Palin, working-class hero
Workers in the United States endure some of the most family-hostile policies in the developed world. They also face a range of biases that affect women in the workplace and often blanket the entire working class in a kind of second class citizenship. In “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter,” recently released by Harvard University Press, Joan C. Williams explores the dynamics of our inflexible workplaces and analyzes the dysfunctional relationship between the professional-managerial class and the white working class. Here, Williams, director of The Center for WorkLife Law at University of California Hastings Law School, probes the Democrats’ uneasy relationship with the working class and how it could affect the 2012 presidential election.
By Joan C. Williams
Last week’s midterm election is being called a radical turn to the right. But it isn’t quite as sudden as it may seem. Although union members and African-Americans still trend Democratic, nearly two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted Republican last Tuesday, according to exit polls; only 35 percent voted Democratic.
How did New Deal Democrats become Tea Party Republicans? The answer: class conflict.
In the early 1970s, Republicans used class conflict to forge a coalition between white nonunion workers and business interests, creating a Republican alliance that has won seven of the last 11 presidential elections — and has dominated many lower offices as well, as happened last Tuesday.
Sarah Palin knows how to bond with these white nonunion voters. Unless Democrats want Palin as president, they need to stop alienating those voters. Here’s how:
1. Quit the insults
Professionals who were born working-class often cringe when their colleagues talk: “Faculty who would never utter a racial slur will casually refer to ‘trailer trash’ or ‘white trash,’” noted SUNY economics professor Michael Zweig. Insults include comments about “clinging” to guns, religion, etc.
2. Stop signaling elitism
Is the elitism charge fair? Pretty fair. Many influential progressives are in the top 13 percent of American families: professional-managerial families with a median income of $148,000. The middle 53 percent of Americans (median income: $64,000) see professionals as elite. Democrats unconsciously signal their elitism by identifying Republicans as favoring a working class treat (Slurpees) and themselves as preferring arugula (as did Obama) or endive (as did Howard Dean) or wind surfing (as did John Kerry).
3. Get it right on big government
Republicans have demonized government for 40 years. The very programs the GOP slams as big government are the most popular and relied upon: Social Security, Medicare. While such universal programs are popular, programs that help the poor — but not Americans only a little richer — trigger class conflict. Democrats fell into this trap when they said that the centerpiece of health care reform was to cover Americans who lack health insurance, thereby allowing Republicans to say that the Democrats, as always, proposed to tax hardworking have-a-littles to pay for benefits the have-nots.
4. Unmask the rich
Workers generally resent professionals, but admire the rich. Stop assuming that taxing the rich will be popular. Instead, show that giveaways to the rich typically pass down privilege but don’t create jobs.
5. Value 21st century families
High-school-educated men have seen their wages fall by 25 percent since 1973 and fear that one false step can push their families into poverty. To beat back GOP talk about “family values,” Democrats need to shift the focus to the un-workability of life day-to-day in hard-pressed American families. Americans work the longest hours of virtually any industrialized country, with the fewest family supports. Family values demand policies that enable Americans both to support and care for their families.
Democrats will lose unless -- and until -- they learn to do what Republicans have done successfully for 40 years — woo and win the white working class. With the motto: Hard Work Rewarded, Democrats have their best hope of keeping Obama in the White House and not handing it over to Palin.
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