Why Politicians Can’t Stop Talking About “Folks”Roundup
tags: Barack Obama, politics, Joe Biden, 2020 Election
John Patrick Leary is the author of Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.
For Biden, and for generations of liberals before him, the term was a useful way to paper over the awkward class divisions that had prevented the United States from uniting around a shared political project. In an 1842 short story, the social reformer Catharine Maria Sedgwick praised a poor Irish immigrant family that managed to keep a clean, decent house. “Everything had a becoming appearance,” Sedgwick wrote, “and it was evident they had lived like folks.” To be like folks, in this construction, was to live in a genteel, eminently respectable poverty. The turn of phrase acknowledged class inequality, even as it suggested that good manners, hard work, and clean bedsheets could overcome it.
The Great Depression spurred Americans to celebrate “real folks,” although, as the cultural historian Sonnet Retman has written, that could mean black Southerners, Dust Bowl migrants, industrial workers—or the rural, white “real Americans” mythologized within a nativist tradition that descends from Father Coughlin to Sarah Palin and, now, to Donald Trump. Today, politicians often aspire to be seen as one of those real Americans—the straight-talking, salt-of-the-earth folks who gave us banjo music and barbecue. But when they drop their g’s in church, ride through Des Moines on a Harley, or sip a beer at a campaign stop with “reg’lar folks,” most are playacting: a privileged cohort of other-than-real Americans desperately trying to convince a mass following that they are, indeed, just plain folks.
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