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 for 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.
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
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. Albeit, 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 be upset.
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 Street.
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 trash” too.
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 working-class people.
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 déjà 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 elite.
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 them.
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 voters.
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 it 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 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. This is why 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 voters.
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 too.