Conservatives win many votes saying that liberals are elitist. I am here to
tell you that the liberal movement is indeed very elitist. Its organization's
staffs are composed mainly of Ivy leaguers whose life experiences are dramatically
different than the 70 percent of Americans that never graduate from college.
Very few of them have any actual experience living with or knowing working-class
people. As a graduate of Bucknell, I still feel out of a place and most glaringly
underdressed when I get in a room with the Ivy Leaguers running our movement.
As garbageman turned United Electrical Workers (UE) in Political Action Director
Chris Townsend put it to me:
When I am in meetings in Washington, DC, with organizations
that presume to speak for workers or on behalf of workers - I ironically find
myself the only worker in the room. As a worker with a GED - and 30-plus years
of labor union experience - opinions like mine are rarely sought and universally
dismissed as being too extremist when most workers feel the way I do about things.
This is why it is so common for liberal and left-wing staff and activists to
completely misunderstand workers.
The experiences of liberal elites are so outside of the mainstream that, very
often, they just don't understand the working class. They fail to communicate
to workers because most of them have never talked to a worker in real life,
except to ask for fries at McDonald's. Instead, when they fail to understand
the misdirected anger of the working class at its economic anxiety, they tend
to engage in intellectual snobbery and narrow-mindedness that only serve to
alienate the white working class further.
Such snobbery was expressed to me in an email recently sent to me from a Democratic
media strategist who said the message of the day was, "Conservatives face
a choice about the future of their movement: Will they come to the table to
get things done or 'stick with the angry people'?"
Well, let me think about that for a second. If I am a poor white guy, do I
want to go with the polite people (Democrats) who are going to beg for change
with their sophisticated intellectual arguments that I don't understand? Or
do I want to be with the party (Republicans) that embraces my anger and wants
to get out in the streets to yell about how awful this economy is?
Americans are screaming now about the economic hell we are in. Republicans
are screaming about how awful the economy is and winning many of them over.
Although, they're winning them with the wrong solutions, but they are trying to
win Joe the Plumber, not Joe Stiglitz, so the details don't really matter.
On the economy, the Democratic message is, "Sit tight, don't get out in
the street and protest, everything will be alright."
White working-class guys would choose the angry people who are willing to stand
up and say how frustrated they feel. The progressives who are telling me to
be cool and not get upset with things are just merely talking down to me. They
have the privilege of telling me not to get upset, when I have every right to
Sarah Palin indeed represents all the rage of the working class that liberals
of this country are trying to quiet down. Many liberal elites engaged in revisionist
history say that McCain's defeat was caused by Palin. However, anybody who actually
worked on the Obama campaign like I did knew that McCain's defeat was caused
by the financial crisis and McCain's baffling response and coddling of Wall
As an organizer for the Obama campaign on the ground in Western Pennsylvania
during the election, I remember how white, working-class, swing voters couldn't
stop talking about Sarah Palin for weeks on end. For the three weeks between
Palin's selection as VP candidate and the financial crash, we were scared shitless
the Republicans were going to win as Palin led to McCain surging in the polls.
Many white, working-class people loved her because here was a politician who
finally was working class and ready for a fight. They loved her even more as
Ivy League liberals denounced her as basically "white trash." It felt
to white, working-class people like liberal elites were calling them "white
Liberals still treat Palin and the right-wing populist Tea Party Movement that
she leads as "white trash." They spend more time attacking them as
"stupid racists" than actually trying to win them over and address
their concerns. Its as if liberals are saying we know better than you stupid
To understand how easily Sarah Palin could be the next president, we need only
look to another vice presidential candidate widely denounced by the liberal
elite when he was announced in 1952 - Richard Milhouse Nixon. Nixon became president
by mobilizing resentment of the working class against elites. By framing elites
as talking down to the poor and working class, Sarah Palin, with the right slick
ad men, could mobilize that same type of sentiment against the elitist "eggheads"
of the Democratic Party.
From Rick Perlstein's classic, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and
the Fracturing of America:
To cosmopolitan liberals, hating Richard Nixon, congratulating
yourself for seeing through Richard Nixon and the elaborate political poker
bluff with which he hooked the sentimental rubes, was becoming part and parcel
of a political identity.
And to a new suburban mass middle class that was tempting itself into
Republicanism, admiring Richard Nixon was becoming part and parcel of a political
identity based on seeing through the pretensions of the cosmopolitan liberals
who claimed to know so much better than you (and Richard Nixon) what was best
for your country. This side saw everything most genuine in Nixon, everything
that was most brave, - who saw the Checkers speech for what it also actually
was, not just a hustle but also an act of existential heroism: a brave refusal
to let haughty 'betters' have their way with him.
It's like deja vu all over again.
Republicans are rallying the troops against the educated elites of society.
As a result of their political jujitsu, Republicans are making it look like
they are engaged in a class war on behalf of the working class against the liberal
Liberals instead are playing into the class war trap by talking down to the
uneducated masses of America via TV talk shows and blogs. They can't understand
why they aren't winning over the working class because they are too busy attacking
Such intellectual foolishness was dramatized in the way I heard liberal DC
political operatives talk about the widely read focus group study by The
Very Separate Worlds of Conservatives
by Stan Greenberg, James Carville and others. They took the memo as evidence
that working class people lived in a world so far outside of their own (socioeconomically
speaking, they do) that they couldn't possibly be reasoned with using their
methods). They reckoned that surely these people must be "crazy, brain
dead racists" who believe Obama is a socialist out to get them.
What they failed to read is one of the main conclusions of the study that shows
that their efforts to paint working class conservatives as "racist idiots"
is backfiring big time:
They readily identify themselves as a minority in this
country - a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media
and class of elites.
I wonder why they feel under attack? Maybe it's all the liberal elites calling
white, working class people "stupid racists."
Indeed, the focus groups found that race was not an important factor affecting
the political opposition of white, working class conservatives. Indeed, the
study found that mocking these people as racists, as I argued in my article,
"Martin Luther King Would Have Loved the Teabaggers, Not Called Them Racists,"
only serves to stigmatize them more against liberal elites.
Talking down to working class people engaged in a class war against the elites
isn't going to win them over.
What liberals have to do is unite with the teabaggers and engage in a class
war against Wall Street. Organized labor has succeeded in doing this by using
constant, year-round, on-the-job political engagement to compel people to come
over. As a result, Obama won by 23 points among white, non-college graduates
who belong to a union, even as he lost by 18 points among all white, non-college
We need to "Organize the Unorganized" in massive organizing drives
like we did in 1930's - the heydays for the progressive reform. Union organizing
is the best way to engage people one-on-one on a constant year-round basis.
We need be constantly sitting down with working class white conservatives one-on-one,
listen to their concerns, and engage them in honest dialogue. Only real community
organizing can do this, not the slick TV ad buys that DC liberals tend to prefer.
Part of the reason the Obama movement was so successful was that they invested
so heavily in community organizing. We would treat them like human beings and
engage in friendly conversation. We would find out what issues they cared about and get them to critically look at issues in friendly, non-threatening communications.
Much like Howard Dean's fifty-state strategy, we took no voter for granted.
Our movement should do the same when it comes to voters if it expects to be
sustainable over the long run.
Sure, we might not get them the first time or the second time or the third
time; it might take 20, 30, 40 or 50 long, deep conversations in order to win over
these working white guys, but it's worth it. However, when you get a union on
your job every day eight hours day, a good, well-trained union leader or shop
stewards have plenty of time to get to that 20th or 30th conversation you need
to win a guy. Furthermore, you have a common bond which you guys can unite behind
- fighting economic injustice in your workplace.
As a union organizer in West Virginia, I remember some of our most active members
showing up with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers on their pickups. A lot of them
would complain against liberals ruining society and then in the next breath
argue passionately for a strike. Over time through constant dialogue and popular
education, our union was able to win these members over to the liberal side.
They realized that voting based on slick TV personalities made up to appear
folksy was merely putting folks out of jobs.
Sure, not all of them came over, but enough that it was worth the effort. If
we can just bring over one-third of white, working class conservatives, we can
dramatically change the political landscape of this country. That's what the
Employee Free Choice Act would be able to do.
Many liberal political operatives in DC dismiss the Employee Free Choice Act
as merely political payback to the unions for their help in the election. They
fail to see the larger political implications - increased unionization would
dramatically change the political dynamics of this country and prevent 30,000
workers from getting fired from their jobs every year for trying to join a union.
Many lament the loss of marriage equality last week in Maine. There have been
a thousand analyses of why we lost this important fight for a fundamental civil
right. However, what none of them pointed out is that if we had increased unionization,
the fight for marriage equality would be dramatically easier.
Its no coincidence that ranks of the Christian Coalition began to swell as
the ranks of unions declined dramatically in the 1980's. Unions are organizations
that bring people from different parts of society and unite them in a common
cause. Union members know that their true enemy is Wall Street and not a couple
of people trying to get married.
We as progressives can win only when we get all the teabaggers into our movement
through getting them into unions. As Lincoln said, "United We Stand, Divided
We Fall." Only organized labor can achieve that type of unity. Failure
to bring working people into the Employee Free Choice Act could easily lead
to the election of a Sarah Palin.
Sure, liberals laugh off the idea of Sarah Palin being elected president. However,
elitist, out-of-touch liberals laughed off Nixon, Reagan and Bush as unelectable.
Well, guess what, they all won.
If we don't stop laughing at white, working class people, we are going to lose