In 1977, a Midwestern unionist named Ed Sadlowski made a spirited run for the presidency of the United Steelworkers. An insurgent running against the old guard at a time when the union’s election was still decided by a popular vote, Sadlowski seemed on the verge of victory until he granted an interview with Penthouse magazine.
As author Thomas Geoghegan recounted in his 1991 book, Which Side Are You On?, the ensuing controversy had nothing to do with the publication’s pornography, and everything to do with Sadlowski insisting that America should be “a country where people don’t have to work in coke ovens.”
“A terrible howl went up from the Official Family and from some of the older workers,” Geoghegan wrote. Though Sadlowski was railing against intolerable working conditions that most Americans oppose, his political enemies portrayed his remarks as an elitist veneration of white-collar work over blue-collar labor — at the time, akin to blasphemy. The smears worked, and Sadlowski lost his election.
Fast forward to the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. The story revolves around a 20-year-old orphan from working-class South Boston, who opts for manual labor jobs rather than using his math genius to get a professional gig.
“I don’t see anythin’ wrong with layin’ brick,” he says at one point. “That’s somebody’s home I’m buildin’. Or fixin’ somebody’s car, somebody’s gonna get to work the next day ‘cause of me. There’s honor in that.” But that outlook is simply unacceptable to his blue-collar buddies.
“In 20 years, if you’re livin’ next door to me, comin’ over watchin’ the fuckin’ Patriots’ games and still workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill you,” his friend warns him. “You’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket. … It’d be a fuckin’ insult to us if you’re still here in 20 years.”
Movies may be fiction, but they represent the attitudes of the media and Hollywood elite who shape pop culture. In the difference between how Ed Sadlowski and Will Hunting were treated for their beliefs, we see one of the least examined shifts in how work is presented in popular discourse — from both blue-collar and white-collar jobs being depicted as respectable ends, to blue-collar work portrayed as respectable inasmuch as it helps the laborer reach the venerated professional class.
This is the profound but subtle message of the last scene of another movie, Office Space, in which Peter Gibbons quits his suit-and-tie cubicle job and realizes his dream is to work construction. That we are trained to see this decision as rare only shows how deep the elitists’ rabbit hole goes.
We are all professionals now
This shift is mirrored in our political discourse. The American Dream is no longer presented as working in a General Motors factory and living a comfortably middle-class life. It is presented as a white-collar one, whereby the economically underprivileged small-town youth works hard in school, goes to college while holding down a blue-collar job, and ultimately finds nirvana in a posh skyscraper’s office. Think Michael J. Fox in the movie The Secret of My Success.
Economic critiques from both parties are placed within this storyline, largely revolving around complaints about underfunded college grants, poorly administered job training programs or obstructive government bureaucrats who stunt professional advancement. This, rather than attacks against tax, trade, wage and healthcare policies that have made achieving the American Dream through blue-collar work increasingly impossible.
If manual laborers, farmers and small-business owners are involved in the stagecraft of national politics at all, they appear as a sepia-toned backdrop in 30-second TV ads aimed at making a candidate seem visually synonymous with Americana — but that’s about it.
Political messages so closely mirroring Hollywood narratives may seem like life imitating art, but this is actually class imitating class. Most politicians, pundits and activist leaders — like most television producers and movie directors — have lived the professional dream, climbing the white-collar ladder. They therefore have no connection to, or appreciation of, any other kind of dream, even though it exists as an ideal to so many Americans.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) himself is the textbook example of the professional American Dream — mixed-race kid from a struggling single-parent home who claws his way into the Ivy League, the law firm and ultimately the most exclusive club in the world, the U.S. Senate.
Writing in September for the online edition of the cultural/political magazine n+1, Yale Law School fellow Aziz Rana noted that in rhetorically ignoring a wide swath of America that either hasn’t lived that professional life and/or has no desire to, Democrats denigrate those demographics and exacerbate the party’s problem of winning back the working-class voters known as Reagan Democrats. Rana wrote:
From 1932 until 1968, the Democratic Party rested on two descriptions of American life — the American Dream as embodied by the rural farmer and the industrial worker. It gained sustenance from a respect for these accounts of middle-class achievement, economic independence and democratic inclusion. Today’s party, however, has given up on establishing new forms of solidarity for nonprofessional citizens. All it has to offer is a lose-lose proposition: Join the competition for professional status and cultural privilege at a severe disadvantage, or don’t join it at all.
The same could be said of the GOP, but it has become more adept at winning on so-called “values.” Republicans may economically insult blue-collar America like so many Democrats, but they have long manufactured cultural solidarity — on everything from social issues to personal security (“tough on crime” laws, anti-gun control positions) to geographical polarization (rural vs. urban rhetoric).
During the 2008 campaign, Democrats have done their level best to help them.
Party of the little guy?
Obama’s now-famous celebration of arugula prices and lamentation about “bitter” Americans played right into the GOP’s hands, as did his party’s initial reaction to Republican vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Instead of highlighting Palin’s connection to fringe political causes, leading Democratic spokespeople focused on her inexperience by lambasting her service as a small-town mayor. James Carville, the supposedly brilliant “strategist,” actually flashed a photo of the Wasilla, Alaska, City Hall. Evidently, the alleged “party of the little guy” was unaware that such an over-the-top reaction might suggest to millions of small-town voters that Democrats think they and their life experiences are a joke.
Same thing on the economy. Obama has eschewed the argot of blue-collar class struggle in favor of a vague and professorial consensus-ism and he has cautiously avoided populist language on issues like NAFTA that have become symbols of government disregard for non-professionals.
Worse, when Obama’s spokespeople discuss trade, they preface any vaguely populist declaration with reassurances that Obama isn’t a “protectionist” — the implication being that Democrats believe blue-collar jobs are undesirable and thus not really worth protecting.
Fortunately for Democrats, Wall Street’s meltdown may save them from themselves. The Bush administration’s request for $700 billion for the financial industry has allowed Democrats — at least rhetorically — to better answer Geoghegan’s which-side-are-you-on question. They can posture as the defenders of the working class’ tax dollars and simultaneously lacerate the professional class in a way that will be perceived as appropriate to an already angry country.
If Democrats conclude the 2008 campaign with a full-throated criticism of Wall Street, speculators, brokers and executives, they could help break the perception among working-class voters that they are the party interested only in such professionals. They could prove that Democrats do identify with and respect non-professionals.
That’s a big “if,” of course.
Obama has raked in almost $10 million from investment firms and has surrounded himself with the same corporate and Washington insiders that caused the crisis. While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was ignoring his own voting record in support of financial deregulation and stumping against “unbridled greed,” Obama was touting his economic kitchen cabinet that included an array of former Bush and Clinton administration officials (including Bob Rubin — now a top executive at Citigroup, which is embroiled in the meltdown), and not a single labor-affiliated or progressive economist.
To expect Obama to rely on such elite counsel and then hit the campaign trail with a blue-collar message may be expecting too much. But maybe it isn’t. If Obama has an ideology, it is one that seeks unity, and the last decade’s outsourcing, wage cutting and pension raiding — combined with a housing-induced financial crisis — has forged its own unity in a blue-red country.
Everyone — except for a few at the top — feels exposed, everyone feels their own vision of the American Dream imperiled, whether they believe in an agricultural, blue-collar or white-collar dream. That convergence could nudge Obama and the Democrats far enough to the populist left on taboo issues like trade and regulation that they end up showing they value more than just professional America — that they actually respect Will Hunting, even if he keeps laying brick.
Maybe then all those Reagan Democrats will finally come home.
David Sirota is a senior editor at In These Times and a bestselling author whose newest book, "The Uprising," was released in May 2008. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network — both nonpartisan organizations.