Reinventing the Working Class: A Study in Elite Image Manipulation, Adolph Reed

Introduction by Merlin Chowkwanyun

Alhough written more than five years ago, Adolph L. Reed, Jr.’s analysis of the term “working class” remains timely as ever – and possibly even more so now. The 2010 elections and the rise of the so-called Tea Party “movement” have given rise to simplistic and often crude depictions of the “working class’s” political propensities. Dr. Reed’s essay explores the historical roots of these depictions and how both postwar liberals and conservatives have perpetuated them.

When this issue went to print, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker began his onslaught – complete with threat of using the national guard -- against public sector union workers’ benefits and collective bargaining rights. Although Walker and the legislative Republicans prevailed in the short term, a groundswell of national- and state-level support that arose in protest continues to gain momentum. Polls show falling approval ratings for Walker and even growing support for possible future recall efforts of Wisconsin Republican legislators who supported Walker’s bill.

It would be foolish -- as many leftists did in the wake of the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization protests of 1999 -- to read this single development as a major turn in the prevailing political tempo. But Wisconsin suggests that Reed is on to something when he writes that we should not concede “too much ground to the idea that there is an intrinsically conservative strain in the working class that must be accommodated.” Instead, he advocates the development of “a project that implies a more visionary and outward-looking political role for the labor movement, one that sees the union partly as a venue for the shaping of class consciousness and the cultivation of broad political solidarities along class lines.” The Kingsboro Press hopes this essay will stimulate readers into thinking about the ways we can realize that project in the years to come.

The question of the relation of the working class to conservative politics immediately begs other questions. Who do we mean by “the working class”?
What do we mean by “conservative politics”? If we take a definition that centers on people’s location in a hierarchy of social power that is rooted in the economy—such as that proposed by Michael Zweig’s The Working Class Majority —many different kinds of people make up the working class. These people vary widely—as individuals and subgroups, as well as over the course of individuals’ lives—in the array of political issues they deem important, their ideological dispositions and electoral inclinations. What counts as conservatism also is an issue that should not simply be assumed in a pro forma way. For instance, voting for Republicans does not equate automatically with commitment to a conservative political program. And there is nothing about caring for loved ones that intrinsically ties those concerns to a politics of populist conservatism.

That link occurs only when those concerns are annexed to a larger political rhetoric of “family values,”and the policy and social agendas that accompany it.

In contemporary political discussion in this country, of course, the issue of the relation of the working class to conservative politics is most immediately centered on the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrat,” the iconic working class voter whose defection from theDemocratic party in national elections marks the demise of the New Deal coalition. Like a mythic figure, the Reagan Democrat has be-come a touchstone in debates about the break-down of the post-World War II liberal consensus, the redefinition of the scope and limits of American politics, the future of the Democratic party, the failures of the left and the labor movement, the intractability of race as a fault line inAmerican politics, and the tension between“economic” and “social” issues in working-class and progressive politics.

Taking stock of, and getting beyond, theReagan Democrat notion, however, requires locating it as a link in a chain of representations at the conjunction of conservative politics and the working class. Al-though this chain arguably stretches back much farther in time, its proximate lineage in everyday American discourse descends from a familiar set of images that the phrase “working-class conservatism” evokes almost as a Pavlovian response. These typically revolve around some version of the Archie Bunker stereotype—a white male, usually patriarchally sexist, intolerant of homosexuality, bigoted against people of color, xenophobically patriotic and militarist, given to rigidly conventional morality and authoritarian politics, and fearful of a world in which his slender prerogatives seem threatened by anyone not like himself. A darker version of this image was Peter Boyle’s eponymous character in the 1970 film Joe. The stereotype also has been sustained by more nearly real-life models. One was Eric Hoffer, erstwhile dockworker and autodidact philosopher, whose book, The True Believer, attaineds ome currency in the 1960s. The pro war “hardhats” who attacked antiwar protesters became a symbol of working-class conservatism—op-position to the cultural sensibilities and social movements of the 1960s, militant support for the Vietnam War—during the Nixon administration.

A differently inflected, but overlapping,variant of this imagery is bound up with the emergence of the notion of “white ethnicity”in the 1970s. This image, like the other, is per-haps inseparably linked to the perception of “white backlash” that also emerged from the1960s. The image of “resurgent” or“unmeltable” white ethnicity was sanctified by journalists and academics, many of whom would before long be identified as neoconservatives. In this image, ethnicity appears as a primordial identity; one basically and essentially is an ethnic, and being one confers a set of attitudes and dispositions that are more“traditional” than “modern,” communitarian rather than liberal.

Where the “hard hat” inflection of this version of working-class conservatism is distinctively male, the white ethnic variant is as likely to be female—embodied in the “traditional ethnic” wife, mother, family. “Ethnic,”indeed, has become practically a synonym for“traditional” attitudes, values, and norms, and“traditional” has by and large come to mean embrace of patriarchal norms of household organization centered on a nuclear unit em-bedded in a larger, “close-knit” extended family, strong-to-aggressive preference for endogamy, active religious identification, adherence to conventional “values,” and an often militant preference for living in homogeneous neighborhoods with members of one’s own group.

This imagery also had what looked enough like real-world referents to give it the verisimilitude of common sense. From the1940s through at least the mid-1960s, open housing struggles in northern cities frequently enough erupted into dramatic expressions of white opposition to blacks’ attempts to move into previously segregated neighborhoods.(Yonkers, NY, kept this tradition alive through the 1980s.) The early 1970s brought similar opposition to school desegregation and bus-ing to achieve that desegregation in particular.In both instances, rhetoric of home and family, ethnic homogeneity, and neighborhood stability—infamously summarized by presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976 as “ethnic purity”—were prominent in shaping the language of opposition. And women were frequently visible in the forefront of these pro-tests. Class, ethnicity, and religion—mainly Catholicism—swirled together in this imagery,with any one signifying, or standing in for, the others. For example, Louise Day Hicks, who rose to national visibility and local political prominence as a leader of Boston’s vicious antibusing campaign, became a national symbol of working-class conservatism even though she was a lawyer, and her father was a judge. It was sufficient that she was Irish-American andCatholic.

It is significant that both these images of working-class conservatism date from the late1960s and 1970s. They reflect the state of think-ing in American intellectual life—among social scientists, policy intellectuals, and journalists in opinion-shaping publications—about class, ethnicity, modernization, and politics at the time, as well as persisting folk notions of how human populations are sorted and differ.Crucial among these ideas or casts of mind was modernization theory, which captured much of the social science imagination and shaped the conceptual foundations of its key narratives.

"Culture Stands in for Class"

Modernization theory proliferated as the United States faced the role of supplanting British and French colonialism, and geared up for the Cold War’s struggle for hearts and minds in Latin America and the officially decolonizing areas of Africa and Asia. It proceeded from century-old stereotypes about cultural differences between those societies and the industrialized West.Central among those stereotypes was the premise that people in what would be called the Third World, and on Europe’s periphery,lived in a timeless present, largely outside the major currents of modern history, governed by primordial traditions. The West was held to be defined by a different character type—future-oriented rather than present-oriented, rational rather than emotional and superstitious, pub-lic-regarding rather than private-regarding,individualist rather than communalist. The policy goal was therefore one of identifying strategies for cultivating these modern values and dispositions in “traditional” societies to enable them to modernize and develop the fruits of capitalist democracy and industrialization.

The frame of reference around which mainstream elite discourse about domestic political and social life increasingly cohered over the1950s and early 1960s assumed that ideological cleavages and sharp political conflict had been resolved in the United States. In this view,the material constraints that typically underlie such conflict had been overcome by the promise of steady economic growth. A regularly increasing standard of living marked the “affluent society,” in which cultural concerns would re-place economic ones and in which political decisions would be ever more consensual and ad-ministrative. Popular books by sociologistsDaniel Bell (
The End of Ideology) and SeymourMartin Lipset (Political Man) proclaimed the“end of ideology.” Dunlopism was the most coherent expression of this happy-face view in the postwar industrial relations system, as labor-management cooperation was projected as the path to and enabled by continuing growth and rising living standards.

Although this perspective was just the opposite of the imperative of ideological com-petition that drove modernization theory, the two nevertheless shared important features.Like modernization theory, this view assumed that the sources of inequality, or lack of economic mobility, were cultural and behavioral,not structural. Thus, class distinctions were treated as deriving more from cultural or attitudinal differences than from location in a system of social and economic reproduction. In both cases the bias toward culturalist interpretations accommodated an interest in asserting non-conflictual models of political change, an interest that was rooted in the Cold War’s anticommunist imperatives. Also, as in modernization theory, it was specifically “traditional”patterns of values and attitudes that were held to retard mobility. One of the more popular sanctifications of this view was the sociologistsDaniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer’s1963 book, Beyond the Melting Pot, which purported to examine how different racial and ethnic groups’ cultural dispositions affected their assimilation into the American mainstream.(They published a new edition in 1970, with anew introduction reflecting the consolidation of white ethnic resurgence as a culturally commonplace trope.)

Merging class into culture appealed to opinion-shaping elites for three reasons. First,in locating the source of individuals’ or groups’ failure to realize the promise of upward mobility in personal or cultural attributes, this view preserved the conviction that the postwar regime of economic growth could in principle lift all seaworthy boats and that growth there-fore was an appropriate alternative to redistribution. Second, doing so depoliticized inequality by freeing it of the stigma of injustice and removing it from the domain of political action. Third, culturalist explanations of inequality also had the virtue of being normatively ambivalent enough to appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

Over the 1960s, as biologically based arguments for racial inequality became increasingly untenable in mainstream political and intellectual discourse outside the South, culture came to do the work that biology could no longer perform in defending inequality by rooting it in nature rather than social or political processes. The most controversial moves in this direction had to do with the mythology about the so called black family proposed by Moynihan in the 1965 Johnson administration report, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, and racialized appropriations of the“culture of poverty” idea coined by anthropologist Oscar Lewis. Although Lewis insisted that such interpretations misread his argument, the culture of poverty idea, at least as it entered public discourse, firmly rooted the sources of inequality in the behavior and attitudes of poor people themselves.

Conservative social scientists like Edward Banfield—for example in his 1958 book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society —had pro-pounded such culturally based arguments to explain lack of economic or social mobility among “lower class” whites. The Moynihan Report, though, reflected and spurred a discursive shift akin to the gradual sharpening of legal and status distinctions between slaves and indentured servants and narrowing of those between slaves and free blacks that occurred in seventeenth century Virginia. The merger of class and culture became increasingly a frame-work for marking racial distinctions. The same stereotypes of cultural and behavioral characteristics that had been held to hinder upward mobility became reinvented as roman-tic and laudable in images of the culturally solid, “traditional” white ethnics.These revalued images, often tinted with nostalgia and condescension, emerged and were articulated in contraposition tothe disparaging images of the pathological black family, the dysfunctional, dis-organized culture of poverty, and eventually the dangerous, nearly subhuman“urban underclass.” “Working class” it-self as a category in popular discourse became racialized, as well as gendered. Banfield himself illustrated this shift in his early 1970s books, The Unheavenly City and The Unheavenly City Revisited, which reformulated his arguments for application to black Americans in inner cities and to tie them to punitive policy recommendations.

What all this adds up to is a notion of the working class and its political characteristics that conflates ethnicity, attitudes, religion,place of residence, race, gender, and simplistic notions of “blue collar” employment. This is fundamentally a folk theory, more allegory than social science. It is also partly the expression of a particular ideological point of view and pro-gram. Characterizing the working class in ethnic and religious terms in that way, and by “values” and attitudes, makes the appearance of working-class conservatism a self-fulfilling prophecy. The working class is, in effect, that population of white working people who exhibit the conservative characteristics held to define the working class, those who opposed open housing and school busing, who may have supported George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1964 and Wallace or Nixon in 1968 and 1972.

This characterization of a distinctively working-class conservatism, embodied in the culturalist biases of postwar liberalism, ArchieBunker and hard-hat imagery, and that associated with the rhetoric of resurgent white ethnicity, is what underlies the Reagan Democrat image and gives it verisimilitude. TheReagan Democrat is a descendant of those ear-lier formulations that undercut class as a category of power and political economy and ensconced it in the political discourse as a racialized and largely gendered trope for a cultural conservatism. This view emerged from a combination of the conceptual biases among postwar social scientists and liberal policy intellectuals and the programmatic and ideological limitations of postwar pro-growth liberal-ism. It has been stoked and cultivated by right-wing activists and ideologues since the 1960sand fashioned into an established political identity that is available for people to adopt and through which, at least partly, to define them-selves and to label their aspirations.

"Preempting Intraclass Solidarity"

To understand why this notion of working class identity appeals to the right it may be useful to return to the analogy of colonial Virginia. The simultaneous efforts to homogenize free and enslaved blacks and to sharpen the customary and legal distinctions between slaves and indentured servants created the basis for new regimes of political and ideological solidarity and closed off others. It is within these regimes of solidarity that political identities take shape, through which the sub-stance of class consciousness is formed. Law and customary sanction gradually eliminated the possibilities for political identities that united black and white servants. At the same time, they opened possibilities for limited ideological solidarity and shared political identity among indentured servants and other whites on a racialized basis, as members of a population defined by shared prerogatives vis-à-vis slaves and other blacks. Of course, they also re-inforced solidarity among slave and free blacks.(Kathleen Brown describes, in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs, how the elaboration of a male subculture of gun ownership, hunting and public houses knitted a contingent solidarity along gender as well as race lines.) As the slave population grew, elites were especially moved to craft institutional bases for uniting the English population as an effective majority in support of their regime.

The basis of right-wing populism since the1960s—and since the late 1890s in the South—has been similar. Its thrust has been to construct a political rhetoric and an agenda that plausibly attracts elements of working-class whites to identify their political and cultural aspirations in ways that preempt solidarity with the programs and concerns of nonwhites and the left. Postwar liberal intellectuals’ inclination to define the working class in cultural terms, and postwar liberalism’s retreat from a social wage policy agenda ironically created space for the right to articulate a politically conservative working-class identity, in part by making use of —and revalorizing—stereo-types that were already available in public dis-course.

"Working Class Alliances, Up for Grabs"

Four important points concerning working-class consciousness follow from this analysis. One is that working-class political consciousness is never given. It is always constructed, and, like all political identities, it is a field of contestation, constantly being renegotiated. This is true in part because the working class itself is no monolith.

Second, forms of political conscious-ness—in the working class or any other population—do not emerge pristinely or automatically. They inevitably take shape within existing regimes of social hierarchy, and the logic shaping them typically will reflect pragmatic adaptation to those regimes’ institutional imperatives. Colonial Virginian burgesses recognized that their actions would alter the political incentives available to indentured servants, as well as the larger cultural and ideological framework within which those servants could craft politically significant identities. Bourbon elites in the post-Reconstruction South recognized the same thing. They advocated white supremacy in part as a strategy for preempting the threat of political alliance be-tween poor whites and black freed people—though most no doubt sincerely believed in it as a social vision. Moreover, experience also convinced them that they could securely eliminate that threat only by disenfranchising blacks and thus removing them from the political equation entirely. That is, they saw eventually that it was not enough to exhort to white supremacy; they could successfully impose it only by making politics a “white man’s business” institutionally. So long as blacks could participate, as the three decades after Emancipation showed, it was always possible—even within the context of a universal belief in white superiority —that programmatic imperatives would encourage expressions of political solidarity that overlapped racial boundaries.

The imagery of working-class conservativism in contemporary politics is most usefully understood as a tendency shaped by ideological options and politically significant identities that have been available in post-World WarII American politics. Of course, this framework did not itself come from nowhere; it emerged from an evolving matrix of ideology, institutional power, and contestation. Specifically, the partly racialized New Deal compact institutionalized the support of political positions compatible with right-wing populism’s subsequent appeal. History never starts from scratch;there is no state of nature. My larger point,however, is that it is not helpful or accurate to attempt to determine whether “the working class” or, more to the point, “the white work-ing class” is fundamentally conservative or not.That is an essentializing approach that denies the crucial role of institutional constraints in the formation of political identities. This, by the way, is one problem with the focus on“whiteness” in contemporary labor history, as Eric Arnesen has argued in “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination” (
ILWCH: Fall 2001). It frequently reduces to an ahistorical morality play that imputes to white workers more agency in influencing social power than they could have had.

Third, an implication of the fact that working-class identities do not emerge automatically is that they are shaped partly through the efforts of activists who project and agitate for certain possibilities that are available and against others.The case of “working-class conservatism” is instructive. Wallace and Nixon took postwar liberalism’s stereotypes of an element of the white working class and re-valorized them, offering them as the basis of a coherent, affirmative political identity. Political scientists James Stimson and Edward Carmines have examined, in their book, Issue Evolution, how right-wing activists actually inverted theArchie Bunker stereotype and even used the character to signal issue positions appropriate to the political identity they advanced. Similarly, neoconservatives’ proclamations of resurgent white ethnicity were partly linked to efforts to mobilize white working-class resentment against black power politics. In this context, the Reagan Democrat imagery also should be seen as the prop of an ideological program.

As Marie Gottschalk shows in The Shadow Welfare State, in every presidential election since 1952 except 1980, working-class voters have voted Democratic in higher percentages than the electorate as a whole. More significant politically is her finding that in every election in that period union members in general, and white union members in particular, have votedDemocratic in higher percentages than working-class voters on the whole. I do not mean to suggest that voting for Democrats is a clear proxy for any particular type of working-class political consciousness, especially given theDemocrats’ moves to the right over the last two decades. At the very least, however, these findings underscore the importance of institutions and activists in shaping class consciousness in the working class as elsewhere. Moreover, they suggest that, when exposed to arguments and perspectives that stress the material bases of working class identity as linked to support for social protection and redistribution, most people who identify as workers will respond affirmatively. While it is unsurprising that working-class voters vary in their electoral behavior, a fixation on appealing to working-classReagan Democrats as such gives too much ground to the idea that there is an intrinsically conservative strain in the working class that must be accommodated. The more important lesson is probably that we need to project and cultivate different expressions of class consciousness. This is a project that implies a more visionary and outward-looking political role for the labor movement, one that sees the union partly as a venue for the shaping of class consciousness and the cultivation of broad political solidarities along class lines.

The fourth implication of this analysis follows from the others. Ironically, the evolution of the imagery of working-class conservatism may have been at least abetted by progressives’ teleological assumptions about working-class consciousness. The culturalist characterizations of working-class identity were always deployed partly to challenge Marxist-inspired notions of class rooted in political economy. Leftists’ presumptions that there is an authentic working-class consciousness that will emerge on its own,or that it is a kind of default worldview, were vulnerable to contradiction by a more complex empirical and historical reality. To that extent,they called forth those alternative views and did not have adequate responses to them. We need to dispense with essentialist conceptions of working-class identity and recognize that there is no single route decreed by history, God, or any other force; that political identity within the working class is and will be various, and that the challenge of politics is to struggle in concert with others to cultivate those forms of class conscientiousness we believe to be most true and humane.