazardous elements like the carcinogenic coal slag fumes inhaled by workers because of how sandblasting was done on the last boat we overhauled.
“I think that working-class people will care most about what clearly affects them, but if you have nothing particularly direct to say to them on that, they become vulnerable to diversionary scare mongering about other people whom progressives are trying to help.”
It’s no secret that historically, the struggles, victories, and concerns of the working class have rarely gotten the serious attention they deserve in our mainstream media. Instead, we are bombarded by reminders of the world that sits on top of ours and belongs to none of us: stories about celebrities, corporate America, and the exploits of the super-rich; squabbles between wealthy politicians; and an economy that is “booming” only for shareholders.
One of the few truly exciting things about our current political moment is that this gross media pathology appears to be changing. Amid the roiled emergence of a new labor movement—with strikes and public support for unions on the rise, even at a time of historically low union membership—the overworked, underpaid, and fed-up members of the working class are demanding to be heard. Amid the ongoing devastation from a Great Recession that never really ended for most of us, as workers combat stagnant wages, multiple jobs, increasing costs of living, and a ruling class hellbent on fleecing us for everything we’re worth, more and more people are refusing to be shamed into silence.
Take Justine and Julio for example, a couple living in Washington state. They’ve been married for 22 years and have raised three children. Julio works in construction as an operating engineer and Justine works group events and banquets at a local casino. According to Justine, when the 2008 economic crash hit, “the company Julio was working for shut down. Jobs were nearly impossible to find. He was out of work for seven months. We went through all of our savings and started to rack up a balance on our credit cards. When Julio started working again, we started to get back on our feet. Then he tore the meniscus in his knee and had to have surgery. He was out of work for three months. We racked up more on our credit card, then came the medical bills.”
During all of this, “I spent a lot of time talking about the injustices and bullshit with my co-workers and I realized what brings us the most happiness—and results—is our moments of solidarity, when we refuse to compete with one another or be manipulated into resentments of each other by our boss. And I started to realize I didn’t need to feel ashamed about my job.…
“As a working-class person, a working-class family, I can tell you the group of people I feel the most patronized and annoyed by as we go about our daily struggles in our workplaces: it’s the professional ‘liberal middle class.’ It’s the people who are ostensibly our ‘allies,’ who support our plights in words but don’t understand our struggles. Stop feeling sorry for the ‘poor class’ and pretending like your words will change anything in our lives. The truth is, we know you don’t really want anything to change that might also change your lives.
“What we want is fair compensation for the jobs we already do. And we know we deserve benefits like vacations and medical and family leave just as much as someone doing a white-collar job. Those in the professional class can lay their heads on their pillows at night, secure in the knowledge that they are intellectually and morally superior to the working class and that’s why they have their well deserved security…. They can’t erase us for much longer, though. We are talking to one another, we are joining forces, we are organizing. We know solidarity is our weapon. And we will not be silenced.”
This surge in collective labor struggles (and the media attention it gets), is an undeniably good thing. However, even a cursory survey of mainstream opinion pages and cable panels reveals how ill-equipped so many pundits still are when it comes to understanding the broad range of working-class people involved in—and the varied yet intersecting concerns informing—the coincident battles erupting around the country.
Across many sectors of the economy, there are various forms of labor that we have been conditioned to see as outside the realm of what working-class people do for a living. But class hierarchies permeate throughout the workforce, including the service and retail industries, domestic work, academia, and the world of “white-collar” jobs. Jessica is 34 years old, and she knows this all too well. She’s a black, queer woman with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. She works 30 hours a week at a very small tech company in Cupertino, California, with a side job as a contract licensed therapist in a community mental health setting, providing therapy to clients whose services are funded by Medi-Cal.
“I think what folks get wrong about having a ‘tech’ job,” she told me, “is that it equates to high pay and supreme benefits like those fetishized positions at Google and Apple. As a black queer woman, it is not easy to navigate this tech world or even the climate of Silicon Valley. Racial barriers, wage inequities run rampant in this area.”
She went on: “What I find deeply concerning, is the current economic projection that by 2053 black American median wealth will fall to zero.… Another economic issue that weighs heavily is the increase of adult-child caregivers in the millennial age range. Folks are caring for their parents at higher rates than before, due to the high costs of health care and parents not having sufficient financial resources to care for themselves. Caring for a parent requires employment scheduling flexibility and personal financial resources.
“In regard to [working-class] stereotypes, the most disheartening stereotypes, in my opinion are towards millennials who have large amounts of student debt. We are made to be seen that we are whining about our debt and that this is the ‘price’ of higher education, so suck it up! Yet, we are part of an economic frontier that has not been faced in [the entire] history of capitalism. Millions of us face our student debt alongside years of stagnant wages. For the last 4 years I have been enrolled in an income-based debt relief program, only to see my debt increase over the years, because the amount I pay based from my income does not pay to the principal, so the debt increases with interest… I made this financial decision to take on debt believing higher education would provide higher income, which it does. Education is a privilege and I own to that privilege. However, higher education does not eradicate the barriers of equal income for women, POC, LGBTQIA, different abled individuals, etc.”
What’s even worse, perhaps, than the commentariat’s incapacity to acknowledge the multiplicity of working-class struggles is its stubborn refusal to see working-class people as having the capacity to drive political movements themselves.
This is something that Alexandra Carbone has noticed while working in construction in Los Angeles. When I asked what she wished people knew about her and her coworkers, she told me, in no uncertain terms: “One of the things that most strikes me is how intelligent and resourceful builders are. The construction workers I know can calculate fractions at lightning speed, their spatial reasoning is off the charts, and they are walking encyclopedias of information about equipment and hardware and materials. They can load a truck in minutes with everything protected and strapped down so it won’t get damaged.…
“The problem isn’t that they do not have talent and intelligence; the problem is that their particular brand of talent and intelligence is devalued. In spite of this, they have decent jobs because nothing actually gets done without them, and when they put in a day’s work they can literally look at what they accomplished.
“I think ‘elites’ are aware that if they were dropped on a desert island and actually had to take care of their needs, these brutish workers who actually know how to do things in the real world would take the lead.
“I think this is why, at the end of the day, all these negative stereotypes about workers, all this devaluing of workers’ skills and knowledge—all this classism is necessary to keep the working classes subservient. If Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, etc. prove anything, it’s that working-class stereotypes are just that, and that lofty political messages can resonate with the working class when presented well. Our government ruthlessly terminated many of these leaders and undermined their movements because we cannot have the narrative in this country that the working class (and the divided-and-conquered minority groups that are kept in it) can be strong, and aware, and eloquent, capable of recognizing justice and defining freedom on their own terms.”
It is not a coincidence, then, that the traps of the chattering class are so free to ventriloquize workers from their well-lit perches in a culture industry whose hierarchies have been designed to keep “average,” “everyday,” “common” working people out of the discussion. Unless, of course, the occasion calls for some working-class specimens to be cherry-picked from the wild, squeezed for usable sound bites, and tossed back.
Who’s going to be there to object, then, when a dog-whistlin’ Fox News ghoul, or an overpaid New York Times columnist, or some (in)famous Twitter celebrities being interviewed for a reactionary magazine take it upon themselves to give us the scoop on the Real America™? No one. And they know that.
With his thick Boston accent and penchant for cussing—he’s pretty much turned it into an art form—John Tormey has a lot to say on this topic. A track laborer in Massachusetts, he is by all accounts part of the fabled and endlessly stereotyped white working class that politicos and the keyboard-clacking punditry love to obsess over.
When I asked him what he thought about the ways people like him are discussed in mainstream media circles, he didn’t hold back: “I figured out that stereotypes about the working class, like all stereotypes, exist to make us think we deserve what we get. We’re lazy, greedy, dumb, ignorant, racist, not like those people who work in nice offices, who went to fancy schools, who were born to wealthy parents. Rich kids never say racist shit. Rich kids never get a DUI, they never get busted with an eight ball in their pocket. How else to explain why you’re down there, swinging a hammer, and they’re up there, wearing a suit?
“What sucks is that a lot of us keep falling for this, long after we should’ve figured out that it’s bullshit, that the rich are every bit as petty, moronic, ignorant and stoned as the rest of us.… I’d like to tell those people to go fuck themselves, but this world has been constructed in a such a way that they never have to come face to face with someone like me. True class privilege means there’s no possibility of being punched in the mouth for calling everyone else dumb and lazy.”
But the grifters will not be denied. Labor’s new “moment” will continue to provide ample opportunities for clucking hucksters across the political spectrum to ride the wave and claim it for themselves. In the most cynical of ways, they will seize upon the hard, lived struggles of the working class and abstract them until they’re so far removed from real people’s lives that they become nothing but floppy bits of pure, fleshless rhetoric.
In what other context could we bear witness—not once, but twice—to Tucker Carlson, the bow tie–wearing embodiment of ruling-class ideology, inviting Angela Nagle, a virtual-reality “leftist” whose connection to left politics is limited to the Twittersphere, to gabble reactionarily about what workers “really” need? How else could it be so easy for talking heads, podcasting posers, and Trumpian acolytes to excuse their own despicable actions by painting working-class people as some callous mass of brash, one-dimensional, pathologically un-PC, Archie-Bunker stereotypes who can only be reached through buckets of KFC and racist, sexist, or ableist jokes?
I asked Bryan Quinby—who some may recognize as the Ohio-based co-host of the popular “pro-worker, anti-establishment, anarcho-comedy radio show” Street Fight Radio—to shed some light on why these stereotypes take the shape they do. Before he became a full-time podcaster, Bryan spent much of his life working in cable service tech, fast food (McDonald’s and Chuck E Cheese), a call center, a camera-store warehouse, etc. In writing his own comedy, he is especially mindful about how even entertainment media reinforces working-class stereotypes, often in lazy and opportunistic ways.
Bryan said, “The reason that I think a lot of comedy aimed at the working class is crude is because the people who write these things are often disconnected from working people, or they moved to get away from them. I know that when I moved out of my hometown to a more urban area I was running from being working class. I didn’t want to be that because I felt that it was crude. It was through my show that I saw how the working class is made up of all different types of people doing all different types of work. It shaped how I write comedy and I think that if I was truly talking to workers they would probably like what we are saying. It is about exposure to leftist ideas.
“I don’t think that it is out of line to say that a lot of blue-collar workers and service workers like edgy humor and I think that a lot of us are conditioned to believe that the only way to be edgy is to be right wing or racist or sexist. Appealing to people with comedy isn’t a cure-all and I don’t really know if it helps, but I think that pointing out that a lot of the sexist and racist jokes are not really edgy—nobody gets in trouble for them, it isn’t brave to say these things—could go a long way. I think that if we could convince working people that there is power in solidarity with marginalized people and that the real enemy is the bosses and capital, they would laugh at jokes at the expense of powerful people.”
But who the hell am I, after all? What gives me the right to speak for workers? Nothing. And this is precisely the problem: In such a viciously hierarchical media ecosystem, where only those with privileged access speak, any questioning of the status quo often only goes as far as putting each pundit’s own working-class bona fides on trial. (And many pundits will, indeed, defend themselves by claiming to be more connected to the hardscrabble life than others.) But I do not care what your working-class bona fides are. This isn’t about you. And it sure as hell isn’t about me.
If we get stuck interrogating individual pundits’ working-class pedigrees instead of their track records of lifting up the voices of actual workers, then we’re ultimately leaving unchallenged the institutionalized hierarchies that have allowed our media to ignore working people for so long. Needless to say, the goal should not be to preserve the hierarchical structure of a system dominated by pundits, but to let the rabble in and take it over.
To give the working class its due, then, start by letting workers themselves do the talking. Don’t listen to me; listen to the workers I talk to. Don’t bother with the attention-seeking charlatans who claim to speak for the working class; instead, support those who are doing the work to amplify the voices of our fellow workers (Sarah Jaffe, Kim Kelly, Sarah Lazare, In These Times, Labor Notes, Rank & File, Rank & File Radio, Shane Burley, Reniqua Allen, Martha Pskowski, State of the Unions, America’s Workforce Radio, CTU Speaks!, MeansTV, Malaika Jabali, Chris Brooks, Joe Allen, Candace Wolf, Working Class History, Revolutionary Left Radio, Payday Report, Sarah Smarsh, Belabored, Mariame Kaba, Left Voice, Your Rights at Work, Jessica Bruder, West Virginia IWW, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and so many more).
More importantly, though, the goal should also be to not rely entirely on distant and thoroughly mediated connections to our fellow workers. In the barren wilds of late capitalism, we are alienated from one another enough as it is; we need to do the work of finding each other. Don’t let corporate or even alternative media tell you what you should already know yourself, don’t let them be a substitute for the vital, solidarity-building, world-changing practice of conversing with your neighbors, coworkers, and comrades. Talk to one another, listen closely, and learn from each other’s lives and struggles. We are all we need to know.