Obama's Father's Day Speech: Do Liberals Believe in Personal Responsibility?

06/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joan Williams Founding director, Center for WorkLife Law; Distinguished professor of law, University of California, Hastings; Author

Of course we do. It's a good thing, too, that Obama had the courage to say so, because this offers a key way to connect with white working class voters.

Responsibility is all over the class literature. "[M]y father made a religion of responsibility," notes Alfred Lubrano, a reporter born working class. Keep in mind that working class men go each and every day to jobs that are difficult, tedious, possibly dangerous, and sometimes humiliating. "Workers are acutely aware that 'hanging in there' depends above all on their capacity to work." Sticking with work that "demands emotional energy and moral fortitude. All the adages of the lower-middle-class life celebrated the values of get up and go, busting chops, doing for yourself," notes Lubrano.

Sociologist Michelle Lamont spoke with a stage technician at a Broadway theater who contrasted himself with "people who whine and complain... people that are chronically late and people that go out and have a couple of drinks and come back a little lit up... I am cursed with a strong work ethic." "Lazy parasites" are despised, notes Lamont. People who hold more than one job are objects of admiration.

As Obama aptly pointed out in his Father's Day speech, he screwed up more than he should have (what a relief after George Bush's pathological inability to admit his mistakes!) and he had more second chances than most (an open acknowledgement of his class-privileged position). Obama's insistence on personal responsibility taps into the white working class's sharp disapproval of hard living families who do not adhere to the strict standards of the "disciplined self" (Lamont's term.) Her informants admired men who "don't let go, they don't give up, and it's largely through work and responsibility that they assert control over uncertainty." Said one, "Sometimes, I wish I could be more carefree. And then I say no, I like the way I am... I like people who are responsible."

Do we feel comfortable with all this? I do. The disciplined self is my mode, too. I try not to be judgmental of Americans who, faced with deep structural disadvantage, find themselves dealing with drugs, early pregnancy, homelessness, despair; after all, I have been so privileged, and who knows how I would react if I faced all that? Many white working class voters see it differently: they see themselves as remaining resolutely disciplined in a society they see as deeply stacked against them, as well as the poor.

My goal is a safety net that reaches both groups. But the path to that goal is to reassure the working class that upper-middle liberals, too, embrace the disciplined self. That shouldn't be hard. Bourgie as we are, we certainly do.

(References: Alfred Lubrano, 2004, p. 16 - 17; Lamont, 2000, pp. 1, 24 - 27; Jonathan Reider, 1985, p. 105)