(Mis)Remembering the Good Old Days: The Politics of Nostalgia

I live in a suburb of Youngstown, in what is arguably a sterling example of the “white-flight” communities that have weakened our cities. My reasons for doing so would take too much time to discuss here, but the short version is that my partner grew up on a farm and here we have more than an acre of land—it’s a compromise, and I like the town. It reminds me of the New England community in which I grew up.

Everyday, I walk my dogs through the village, and on most days, I talk with my neighbors, who according to voting statistics are primarily conservative, and who according to me, are generally very good neighbors. Because I grew up in a place like this, I know to avoid talking about religion and politics, but this past Saturday, I let down my guard and got an earful of insight into our current political climate, one too often sustained by broad generalizations that divide the working middle class and the poor.

A local business owner, a man I like for his big dreams and for his openness, treated me to the familiar “Tea Party” mantra in passionate and patriotic oratory—more freedom, less government, no unions, no healthcare/socialism, no entitlements, and then of course, a return to Reagan conservativism.

As a former journalist and a teacher of aspiring journalists, I avoid disclosing personal details and discourage my students from first-person interjections, even in my Opinion Writing class. The argument goes that by taking oneself out of the equation, one focuses more on facts and policy issues thereby allowing for a greater connection to broader audiences who might not otherwise identify with the persona of the writer. This weekend I broke my rule and put the theory to the test.

I told my neighbor that my parents lived in a public housing project until the birth of the sixth and seventh children of their ten children(twins — we were the result of strict adherence to the church’s stance on birth control), and during these years, they also received food assistance. My father, who didn’t graduate high school, worked as a short order cook, as a dishwasher, and at a host of other jobs.  My neighbor exclaimed that this was exactly the point—my father was one of the “good ones,” who used the system as “way up and not a hand out.” But the truth is, and I told him this, that my father might not have found a “way out” save one life-altering opportunity: after numerous fits and starts he landed a job as a truck driver and therefore membership in the Teamsters union.  The union afforded my father job security, a decent wage for his manual labor, and perhaps most importantly, health care for his children which, in turn, allowed him to keep the house he had recently bought with a government backed loan for WWII vets, the house in which I grew up in a small, safe community with a solid public school system.

Had my father not had the good fortune of his union job, it’s quite probable that the expense of my sister’s minor spina bifida or of the more routine episodes of broken bones, childhood illnesses, decades of dental care, or that one terrible car accident might have plunged us back into poverty, with no bootstraps with which we might lift ourselves back up.

Of course, my neighbor insisted that my father represents a different generation, one with a presumably superior set of values that enabled them to get ahead—and he is partially right in his nostalgia. My father’s generation was different in that much of his adulthood and, and a part of my childhood were spent in an America in which the gap between the poor, the rich, and the middle class was not as pronounced as it is now. As Paul Krugman notes, “The Greatest Generation,” to which my father belonged, was much more equal, largely because of “more or less deliberate compression of wage differentials during World War II.”  And that equality lasted more about 30 years thanks to “a powerful union movement, which is at least in large part a change in the political climate, but then remained in place for several decades more.”

Krugman explains that over the last 30 years, the movement to the far right of the Republican Party created tacit support for union busting policies of the 80s – remember PATCO? That caused a decline in union power and membership, which in turncontributed to the enormous gap between rich and poor and between rich and middle class.

Frank Rich argues that while this anti-healthcare ire finds its locus in the Tea Party doctrine of “more freedom, less government,” the resistance is really linked to the dwindling power of the white majority.  While I agree with his analysis, I think one can’t discount the power of nostalgia, a point hinted at by Rich.  In public discourse, Jane Hill notes, nostalgia makes it possible for “people who benefit from the practices that they believe are legitimated by tradition” to at the same time “put forward their political interests.”

The current movement against government involvement in health care and the power of unions illustrates this.  As Krugman’s analysis suggests, many of those who are calling for a return to “the real America” forget what led to current problems.  The great days for which they yearn were built in part by strong unions that advocated fair wages and decent affordable health care, as well as government programs and policies that limited the gap between rich and poor.

Nostalgia explains the contradiction between the often fierce support some offer for Social Security and Medicare and dire warnings that government involvement equals “socialism.”  As a recent New York Times poll shows, a majority of those claiming allegiance to the Tea Party, who are on average at least 45 years-old, oppose government healthcare, but they favor the continuance of Social Security and Medicaid, programs staunchly criticized by conservative poster-boy Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against Medicare on behalf of the American Medical Association (AMA), according to Larry DeWitt.

Reagan also mastered the art of pitting the working class against the poor. Lost in the shiny mythology that has become the Reagan legacy, a mythos largely unchallenged by mainstream media, is the Great Communicator’s invention of the “welfare queen,” as DeWitt recalls:

When a welfare recipient in Chicago was publicly exposed in 1977 for having defrauded state welfare programs out of $8,000 by using two identities, Reagan transformed the news report into a story regarding a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac and who collected an annual tax-free income of $150,000 by using “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and . . . collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” Reagan repeated this story of the Chicago welfare queen multiple times over the years, growing it like some kind of political fish-story with each re-telling. In the end, it seems clear that he could not distinguish his own mythical version from the historical one.

Reagan mainstreamed his disdain for the unions and for the poor, and he birthed the ethos that permeates today’s recession weary middle class: that one is lucky to have a job and the poor are poor because they lack the character of my father’s generation.

Rooted deeply in evocations of the golden ages of the Reagan years, or back further to the bootstraps ethic of the greatest generation, or further still to the founding fathers, the current anti-everything movement dissolves historical contingencies and uncomfortable facts into a nostalgia that ignores the role of unions in post-war prosperity, or the founders belief that only male land-owners should vote, or Reagan’s loathing for what his budget director David Stockton once labeled, “closet socialism,” Social Security and Medicare, or the fact that once he realized the popularity of these programs,Reagan abandoned his fantasy of dismantling them but stayed stringently on his union-busting course.

My neighbor is fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and non-white.  I respect his opinions, even when we disagree. As we spoke, he remembered instances that run counter to the Reagan mythology.  He was surprised to hear that, I, a Democrat am not “anti-capitalism,” and that I recognize the advantages this system brought my family. I understand his deep-rooted love for this country and his worry that things are changing too quickly. As I walked back past the rows of carefully restored historic homes to my own, I was reminded of how much we can learn from one another when we move our conversations beyond rhetorical flourishes wrapped in a kind of nostalgia for a past that likely never was and instead engage one another in civil discourse, discourse that acknowledges the faces, friends, and families behind public policy.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

No Tea Party Here: Obama, Democrats, and the Working Class

The Center for Working-Class Studies released the results of its latest survey last week.  As I look at the results, two things jump out: first, the President is paying a price for doing the right things the wrong way, and second, the conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hanitty, who continually characterize the Tea Party movement as a revolt fueled by a working class fed up with Obama and the liberal elite, haven’t quite been telling the truth.

Neither finding is really surprising.  Both may have a profound effect on the nation for decades to come.

To understand why, let’s begin with Mr. Obama.  For more than a year liberals have expressed frustration and disappointment with his inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the political capital he accumulated while capturing the White House.  His refusal to fully engage in the health care debate until the 11th hour, the decision to focus the economic stimulus package on Wall Street rather than Main Street, his apparent abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and a number of other perceived failures have undermined his support among the Democratic Party’s base, including those who participated in the CWCS survey.

Since the first survey was conducted in May of 2009 the president’s approval rating has fallen from 87% to 68% among all respondents and from 87% to 59% among those who identify themselves as belonging to the working class.  Although his overall approval rating remains high, Obama and Democratic leaders should be worried about another number: the precipitous drop in the percentage of those who strongly approve of his performance.  Among all respondents it fell from 52% to 15%, while among the working class it fell from 48% to 11% — a 37 point drop for both groups.

Just as troubling is the fact that the percentage who strongly disapprove of his work to this point is now equal to the number who strongly approve.  For those who identify as working class, the numbers are only slightly more split: 15% strongly disapprove and 11% strongly approve.

The reasons for this considerable softening in Obama’s approval ratings are easily discerned from the responses to other survey questions.  While more than 80% of respondents have consistently rated the U.S. economy as bad or very bad, until this survey they also said by large margins that the country was moving in the right direction.  Their optimism in the face of the crumbling economy was based in large part on their belief that the President could and would turn the nation around.

That belief has clearly eroded over the past year.  Today, the percentage who see the nation moving forward has dropped more than 40%; more respondents now say that things are moving the wrong direction. The sense of unease is greatest among the working class, who now say things are going in the wrong direction by a two-to-one margin: 48% to 24%.

Why has the base’s faith been shaken?  More than 55% of working-class respondents say Obama has done less than they expected since taking office.  Three-quarters of them believe the stimulus package has been only somewhat or not at all effective, 78% say Wall Street and big business have too much influence over the White House, and only slightly more than 52% believe he cares more about working families than big business.

All of this bodes ill for Democrats because softening support and fading enthusiasm will undoubtedly equate to lower turnout among the base in an election in which the party cannot afford to leave one vote on the table.

Interestingly, though, the working class’s disenchantment with the first year of the Obama presidency has not, as some conservative commentators and pundits would have us believe, driven them toward the “Tea Party” movement.  Although Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Anne Coulter, and others on the right continually state that Tea Partiers are “real,” or “average,” or “everyday,” or “working” Americans who are fed up with Obama and the federal government, the results of the CWCS reveal a completely different reality.

For example, 72% of working-class respondents hold an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the movement that conservative commentators would have us believe they enthusiastically support.  Eighty-one percent disagree or strongly disagree with the movement’s stand on political and moral issues, and only nine percent characterized themselves as Tea Party supporters.

And lest those on the right attempt to counter these results by saying the respondents to the survey don’t know or understand what the movement is all about, 93% said they had read about and are familiar with what the Tea Party stands for.  The fact is that working-class Americans know what the movement stands for and they resoundingly reject it.

The accuracy of the CWCS results is underscored by data derived from a recent survey of Tea Party supporters conducted by The New York Times and CNN, which shows that movement supporters are married white males who are wealthier and better educated than members of the working class.

This is not to say that the groups don’t share some positions or a discontent with where the country is heading.  Members of both groups believe the economy and jobs are the most critical issues the U.S. faces, that the economy is bad, and that the nation is on the wrong track.

Stark differences arise, however, when the groups are asked to identify the causes of the problems and their most likely solutions.  While a vast majority of Tea Partiers believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, they, unlike members of the working class, believe the economy is getting better.  Their discomfort with America’s future is based on their distrust of Washington.  Ninety-six percent say the federal government rarely does the right thing, 75% say Obama does not share their values, 56% say the administration’s policies favor the poor, and 73% would favor cuts to Medicare and Social Security in order to reduce the size of government.

Most significantly, 76% of Tea Party supporters believe the government should reduce the deficit rather than spend money to create jobs.  More than 77% of the working class believes just the opposite—they want the government to fuel the economy regardless of the effect on the deficit.

With these findings in mind, Mr. Obama and the Democrats need not fear that substantial portions of the party’s base will join the Tea Party.  The ideological gulf between the two groups is far too wide.  What they should fear, as the latest survey clearly shows, is that,  in the immortal words of Pogo, the Dems have met the enemy and “He is us.”  Doing whatever is necessary to improve the economy between now and November in order to reenergize the party’s base should be the primary concern of the administration and Congressional Democrats.  Failure to accomplish that mission rather than opposition from an inconsequential movement like the Tea Partiers, will spell doom for the Democrats.

Leo Jennings

Where’s the Working-Class Web?

While Working-Class Perspectives aims to reflect the interests and experiences of working-class people, in truth we spend more time talking about the working class than listening to actual working-class voices.  But, it turns out, finding working-class voices online isn’t easy.

About a year ago, a reporter from the MinnPost called me to ask why so few working-class people have created websites about how to do things like plumbing or electrical wiring.  He noted that many creative professionals were writing blogs about how to manage their freelance writing, graphic design, and web development businesses.  He was frustrated that he couldn’t find a good site that would show him how to do things like fix a broken toilet, and he wondered why blue-collar work wasn’t more present online.  His theory was that working-class people lacked the education to use the web.  I suggested that the story might be more complex than that.  Plumbers might not view their work as anything worth writing about, or they might not see writing as either useful or enjoyable.  And maybe they’d rather we hire them to fix our backed-up toilets and clogged sinks.

While I was frustrated by his assumptions, he’s not wrong to note the relative invisibility of the working class online.  You’ll find good informational sites run by labor organizations, and several academic organizations, like the Center for Working-Class Studies, make resources available on working-class culture.  But after these listings a Google search on “working class” leads mostly to commercial ventures that use the term to denote something about their style.

A few sites do offer workers’ voices, though most are run by either cultural institutions or unions.  Take, for example, Working Stiff, a short-lived web project that collected workplace diaries, offered advice to workers on how to stand up for their rights at work, and even offered a “stress-o-meter” to help you measure how tough your job was.  It was a project of PBS’s  Web Lab, from more than a decade ago.  Not exactly a working-class operation, but a genuine and interesting effort to create a space for workers’ voices.

You can hear workers’ voices on some labor websites.  Change to Win, for example, has a page of worker testimonials about workplace issues.  Here, as in many of the websites that include statements from or interviews with workers, there’s an overt agenda – not worker expression for its own sake.

Some poetry websites includes poems about work, but again these are largely sponsored and created by more middle-class cultural institutions.  Poets.org has a great online exhibit on work poetry, “Overhand the Hammers Swing,” put together by Philip Levine.  One of my favorite poets of work, Tom Wayman, has some pieces online, and this week, with the latest mining disaster in West Virginia, is a good time to search out the poems of Diane Gilliam Fisher, who’s Kettle Bottom takes us deep into the lives of miners from the first half of the 20th century.

All of this, of course, defines “working class” entirely as a matter of work.  And as I told the guy from the MinnPost, it might not be that working-class voices are absent from the web.  They may just not be labeled “working class.”  Since people rarely use the term to define themselves – except in relation to their work – we don’t find websites about working-class family life, neighborhoods, churches, or community groups when we search for that phrase.  That doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

Here’s a good example.  A few weeks ago, my friend Ben mentioned that he had found a YouTube video about the history of a house and family on the south side of Youngstown.  631 tells the story of how a family made a home by renovating a run-down house in the late 50s and how, over time, as the community and the family struggled economically, they lost it.  The video features family photos and interviews, and while family members make a few references to their jobs, no one ever uses the word “class.”  Nonetheless, the film shows how class, race, and place together shaped this family’s life.  And I’d never have found it if I went looking for something on that theme.

You can find additional images of working-class life, created by working people, thanks to the multiple versions of unseen america, a photography project organized originally by Bread and Roses, the cultural branch of the Service Employees’ International Union local 1199.

Obviously, the web isn’t the only place to hear working-class voices.  The best place to look for workers’ voices, other than at a neighborhood bar or church basement, is in print.  For example, New City Community Press collects oral histories and organizing writing projects involving working-class people in writing and creating images of their own lives and getting them into print.  Bottom Dog Press has published a number of individual volumes of prose and poetry as well as several terrific anthologies about working-class life.  The Blue Cubicle Press also publishes worker writing, including a journal, Workers Write.

But that still leaves me wondering: where are the working-class voices online, the stories not just about work but about daily life, family, and neighborhood?  At the Center for Working-Class Studies, we already have links to a number of websites and museums, though most reflect the work of either academics or labor unions.  I’d like to add more links to websites, images, and videos created by working-class people about their own lives, so let me put the puzzle in your hands.  What are you seeing out there?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

No Crystal Staircase: Working-Class Lives under The Recession

Three weeks ago, I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to participate in a conference of social and behavioral scientists. Because employment and the economy are topics that many within this group study, I expected to discuss research on employment and the economy at the conference.  Like others, I worry that the media and the government’s focus on the economic hardships of the middle class will decrease discussions of and concern for the plight of lower-income groups.  What I did not expect during this trip was the casual conversation that led me to consider these issues shortly after landing in Charlotte.

The only passenger aboard the bus that picked me up from the Charlotte airport, I asked the driver if he was Greg— the driver that I had spoken with a week earlier about getting to and from the hotel where my conference was being held.

“No, I’m Dan,” the driver replied. “Greg no longer works for the hotel.  He quit last week.”

“He quit?” I asked.  “Well, I just spoke with him last Sunday, and he said he could drive me to the Hilton in the mornings for  my conference.”

“I can take you to the Hilton in the mornings,” Dan said.  “Greg is an airplane pilot who worked as a driver for us after the airline he was working for laid him off.  A different carrier offered him a job last week, so, naturally, he accepted it and quit his job with us. Greg shouldn’t have been working as a driver in the first place—not a man with his education and skills.”

In the past, economic recessions have primarily affected blue collar and low-level retail jobs, but as Greg’s story reveals, the current economic recession has affected many professional and skilled white-collar jobs as well. Yet, as troubling as they are, stories like Greg’s pale against the stories of many working-class and poor people who are struggling to survive after losing jobs under the so- called jobless economic recovery. Though clearly underemployed as a hotel bus driver, Greg is among the luckier workers today; at least he had secured a job—any job—after being laid off. But what about the 40% of unemployed people who suffer from long-term joblessness of six months or longer? According to data published by the Economic Policy Institute, people suffering from long-term joblessness are disproportionately blue-collar workers. And the current unemployment rate for blue-collar workers (17.4%) is more than two and half times higher than the rate for white-collar workers (6.5%).

How are unemployed blue-collar workers and low-level retail workers faring under the so-called jobless recovery? Based upon what some of my students tell me about their situations, the answer to this question appears to be “not well.”

Take the single male student who lost his low-waged job and lived out of his car for several weeks after his landlord lost his apartment building to foreclosure.  “I had to make several trips to the welfare office to apply for general assistance. Then my car broke down. It cost me $95.00 to get it repaired, which took all the money I had. Then it broke down again,” he said. A first generation college student who had been an “A” student in a former class of mine, this student struggled to pass the midterm exam in a class he is taking with me this semester.  Not surprisingly, given his economic problems, this student says it has been difficult for him to attend early morning classes and to focus on his school work.

Or consider the student who once drove for UPS. After losing his job, this man, his wife, and two children lost their home, moved in with relatives, and almost had their car repossessed. Disclosing that he had forgone back surgery and was now utilizing food pantries because of his limited income, this student asked me after class one day how people “kept from getting depressed over the social problems we had been discussing in class” (e.g., joblessness, hunger, and poverty).

Or the divorced mother of grown children who is doing well in class, but who worries about how she will survive, keep her house, and remain in school when her already extended unemployment benefits expire at the end of April.   And then there are the students who indicate that they and/or relatives have descended from working class to poor to destitute following long-term layoffs from  the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.  And most recently, the daughter of one of my students, herself a divorced mother,  attempted suicide, in part because of  family stress resulting from joblessness and economic hardship.

For these largely working-class students and their families, life under the current recession has “been no crystal staircase.” And some policy analysts state that the potential side effects of their (and others’) long-term joblessness , including  poverty, mental illness, social disengagement, and diminished educational opportunities,  will affect all of us well into the future. For these students, their families, and for many of us who have been waiting for the current administration to make good on the campaign promise of more higher paying, long-term jobs, the “beginning of the turn in jobs” that President Obama announced before workers in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 2 cannot come soon enough, and hopefully it has not come too late.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies