10/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trampling Working-Class Voters with the Professional Ideal

To start this post, let's first stipulate that the Republican Party of aristocrat George W. Bush labeling "elitist" the Democratic Party of up-from-the-bootstraps Barack Obama is about the silliest, most intelligence-insulting frame ever attempted by a major political party in contemporary American history. But let's also consider the very important point in this fascinating article by Aziz Rana in N+1 magazine.

Rana suggests that the reason Obama - and Democrats in general - have had trouble with working-class voters has to do with the underlying assumptions in their most favorite contemporary narrative - you know, the ones about people working hard, going to college and becoming high-paid professionals. That's Obama's whole life story, and the story that countless Democratic politicians tell as their version of "The American Dream."

The problem is that's not the only American Dream.

There's also a long history of the dream being one of making a living and - just as important - attaining social status through farming, small-business development and factory work. That is, a dream whereby the aspiration is not to emerge from blue-collar-dom into the professional class, but to achieve the dream WITHIN blue-collar-dom:

"Three earlier accounts of the American dream not only survived but were real competitors [to professionalism] for social preeminence. In Thomas Jefferson's founding Republican vision, yeoman farmers were 'the most valuable citizens...the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous,...tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.' To this Jeffersonian vision of 'the cultivators of the earth,' a rapidly urbanizing nineteenth century added the small-business owner and the unionized industrial worker...These three versions of the American dream each still constituted a viable route to meaningful political and social life."

The problem is that over time, our political culture has promoted just "the professional ideal, which values only certain types of work and thus implicitly disdains the rest." That phenomenon hasn't happened because of Obama (obviously). It is due to many factors. A big one, for instance, is a media dominated by millionaire pundits and commentators who regularly bill their white-collar professional path as the only respectable career trajectory - and one that is supposedly open to everyone (when, of course, it isn't). Another is an activist political class dominated by adherents to and products of that professional American Dream - an activist class, in other words, that is largely run by those who have no connection to, appreciation of (and this is the most critical one) or belief in that working-class American Dream.

However, Obama's own personal story, his rhetoric and the DLC-ish, Third Way-esque posture of Democrats when they address economic issues undeniably reinforces the image that the party, indeed, subscribes ONLY to this professional ideal of the American Dream - one that inherently looks down on blue-collar America because "it is an inherently exclusive ideal, structured around a divide between those engaged in high-status work and those confined to task execution."

What references to blue-collar America that are typically made by Democrats are those that hearken back to an earlier "Golden Age" - rather than those implying that blue-collar America remains a vibrant, honorable and important part of our country - beyond its historical hagiographic value in sepia-toned campaign ads. Those who have chosen blue-collar work are not to be mourned over as those who tragically failed in their supposed real goal of becoming a lawyer, nor are they to be celebrated for their quaintness - they are to be held up as equally as economically valuable, culturally important and worthy of political power as the white-collar crowd that preens around with a hubristic air of entitlement and superiority.

Here's the real crux:

"The professional and educational meritocracy justifies a basic hierarchy in which only those with professional status wield political and economic power [and] Barack Obama's political ascent reiterates the current dominance of the professional ethic...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 party holds on to the social programs of the past, but in ever more truncated form. It presents a politics of consensus while ignoring the fact of basic division...If Obama hopes to save his party and to address the interests and experiences of working-class citizens, he will have to challenge the hegemony of the professional and with it the closing of the American dream."

I disagree with Rana in ascribing any kind of blame to Obama for living the life he lived, and having the success he's had. Obama should be proud of that story, and talk about it often. I also disagree with Rana in the either/or proposition that suggests you either voice the professional American Dream, or you voice the blue-collar American Dream. I actually think progressives can walk and chew gum at the same time by voicing both. And, of course, Obama's trouble with working-class voters is at least partially due to America's persistent struggle to be comfortable with African American (and other minority) political leaders.

All of that said, I agree that Obama's (and the Democratic Party's) insistence on avoiding major issues that raise class conflict (like, say, trade reform or confronting corporate power) is a product of a fealty to the professional American Dream. I mean, as I noted in an earlier newspaper column, here we have a Democratic Party that could skewer John McCain on the class-based issue of NAFTA - and there has been almost complete silence on that set of issues since the Democratic primary.

And let's be clear: it's not just avoidance and silence, either. It's often times more overt, like when every Democratic politician has to preface any vaguely populist declaration about trade and outsourcing by saying they aren't a "protectionist." What they are really asserting when they say that is that they believe protecting blue-collar jobs isn't really all that desirable, because they believe Americans think blue-collar work isn't really a desirable ends - that if anything, Americans see factory, small-business and agriculture jobs as merely a means to a white-collar professional ends.

But that's not the way working-class America sees the world, says Rana - and says American history. And until Democrats realize that - until they present an agenda that proves they truly believe there is value in the non-professional path - they will struggle to win over working-class voters drawn to the the GOP's culturally populist appeals.

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