Leon Fink: Obama and the unmaking of America's working class

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Leon Fink is a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the academic journal "Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas."]

When Al Gore unveiled a modest appeal to "working families" at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he drew a sharp response. His Republican opponent, George W. Bush, immediately counterattacked, accusing Gore of unleashing "class war" on the country.

The preferred term of address had long been "middle class"; even the AFL-CIO avoided the shoals of class rhetoric to try to co-opt the conservative family-values agenda.

Yet, today, virtually every commentator, from William Kristol to Paul Krugman, unblinkingly invokes the once-dreaded terminology in suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama cannot, as the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute put it, "penetrate working-class voters."

What gives? Has Marxist class analysis seeped in and insidiously converted our political culture away from its attachment to individualist opportunity-seekers to a society divided by rigid social-economic boundaries?

The answer is, not quite. Today, "working class" has been effectively defanged of any radical, let alone subversive, intent. In fact, today's working class looks less the modernist, rationalizing force that Marx projected than a bastion of tradition—that unmoving "sack of potatoes" he identified with the peasantry.

Whether explicit or not, today's invocation of the working class is proceeded by the word "white." And the resulting construct—white men and women who have not gone to college—are regularly presented as a mostly conservative political bloc. Defensive and narrowly materialistic in their politics, religious and intensely nationalistic in their identities, suspicious and perhaps racist in their instinctive response to an African-American candidate, the working class that Obama can't reach looks to be populated by Archie Bunker and his like-minded descendants.

Yet, surely, the working class is at least as crude as Obama's "bitter workers" caricature of small-town voters. Both generalizations fasten a condescending explanation upon a group economically under pressure but united by no single institution or interest....

Read entire article at Chicago Tribune

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William Mandel - 5/15/2008

In the Marxist view, the working class is impelled toward unity by its status as opposed to the capitalist class by which it is exploited. This may be seen in the difference in working class "class consciousness" from country to country. It is lowest in the United States, where its goal is escape from that class either by education or the education of one's children. In European countries, the notion that one is of and one's children will also be of the working class is very much higher. This is reflected in the existence of Labor or Social-Democratic or Communist parties in Europe and their absence or insignificance in the U.S.