Is the Sarah Palin Phenomenon About Gender or about Race? It's About Class.

10/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gender, gender, gender. Race, race, race. We read all the time about the role each is playing in this election.

But why did McCain pick Sarah Palin? To revive the culture wars - the wedge issues that have delivered the working class to the Republicans again and again since the 1970s. As I argued in my last blog, this strategy works because the culture wars are the established expression of class conflict in the U.S.

The culture wars mobilize working class anger against the "liberal elite." This infuriates liberals, who point out again and again that Obama grew up in modest circumstances whereas McCain is the son and grandson of an admiral, married to a very wealthy woman.

But remember, American popular culture celebrates the lifestyles of the rich and famous: the cherished goal of the dispossessed is to have more money. Not to have different values and tastes -- like those snobs whose class status stems from their educational credentials.

Bridging the alienation between the working class and the upper middle class requires us not only to learn more about the working class. It also requires us to look at ourselves through their eyes. We think of ourselves as "upper middle class." But to them, we aren't middle class at all; we're an elite. Consider this, from a standard college textbook.

Figure 1


Figure 2: Population Percentages by Class

Source: Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality (6th ed., 2003), p.270

No wonder the working class thinks of us as elite. We are an elite: the "upper middle class" is the 14% of the population just below the wealthiest 1%. To a group whose income hovers around $35,000, a median income of $120,000 means you are rich.

The business elite that forms the backbone of the Republican Party is under no illusion that less affluent Americans will "just naturally" identify with them. They know they need to work at it. And work they do, by continuing the culture wars. If we want Obama to win, we need to invent a different language for reaching across class lines.