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What Joe the Plumber Really Means

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Joe the Plumber is the latest of many colorful, mythic characters to grace the nation's presidential stage -- an individual who epitomizes how our nation conducts its politics. Our democracy is kabuki theater, replete with symbolic archetypal Americans, some used as scapegoats (Reagan's "welfare queens") others used for fearmongering (Harry & Louise) and still others cited as mythic idols (Joe the Plumber).

In the War Room of presidential elections, these figures are typically chewed up and ultimately spit out by both parties, the media and interest groups. The treatment is so hackneyed that we all knew what to expect the moment John McCain first mentioned "Joe the Plumber": We knew our email boxes would be stuffed full of press releases from advocacy groups about who Joe Wurzelbacher is and isn't, attacks from opp research outfits about whether Joe really is a plumber, pays his taxes and is an upstanding citizen; SNL-ish attempts to create Plumber Wars by pitting Joe the Plumber for McCain against Al the Plumber for Obama; and canned cable interviews with Joe to let him use his 15 minutes of fame to explain himself.

It's all so cliche that I simply deleted all the email and shut off the TV today, knowing what they all said without needing to read it -- knowing that almost all of the noise focuses on Joe Wurzelbacher the individual, rather than the significance of Joe the Plumber the archetype -- and how that archetype's cameo in presidential politics verifies both a tectonic cultural shift happening in America, as well as disturbing dissonance between politics and policy.

In my newest article for In These Times magazine, I examine how the deeper narratives being amplified in the 2008 campaign may be as important to working-class voters (represented by the image of by Joe the Plumber) as the candidates' specific issue positions.

Building off Aziz Rana's great n+1 magazine article, I look at how the political Establishment's framing of career "success" can psychologically attract and alienate voters in unpredictable ways -- and how those definitions often denigrate Joe the Plumber even as that Establishment purports to court him with "issues."

The tectonic shift is Joe's appearance at the highest echelons of politics, a presidential debate. The mere fact that we are talking about Joe -- that we are talking about class-based economic concerns - tells us we have, indeed, matured past the greed-is-good paeans of the 1980s and the "new economy" platitudes of the 1990s -- both themes that effectively said non-professionals victimized by corporate-written policies are the necessary victims of capitalism's "creative destruction." That politicians feel the need to show their rhetorical regard for Joe the Plumber may be evidence we are finally climbing out of the elitists' rabbit hole.

But the pressing question after the election will be whether the working-class is, as I write in the In These Times piece, merely "a sepia-toned backdrop in 30-second TV ads" or a genuine focus of national policy? Will we still have policies and rhetoric that assumes the inevitability of mythic professional dreams and Tom Friedman's white-collar nirvanas? Or will we graduate to a politics that acknowledges the value of non-professional dreams, and the obstacles to those dreams that have been legislated in our trade, tax and globalization policies?

This is a scarier question, because despite the fleeting campaign promises about hot-button issues like NAFTA and the Colombia trade deal, it's hard to tell what this election and the current financial crisis is actually forging in terms of an overarching mandate.

The consensus-ism of Obama and the change pledges of McCain paper over the fact that both them -- and both parties -- still genuflect to Big Money. We are, for example, watching the candidates promising to put Joe the Plumber first, just weeks after they both voted for a bailout bill handing almost 5 percent of our economy to Wall Street speculators. That kind of cynicism bleeds down into the national legislature as well. As congressional candidates campaign as rhetorical populists (stay tuned for my newspaper column on this tomorrow), here's Roll Call today:

"When Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) travels to Wall Street today to discuss overhauling financial regulations with industry titans, it will be something of a homecoming. She once held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; in fact, Tauscher cut her teeth there early in her career as an investment banker. This time, she is making the rounds both as an emissary of House Democratic leadership and as chairwoman of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist organization hoping a Democratic sweep in November will make it a pivotal group next year and beyond...If Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wins the White House, [New Democrats] say their votes will serve as a business-friendly check on the more liberal impulses of a party suddenly in control of all levers of power." (emphasis added)

During this recession, it is comforting to tell ourselves that if we elect a certain president, our troubles will be over; that if we get the right politicians into office, we will have forced our government to prioritize the working class over the donor class -- Joe Wurzelbacher the Plumber instead of Bob Rubin the Speculator. And hell, who doesn't want to be comforted at a time when our 401k(s) are being devoured by the market monster that donor class built? Like drug addicts seeing only their next fix and not their disease, we perpetually convince ourselves that the imminent election is our ultimate palliative.

But it's not -- if we don't acknowledge the deeper problems, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. If we perpetuate denial -- if we, for instance, obsess over the personal foibles or heroics of the individual Joe Wurzelbacher and not the far more important class meaning of the archetype Joe the Plumber -- then we are helping guarantee that the more things "change" the more they stay the same.