Timothy Noah takes readers' questions about Democrats and the working class.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
April 17 2008 4:23 PM

Class Action

Timothy Noah takes readers' questions about the Democrats and working folk.

(Continued from Page 3)

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Chicago: To me, Obama's "bitter"/"cling" comments didn't sound so out-of-the-ordinary compared to what else I have heard Obama say throughout this campaign. When I hear him speak about the middle class or working class or even the poor, I never get the feeling that he is showing empathy for others, for people who are suffering. I get the sense from him that he sees it as an academic exercise. Maybe the word I am looking for is "aloof"? I can't really explain it well, but basically, instead of seeming to be interested in solving those specific (economic) problems, he too often uses those as examples of something "bigger"—the need for "hope," etc. It seems that the economic problems are secondary to another goal.

But those are the things that people want from a president ... they want the president to create jobs, improve the economy, etc. This impression only increases when I hear comments from Mrs. Obama (the idea that "our souls are broken"). Bill Clinton always was mocked for his "I feel your pain"; maybe Obama's afraid of similarly being mocked. Your thoughts? Have you heard similar reactions?

Timothy Noah: A lot of people have compared Obama's appeal to that of JFK. One quality they share is a certain coolness. I think that coolness is mostly a positive quality—Obama, like JFK, tends not to get hot under the collar and say stupid things, as McCain will occasionally do—but it probably hurts him a little in this context. A lot of people have brought up Obama's comment earlier in the campaign about the price of arugula at Whole Foods, which reminded many of Mike Dukakis' elitist-sounding suggestion that farmers plant Belgian endive. Dukakis is sort of the counterexample to JFK, a candidate whose coolness came to be seen as coldness and aloofness.

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Baltimore: I wonder how much the "working class" even goes to the polls now? Barbara Erenreich, who spent a lot of time working marginal jobs as background for her book Nickeled and Dimed said that, by the time her months among the working class and/or working poor we're over, she was surprised to find out how angry she was at their near total apathy about politics and their unending discussions of TV shows and pop culture.

This certainly contrasts with the working class of the 1920s-1950s, the heyday of unionism and political involvement. A good friend of mine, a Georgetown graduate who lives in Canton, Ohio and who spent his summers in the 1960s working in a steel mill there, truly believes that the ruling elites deliberately have let the public schools decay nationwide in order to produce millions of working-class people who don't have enough education to ask questions. Paranoid? Maybe.

Timothy Noah: I do think that's a little paranoid. The ruling elites suffer, too, when their workers lack sufficient education to do their jobs well. However, this gives me an opportunity to plug Barbara's excellent entry about Obama's "bitter" flap in Slate's XX Factor blog.

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Washington: I think Thomas Frank in What's the Matter With Kansas? hits the nail right on the head when he argues that the Democratic Party has veered to the right on economic matters to the point it is virtually indistinguishable from the Republican Party. If this is the case, it should come as no surprise then that working-class voters acutely recognize that no political party is looking out for its interests anymore despite the populist rhetoric that politicans employ come election time to lure voters their way.

What is missing from your Slate analysis, however, is the argument of what can be done by working-class people about this situation by working within the democratic system. I always have believed that working people need their own political structure that looks out for their own interests and that is independent of both Republicans and Democrats—yet such attempts always have failed in the U.S. or have been coopted by the major parties. I think the time is ripe for a wide-ranging discussion of this option. I wonder what your thoughts are on such a bottom-up, grassroots, uprising strategy for working-class folks?

Timothy Noah: I think the answer is a revival of unionism, and the best start would be to pass legislation removing some of the barriers to union organizing and activity put in place over the past 50 years. Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On? speaks to this point (and is a great book on its own).

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Northeast Liberal: Maybe I'm just bitter, but I see a double standard underlying the analysis of Obama's remarks in (of course) San Francisco. It appears that Obama (and people like me) are accused of not understanding small-town Americans and of being condescending toward them, and that the burden is on us to understand them better. No one ever suggests that "real Americans" do not understand us and our own cultural and philosophical backgrounds and leanings, and no one puts any burden on small-town Americans to learn more about us and try to understand us better. Why is that?

Timothy Noah: Because, I'm guessing, you belong to the upper-middle class, and government doesn't really exist to serve the needs of the upper-middle class. Nor should it, in my view.

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Timothy Noah: Thanks, everybody, for a stimulating hour of questions. I wish I had more answers for you.

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