Fighting the Culture Wars — Again!

If you’ve been following the mainstream news cycle over the last month you know that the culture wars are back. With a vengeance. We’ve seen the supporters of women’s health care and Planned Parenthood respond so vehemently when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced funding cuts that the popular breast cancer foundation reversed its decision. We’ve seen the return of Catholic Bishops and Rick Santorum arguing to limiting access to birth control.  We’ve seen hundreds of laws restricting abortion and access to birth control passed in state capitols across the country.

The cultural wars may not, at first glance, have much to do with class, though a look at history provides a context that can help us see the connection. In the 1980s, the culture wars were defined by questions like “what literature should we be teaching?” Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy had one answer: core curricula in “great books” and “Western Civ.” Many of us offered different answers: Ethnic Studies, Third World Studies, American Studies, Post Colonial Studies, and Transatlantic Studies—curricula that would be diverse, inclusive, and a featuring a non-Western-centric narrative.

Race and ethnicity were at the heart of this debate, but class wasn’t far behind. Ironically, perhaps, Hirsch argued that when we lost our common literacy we fractured along class lines as well as racial and ethnic lines. His argument had little basis in sociology, but he was, in some ways, democratic in his goals. At the same time, many of us rejected his thesis because his “cultural literacy” left out the accomplishments of the subaltern, those “under others” not only because of race but also because of class, whose cultures had been left out of the classroom.

The culture wars were re-ignited in the 1990s, but this time with a more sociological bent. In his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia argued that America could be divided—not by class, race or gender—but by “culture,” and especially the culture defined by religion. Some Americans, he argued, were anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-church, anti-drug, anti-gay, and pro-censorship. The rest were not.

Pat Buchanan became associated with this kind of culture war when he declared in 1992 that Bill and Hilary Clinton would usher in a culture of “abortion on demand, a [left wing] litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.” This definition of the culture wars has mostly held sway for 20 years, as we have seen social values conservatives (often represented as white, working-class voters) pitted against “limousine liberals.”

In 2010, the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels told the Weekly Standard that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while, until the economic issues are resolved.”  The truce was short lived. Many have speculated that as the economy improves, the Republicans fall back on the culture wars to engage and inspire their base. But many of these same pundits believe that the Republicans are now too far to the right and are out of touch with their own voters. The statistic that 98% of sexually-active Catholic women use birth control, for example, suggests that many Catholic voters would probably support the idea that birth control (which can cost up to $720.00 a year) should be covered by insurance plans.

But if the latest salvos in the culture wars become policy, the effects might hurt poor and working class Americans—and especially poor and working class women—more than anyone else.

In Texas a new law aimed at restricting Planned Parenthood might end the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program, leaving 130,000 poor and working-class women without health care. As for the question of birth control, a 2009 poll showed that the recession has increased the concern among poor and working class women about family planning. Women lower down on the economic scale are more likely to agree with this statement:  “With the economy the way it is, I am more careful than I used to be about using contraception every time I have sex.”  Proposed restrictions on access to birth control will deprive these same women of the ability to practice family planning the way everyone should be able to: easily and affordably.

Restrictions on abortion also affect poor and working-class women disproportionately. When access to abortion is further restricted, or when women are made to undergo painful and shame inducing interviews and/or ultrasounds before having an abortion (as many states have already legislated or are considering doing so now), we are more likely to see an increase in illegal abortions and women attempting to end pregnancies on their own.

Over the last month, as we have seen all-male panels of experts testifying in Congress about birth control and Sunday talk shows made up, again, of male commentators talking about these issues, I have felt angry. And tired. It is so frustrating to feel like we have to re-wage “culture wars” that we won decades ago.

But I guess I have two messages for myself and everyone else who feels the same way. Get over it. Keep fighting. As the artist Barbara Kruger warned us in 1985, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my checkbook.” This year I am going to be reaching for my checkbook, my telephone, my social networks, my neighbor’s doorbell—everything I can think of to make sure that this war on women, and especially the most vulnerable women in our society, in the name of culture, is not won by the wrong people.

Kathy M. Newman

Beyond Stereotypes: What Makes a Good Representation of the Working Class?

The working class is everywhere these days – in the dozens of reality TV shows about work, in media analysis of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and in recent reports on economic inequality.  While the Occupy movement isn’t necessarily about the working class, and there are real divides within the 99%, the movement has helped change the meaning of the term “class warfare,” making it harder for conservatives to use it to denigrate any effort to talk about economic justice.  Given recent history, the presence of the working class in public discourse shouldn’t surprise us.

The increase in attention is real and significant.  A check of three news databases – Lexis/Nexis, Newspaper Source, and Newsbank – suggests that the number of stories that include the phrase “working class” has more than tripled over the last two decades.  A Newsbank search of articles in news magazines, for example, found 212 articles mentioning the working class in 1991 and 1992, but a search for 2010 and 2011 listed 778.  Newspaper Source, which searches newspapers, news wires, transcripts, and magazines, tracked an increase from 117 items in 1991-92 to 5774 in 2010-2011.  These numbers may not provide an exact count of what’s happened. Earlier articles may not have been entered into these online databases, which were just getting started in 1991, and the number of news outlets has grown with digital media.  But even given those issues, it seems as if the American media are talking about the working class much more now than they were 20 years ago.

Is it merely coincidence that the first working-class studies conference was held here at Youngstown State 20 years ago?  Several colleagues have suggested that new working-class studies has helped draw attention to the working class. Within this field, scholars, artists, and activists who share a concern about the working class have often noted that American media tend to either ignore or stereotype the working class.  Well, they’re certainly not ignoring the working class these days, so we seem to have made progress.  But have we gotten beyond the stereotypes?

Of course not.  If nothing else, reality TV shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Moonshiners suggest that at least one old-style working-class stereotype – the redneck, white country boy – is alive and well.  So, too, is the idea of the white blue-collar factory worker, a down-to-earth guy who’s proud of the work he does and enjoys a cold one at the end of the day. And then there are all the reporters and commentators analyzing whether Mitt Romney can attract enough white working-class voters to win the Republican nomination over the supposedly more working-class Rick Santorum, a discussion that explains Santorum’s appeal by noting his coal miner grandfather, his traditional values, and his ordinary guy persona.

On the other hand, some recent public discourse about the working class suggests that some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing at working-class studies conferences for the past two decades are being heard beyond academic walls.  Consider, for example, Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  No doubt, Murray’s argument that the white working class is in decline because it lacks morality and self-discipline is troubling, and a number of critics have already pointed out the problems with this analysis, especially his habit of assigning to culture social changes that are rooted in economics.  Yet we can’t accuse him of mere stereotyping.  Two recent reports by one of the best reporters on working-class issues, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times, corroborate two of Murray’s main claims:  that the working-class lags far behind the middle and upper class on educational attainment and that single motherhood is increasingly common for women without college degrees.  Part of what makes Tavernise’s reports so good is that, unlike Murray, she identifies economic reasons for these cultural patterns, rather than suggesting that they reflect moral or intellectual weaknesses.

And yet, Murray’s approach suggests that he understands a key idea of working-class studies: like Barbara Jensen, Jack Metzgar, and others, he views class not solely in terms of economic position but also as a matter of culture.  I wish he’d paid more attention to the idea that working-class culture has some real strengths, such as the strong family and community ties that Jensen identifies, but I’m still pleased that his book has gotten people thinking about class in more cultural terms.  Murray also defines the working class not by income but by a combination of education and occupation, an approach that at least in part reflects the complex understanding of class in new working-class studies.

The working-class value of fostering communal ties rather than focusing on individual achievement was a core theme of Chrysler’s much-discussed “Halftime in America” ad.  Clint Eastwood’s gravelly voice speaks in terms of “we” and “us,” and he reminds us that because the people of Detroit “all pulled together,” the auto industry there has recovered.

Both that ad and another GE ad also challenge the whiteness of so much of public discourse about the working class.  Chrysler shows images of white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and other American people, some looking gravely at the camera, others working, dropping kids off at school, driving a car.  GE shows workers at a Kentucky appliance factory, men and women, white and black, talking about why their jobs matter.

Of course, these ads still draw on a fairly narrow, traditional definition of the working class — the industrial worker.  I’d like to see the media develop better strategies to show us the majority of today’s working class – the janitors, retail clerks, home health care workers, and so on.  For too many people, “working class” still brings to mind a factory worker, not a cashier, and that contributes to continued misunderstanding not only of who the working class is but of what issues matter to the working class.  But then I’m reminded of the question someone once asked after I introduced myself as the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies:  do we still have a working class in America?  What she meant, I think, is that all the blue-collar jobs had disappeared.  But while most working-class jobs these days are in the service sector, there’s some value to remembering that factory jobs still exist and still matter.

We’ve spent so much time talking about how the media gets it wrong.  Maybe we also need to talk about what it means to get it right. Clearly, we’ve made gains in the quantity of media attention to the working class. But how are we doing on quality? What do you think makes a good representation of the working class?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Right-To-Work Laws and Working-Class Voters: Another Teachable Moment

As a professor, I am always interested in teachable moments. When it became apparent in late 2010 that Ohio Governor John Kasich planned to introduce legislation depriving public sector workers of basic bargaining rights, I told reporters that it was a teachable moment about the role of public sector workers. After all, they were the ones who made all other work possible.

Both organized labor and community groups quickly embraced the idea that Ohio Senate Bill 5 could be a teachable moment.  They launched a hugely successful campaign to put a referendum on the bill, Issue 2, on the November ballot, and then led the fight to persuade voters to oppose the issue and overturn the bill.  Kasich’s attack and the forceful response to it may make it possible for Obama to win Ohio in 2012,  despite economic conditions and 2010 election results that would seem to prime the state to swing to the right this time.

Another teachable moment has arrived now that Republicans have introduced Right-to-Work legislation in New Hampshire and passed it in Indiana.  Similar legislation may be on the way in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Such moves may well undermine the historic white working-class support of Republicans, and that could bode well for Obama’s re-election.

RTW legislation differs from past Republican attacks on unions. As labor historian Joseph McCartin has recently chronicled, while courting union endorsements and union voters, Republicans have pursued strategies that, over the last 30 years, have quietly undermined administrative agencies and government policies that facilitated the formation of unions.  The result has been the erosion and marginalization of organized labor and its ability to raise wages, improve workplace safety and health, and advance representative democracy not only in the workplace but in the body politic.

The current RTW legislation is a direct attack on organized labor and its ability to represent the economic and political interests of both the rank and file and those non-union workers whose wages and benefits are enhanced by employers to avoid unionization. No doubt, the role of unions in building and rebuilding economic security and the middle class, advancing workplace rights, and promoting political democracy will be a central part of the curriculum for this teachable moment.

All the current Republican candidates have refused opportunities to speak to union leaders.  Instead, they have signed on to the anti-labor agenda, including RTW legislation, proposed by conservative corporations, business groups, and donors.  Together with their other economic proposals, they have established a Republican brand that embraces and even celebrates a distorted sense of morality and inequality of income, wealth, and power.

But as Governors Kasich and Walker have found out, “as you sow so shall you reap.”  The fight against RTW proposals and their supporters will be particularly fierce in the battleground states, especially the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.  Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin consider those states crucial to Democratic chances in 2012. In addition, RTW initiatives have now put projected GOP states with relatively small labor movements, such as New Hampshire and Indiana, into play for 2012.

If RTW legislation inspires union members to support Obama in November, their family members are likely to follow suit. In New Hampshire & Indiana, about 10% of voters belong to unions, but union households make up about 20% of voters. This is smaller than in the Rust Belt battlegrounds, where 26% to 34% of voters belong to union households, but that 20% may still make a difference. Further, the effect of the anti-union push could also cross state borders by galvanizing labor and community activists from safe Democratic States into neighboring states in the 2012 election.  Supporters in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and even Washington State organized phone banks to support the fight against the Indiana RTW bill.

Republicans also forget that their attacks on unions can turn off long-time Republican voters.  In Ohio, the demonization of teachers as part of Issue 2 moved many Republican educators toward the Democrats.  Educators are now the single most unionized group of workers in the U.S., and many continue to react strongly to conservative attacks, both in states where they are being targeted and across the country.

Further, while conservatives may hope to undermine union political influence with RTW initiatives, they don’t understand the continuing power of unions to mobilize workers.  Kasich’s attack on public sector workers was overturned last year not because so many dollars flowed from unions into the Issue 2 campaign, though enough money was raised that We Are Ohio, the union-based organization that led the fight, is still spending the millions it has left.  What really mattered was the person-to-person, door-to-door effort.  Organizing, it turns out, still works.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by moderate Republicans, and many now believe that the party should not have taken this route.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have argued that the Republicans missed multiple opportunities to garner greater working-class and union support by crafting policies that, while socially conservative, would embrace “limited government pragmatism” that met the needs and aspirations of working people. They see many Republicans as having confused being “pro-market with being pro-business,” and failing to make a distinction between policies that “foster dependency and those that foster independence and upward mobility.”  Rather than directly attacking the very existence of union, they encourage the development of new forms of unionism that are better suited for the new economy and enhance employment opportunities and economic advancement.

Importantly, the Republicans seem to have confused anti-labor policy with real economic policy. Rather than pursue the kinds of moderate revisions suggested by Douthat and Salam, Republican leaders, cheered on by conservative corporate donors and lobbyists, have launched an attack on labor unions that may well lead to the reelection of President Obama and further weaken an already divided Republican Party.  Consequently Republicans, especially Michigan Governor Rick Synder and Governor Kasich, are not publically supporting initiatives by conservative groups, such as the effort by Ohioans for Workplace Freedom to put a RTW referendum on ballots this November. In the current conservative political environment, their silence is deafening.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The GOP, Black “Underclass,” and Working-Class Studies

In the frenzy of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, candidates have appealed to conservative populism through racially coded appeals evoking the dependency of the black “underclass” on government handouts.  Late last year, former Speak of the House Newt Gingrich caused a commotion when he referred to child labor laws as “truly stupid.”  He mused that poor children could develop the honest work ethic missing in their communities, and escape poverty, by replacing unionized janitors in their schools, and working as library, cafeteria and office assistants.  The comments had little to do with race explicitly.  Yet, his casual assumption that such children lack adult role models who work, or earn money legally, is one commonly attributed to the “underclass,” which made the target of his remarks clear.  Gingrich stirred a toxic brew of anti-unionism, thinly veiled racism exempting children of color from protections against exploitation, and disdain for meaningfully combating the poverty that engulfs almost 40 percent of black children.

As if this race-inflected undertow was not strong enough, Gingrich labeled Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and condescendingly offered to lecture a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on why the black community should “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”  The episode not only illustrated Republican-based animosity toward a program that has saved millions, across race, from food insecurity; it also crudely bound the president, and African Americans more generally, to a means-tested program popularly associated with stereotypes of black indolence.  It helped catapult Gingrich to victory during the recent South Carolina Republican primary, but he has not been the only one to use this rhetoric.  Fellow GOP contender Rick Santorum made similar remarks linking welfare dependency and African Americans, though unlike Gingrich he denied them.  Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, also castigated Obama for supplanting a “merit-based society with an entitlement society” – this from a multimillionaire who possesses his own deep sense of entitlement to the White House, indifferent to the fact that large portions of his own party reject him.  The former Massachusetts governor, still glowing from his victory in the Florida primary, has commented openly that his campaign will not concern itself with the “very poor” at all.  Even the only black candidate in the Republican field, Herman Cain, blamed the unemployed for their own predicament.  This was less an irony than an illustration of the adaptability of “underclass” language across racial and class contexts.

Without ever using the term openly, GOP hopefuls have wielded “underclass” phraseology to attack a broad array of the populace clamoring for a more just social contract.  It has, among other things, fueled opposition to public spending and jobs programs that would benefit both working-class and middle-class Americans.  No matter who garners the Republican nomination, a central campaign message already has crystallized: You may be jobless, you may have lost your savings and your home may be in foreclosure, but the president’s policies benefit the “undeserving” poor, who are culturally and morally unlike you.  Summoning the imagery of “underclass” debasement speaks to the GOP’s racial politics, but it also demonstrates how popular ideas about class, poverty, and government policy operate through racial inference.  For labor historians and working-class studies scholars, the current campaign rhetoric demonstrates that the long career of the black “underclass” has to be acknowledged in our analyses and addressed in our prescriptions for change.

The “underclass” entered popular usage in the 1970s to describe a visible urban population afflicted by deepening conditions of  “hardcore” unemployment.  It became, according to Adolph Reed, Jr., “the central representation of poverty in American society,” and was employed primarily to characterize those fastened to the lowest rungs of the black working class.  Functioning more as an ideological device than a real sociological category, the “underclass” literally colored public policy exchanges.  It was a vehicle for shifting attention away from structural inequality to the cultural pathology of the poor: The “underclass” existed because of dysfunctional values, criminal deviance, pathological behavior (e.g., out-of-wedlock births and female-headed households), and reliance on government.  Accordingly, this was a problem that social welfare expenditures could not remedy.  Such expenditures, in fact, only reinforced “underclass” dependence.  This had the effect of vilifying the poorest strata of working-class African Americans among middle-class whites and blacks alike, stigmatizing them in the imagination of other sectors of the working class, isolating them in public policy, and justifying measures that have eroded income, social mobility, and economic security for all.

By equating social welfare with dependency and – more implicitly – blackness, the “underclass” has literally colored discussions of social policy, inviting people of across social class to share in a culture of antagonism to the social safety net.  This was a key component of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, and it fed a campaign against the legacies of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society, especially against government employees providing public services.  It also prompted a liberal retreat from racial and economic justice, as Democratic strategists distanced their party nationally from close affiliation with the black working poor.  The consequence has been what historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann calls a “punitive turn” in public policy under a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents.  Of course, this punishment has spared government welfare to corporate entities, in the form of tax cuts and deregulation.

For the so-called “underclass,” decades of austerity have transformed many black working-class communities into armed encampments, fostered mass incarceration, and dismantled Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the name of “welfare reform.” At the state level, this has led to attempts in Michigan and more recently Florida to require Temporary Aid to Needy Families applicants to pass drug tests before receiving benefits.  Not only do they threaten Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, but such policies begin with the premise that the working poor are more apt to use illicit drugs more than other groups receiving forms of public assistance. This has paralleled a general offensive against the wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of broad swaths of working-class Americans – as in the use of unpaid “workfare” employees and prison laborers to supplant union labor, and in continuing attacks on public sector workers (among whom African Americans are employed in disproportionate numbers).  “Attacks on the poor,” working-class studies scholar Michael Zweig reminds us, “are attacks on the working class.”  From this perspective, the brutal federal indifference to black suffering during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina crisis, for instance, was not just an embodiment of racism, but also a culmination of a general assault on working people.

Protests by public workers in the Midwest, and “Occupy” movements on the East and West coasts may signal the renewal of a transformative working class-oriented activism.  For this to occur, though, the black “underclass,” which has been a crucial part of the baggage of U.S. social welfare policy, has to be critically unpacked and put away.  Working-class studies scholars are among those best positioned to accomplish this.  But combating the vilification of poor people of color requires more than substituting a viewpoint that renders them objects of pity, or reduces them to appendages of the “respectable” working class.  Rather, we have to claim the “underclass” as part of a diverse working class (including women on public assistance, ex-felons, and immigrant laborers), viewed from the validity of the black poor’s own outlooks and experiences.  The racially suggestive insults hurled at the poor, and used to undermine all notions of social security, is a warning that imagining the U.S. working class in the twenty-first century has to be inclusive – for the sake of the “underclass,” and everyone else’s.

Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang is an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 (University of Michigan Press).