Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joan Williams Headshot

Obama Eats Arugula

Posted: Updated:

There was a flood of comments to my first post, all the way from, "Uneducated voters respond well to pandering," to "[The working class] needs be respected and their views listened to. But too often their views are not in their best interest.... How do you get them to leave the security of the pain they know?"

Already we have started a conversation about the hidden injuries of class (second quote) and flushed out the disrespect that turns those injuries into a corrosive force that alienates the white working class from the Democratic Party (first quote).

This is the key to American politics since 1970. No kidding: the Dems won the presidency 7 out of 10 times between 1932 and 1968, when the white working class formed a core of the New Deal Coalition. Only two Democrats have won since then -- good ol' boys Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. You may have noticed that, in this election, the Democrats have eschewed the good ol' boy option.

So now it's time to face up to how the Dems lost their cultural dominance: the white working class abandoned them. More on that later. For now, the basic point: most of the comments assume that the key to winning working class votes lies in changing what the Dems say about economics. This may be partly right, but the threshold problem is cultural.

Remember arugula-gate, when Obama asked Iowa, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately? See what they charge for arugula?" This was only one of a long series of Democratic food gaffes. Howard Dean was decried as a "latte-drinking" elitist, Dukakis got into trouble with Belgian endive.

That's just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. The professional elite is singularly clueless about how food and other taken-for-granted aspects of their lifestyle serve as "class acts." Think of the class structure of coffee, from the lowly 8 oz. cup of joe at Dunkin' Donuts to the $4 venti caramel macciato. Starbucks has made it all too obvious that food is a central way we enact class status.

Sociologist Marjorie DeVault documents two distinctive food cultures in Feeding the Family. The working class respects and expects food that is plentiful and familiar (think: Red Lobster). The upper middle class treats food as a field of knowledge and values novelty (think: Alice Waters).

That's why salad greens are divisive. Obama's campaign is to recognize the ways Obama is sending out alienating signals of class privilege in an entirely unselfconscious way (rather than denying that there's a problem, see this.)

Obama is vulnerable here because he is a high-human capital intellectual who is upper middle class through and through. It's great when Michelle talks about being brought up in a family with only four spoons, but Barack -- who has spent most of his life bridging the racial divide as only the son of an anthropologist could -- now needs to spend more time studying the natives of his own country.

I'm not talking about the white working class. I'm talking about us -- the elite. We'll begin that process in my next post.