Thursday, May 12, 2005

"Working Class" Disconnect Theories Abound

Slate's Timothy Noah recently joined his liberal bretheren in wondering why the Democrats aren't enjoying the support of the "working class" they once did. Noah pointed to the by-now familiar book by Thomas Franks blaming the decline of unions, or Tom Edsall's contention that it's a "values gap" or even Arlie Russell Hochschild's "testosterone gap." For his part, Noah plays with the idea that the "working class" suffers from a psychological disorder but then dismissed the whole thing. To all of this, James Taranto offered this observation (emphasis his)
How come it never occurs to liberals or Democrats that the very terms in which they phrase the question are part of their problem? These, after all, are people who are obsessed with politically correct terminology, from "African-American" to "fetus." Yet somehow it never dawns on them that "working class" is an insult.

Think about it: Would you call a janitor, a secretary or a carpenter "working class" to his face? The term connotes putting someone in his place: Your lot in life is to work. Thinking is for the higher classes. The questions the Democrats ask about the "working class" reflect precisely this contempt: What's the matter with these people? Why don't they understand that we know what's good for them? Why do they worry about silly things like abortion and homosexuality? If they must believe in all that religious mumbo-jumbo, can't they keep it to themselves?

Every time the Democrats lose an election, they make a big show of asking questions like these. Then, the next time they lose an election, they once again wonder why the "working class" has forsaken them. Maybe it's as simple as: because they were listening.
The values issue that Taranto brings up is one valid, and probably the primary, reason for the middle class supposedly "not voting their interests" as framed by liberals. Yet, perhaps there is another factor that liberals miss because they take for granted the simple-mindedness of the so-called "working class".

Liberals are partially correct to pay attention to economic interests--Franks thinks they should ressurect the class-warfare model that won for them previously--but they are missing a key component of the more general "American ideology" if they think class warfare alone will work. Whether based on history or "myth", most Americans actually, really and truly do believe in the ideal of the individual making his own way in this nation where opportunity abounds. From this follows the belief that with a good idea, hard work, sacrifice and a little luck, everyone can be one of "the rich." In short, they may be a little jealous of the rich, but not too much: after all, they want to be one someday.

As such, at the risk of taking this too far, it could be reasoned that the "working class" are not "voting against their own economic interest" at all. Instead, perhaps they are showing foresight by sacrificing now for potential benefits later. It might be a stretch, but its possible.

Regardless of this last, the main fact is that liberals would do well to stop criticizing the motivations of others based on the assumption that these are "ignorant" of their own "self interests." Many Americans consider liberals to be elitist know-it-alls and this perception is only reinforced by the latter's continuous attempts to blame others for the failure of their own liberal ideas. In all actuality, as suggested by Taranto, perhaps it is the liberal Democrats who are the truly disconnected class.

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