Slate "Chatterbox" columnist Timothy Noah was online at Washingtonpost.com on April 17 to chat about the Democrats' relationship with the white working class. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Timothy Noah: Hello, Timothy Noah here. I'm a senior writer for Slate magazine. I write a column called "Chatterbox." A few days ago I used the occasion of Obama's now-famous "bitter" remark concerning small-town Pennsylvanians to review the literature on how the Democratic party is faring with white working class voters.
Bethesda, Md.: Perhaps candidates should expand their base of advisors to include lower-level ones working within their own campaigns. Surely they all have people like me who currently straddle both worlds—who grew up working-class in a small Pennsylvania coal-mining town and then went on to college, graduate school and life in Washington—who could have told them, over coffee for an hour, how difficult it is for one world ("elites" and "working class") to understand the other. I have found each group to be equally intolerant of the other based on nothing more than obvious stereotypes, and for those of us caught in the middle it can be exhausting.
Timothy Noah: I agree. There is quite a lot of mutual misunderstanding between the upper middle class and the working class. Reviewing what's been said about the white working class and the Democrats, I realized that there's even a lot of disagreement about who the working class IS.
New Orleans: As a working-class gal who knows the areas of "Pennsyltucky" like the back of her hand, I have to say that Obama was pretty well on target in my experience. Have you read Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant, which provides a great illustration of just how this situation has developed and what can be done about it?
Timothy Noah: I have not. I wish I'd heard about it before I wrote my column on this topic!
Portland, Ore.: Mr. Noah, please explain the media fixation on Obama's "bitter" comment. Folks in my neighborhood are working-class, professional or retired. Everyone of them is bitter after nearly eight years of the Bush nightmare. How about some reality instead of pundit porn?
Timothy Noah: I must agree with you that the media is overplaying the story. Possibly it's an overzealous attempt to dispute claims that the press is pro-Obama. I see that Tom Shales had some harsh words in today's Post about Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos hammering away about it at last night's debate.
Woburn, Mass.: Filing early—the problem isn't that rich people can't "feel the pain" of the middle class. I think most people don't care if you're worth $10,000, $10 million or $100 million—if you are patronizing, you clearly don't feel our pain. Game over. To the What's the Matter With Kansas? problem—Republicans may not govern in a way aligned with middle-class economic values (necessarily), but they are at least less likely to be on tape patronizing the middle class.
Timothy Noah: What's the Matter With Kansas? is a book by Thomas Frank that argues that "values issues" are driving the white working class into the arms of the Republicans. It appears to have influenced Obama's thinking on this matter, though I have no idea whether Frank would condone Obama's particular remark, and Obama has not to my knowledge said whether he's read the book. One beneficial result of Obama's remark is that it's gotten people looking at this question—are former Democrats rallying to the Republican party because of social issues? Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton, has challenged Frank's thesis and has an op-ed in today's New York Times about it. He says that the voters most influenced by social issues aren't the white working class, but the wealthy. Frank has a response to similar criticism Bartels made earlier posted online.
Clifton, Va.: Lefties: define working-class? Is it based on job or income level? Many tradesman plumbers, electricians, carpenters and auto techs make more than $100,000 a year. When you take your Lexus into the dealer, the tech gets half the labor rate, and the typical tech bills 45-50 hours a week with ease.
Timothy Noah: That's the crucial question. Bartels defines it as anyone whose family income is $60,000 or less. The trouble with that, many people (including Frank) argue, is that you end up including students, retirees, stay-at-home moms, and all sorts of other people who really are upper-middle class folks who have left the work force for one reason or another. Also, some argue, it excludes people who make more than $60,000 but nonetheless conform to what we think of as working class, and see themselves that way.
Rochester, N.Y.: It's absurd to be having this debate without discussing the nefarious role of the media in all of this. How did it get to the point where people making $5 million to $10 million dollars a year—I'm referring to Matthews, Russert and Williams—spend their time calling the son of a Luo tribesmen an "elitist." Is it time just to give up on our media, and thus our democracy?
Timothy Noah: Great point. Though the Luo tribesman went to Harvard. In the United States, class questions get really complicated really fast.
Arlington, Va.: Who is in this working class? I make $150,000 a year and my wife makes $100,000 a year. I work 50 hours a week and my wife works 45 hours a week. We have investments we have made, but we do not live off these investments. We are both first in our families to be college-educated and have worked hard to get where we are at 32 and 31. Why are we not considered working-class?
In addition, Obama and Clinton want to increase the Social Security, income and investment taxes. Where in the Constitution does it say that people like my wife and I have to support people who did not plan wisely (housing bailout, retirement and health care). I don't mind paying my fair share, but my family is not living off inheritance, and has worked hard to get where we are. Why are we not being viewed as working-class for having some self-made success? Will this class warfare work? It blew up on the Democrats in '00 and '04.
Timothy Noah: This gets into another question. Is your class status determined by your present economic situation (which in your case makes you upper-middle class)? Or is it determined by your origins (which, from what your saying, seems like it's working class)? I disagree that when a candidate wants to increase taxes he's engaging in "class warfare," incidentally. Shouldn't those who earn the most money bear the greatest tax burden? That's the theory of progressive taxation.
Seattle: You're funny. You're "reviewing the literature" to see how the working class feels about stuff? How about you admit you and your peers are out of your element and move on to something worthwhile?
Timothy Noah: The only way to find out how a large group of people feels about this or that is to look at the statistics. I'll grant you that it is also valuable to talk to individual people. The fallacy there, however, lies in believing that the people you talk to are representative of the whole. Both approaches are worthwhile. Please don't sneer at me for the method I chose, and I won't sneer at you for preferring contact with individual people.
Woburn, Mass.: Me again. I'm familiar with What's the Matter With Kansas?, but I guess my follow up is—so what? If people want to make the decision that social issues are more important to them than economic ones, so be it.
Timothy Noah: The fallacy is that politicians don't really do much about social issues, many of which don't even lend themselves particularly well to government action. They just demonize their opponents as elitists and reap the benefit. It's a stupid way to do politics. Economic issues can more often be addressed concretely, and it would seem logical for people to vote their interests in this area. According to some theorists, they do. According to others, they don't.
Class issues: I didn't find much wrong with his remarks, when taken in context. What I have a problem with is how you (and many of his supporters) have misconstrued his statements so grossly. Worse yet, more than a few of his supporters misconstrued his statements and agreed with the misinterpretation. He wasn't calling anyone "deranged." Take another look at what he said—he said that after 25 years of being ignored on one issue (the economy), working-class voters feel that they don't have a say on that, so they become more vocal on the issues where they do have a say. Some of those issues happen to be gun control, religion, immigration and outsourcing.
The guy who worked with religious organizations for half his adult life isn't putting down the religious; the guy who's wary of NAFTA isn't scoffing at people whose jobs may have left because of it. The worst things you can say is that he doesn't get hunting culture, and that he suffered from clumsy wording. So why is it that in your piece you assume he's calling people "deranged"? Why is it that so many of his supporters think he was condescending so-called rednecks—and agreeing with that course of action? I think the fallout says a lot less about his class issues and a lot more about everyone else's.
Timothy Noah: In my piece I said that Obama used the term "bitter" and that Frank used the term "deranged." I do not think Obama is an elitist. I think he said something impolitic, and is paying the price. What really interests me in this isn't Obama at all. What interests me is the question of whether the Democrats have lost the working class—the core constituency of the New Deal coalition—and, if so, why?
Shouldn't those who earn the most money bear the greatest tax burden? : A flat tax is the solution.
Timothy Noah: In other words (you're saying), "No, they shouldn't." I disagree. The progressive income tax was relatively uncontroversial for most of the 20th century. I don't really understand why it's a hot potato now.
Not changing social policy?: Not to nitpick, but the Republicans are within one Supreme Court vote of having very serious consequences on social policy in this country. It is erroneous to say Republicans don't do much about changing social issues. They may not legislate them, but look at how the court has ruled recently. The changes are there.
Timothy Noah: Point taken.
Princeton, N.J.: What does "class warfare" Arlington, Va., thinks about the three hedge fund managers who "earned" more than $2 billion (with a "B") each last year and paid a lower rate than their janitors—and, undoubtedly, Arlington? Were they practicing "class warfare" when they hired people to lobby Congress to protect their low rate?
Timothy Noah: Good point.
Rural America: To me, the real question should be why isn't anyone taking advantage of all the technological advances to allow people who want to live in small-town America but keep their big city jobs to do so? Home-shoring, telecommuting—it could revitalize large sections of the country, relieve stress on the cities, save gas, let people stay near aging parents ... an economic mix in all areas of the country, rather than an "us" and "them." Then there would be viable communities for people at all income levels.
Timothy Noah: I agree. But my sense is that these opportunities are more readily available to people in higher income brackets.
Prescott, Ariz.: If Barack Obama had done the following instead of saying Americans are "bitter," do you think his coverage would be more or less negative? Left his ill first wife after multiple affairs; participated in the "Keating 5" scandal; gotten so friendly with a young and blonde lobbyist that his staffers felt they had to intervene; done legislative favors for the clients of said lobbyist; voted against the "Bush tax cuts" then later supported them; actively courted the support, and made campaign appearances of a man who calls the Catholic Church the "great whore"; constantly blurred the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims even while claiming that foreign policy is his strong suit; admitted he didn't know much about economics.
Timothy Noah: You forgot, "Gave a speech this week about what he was going to do for the working class and then announced tax cuts that benefit almost exclusively the rich."
Misconceptions: Bush before he became president had less money budgeted for the military and military families than did either Gore or, subsequently, Kerry—both of whom actually served in a combat zone. Yet military folks voted overwhelmingly for Bush. I bring this up because more and more we see that the reality of what the candidates do flies in the face of what people believe.
Hardly a day goes by that a conservative doesn't say "I'm here to show that the liberals are wrong about there being class warfare between the rich and the poor." Yet, through each Republican administration, the gap between those with wealth and those without widens. Republicans use every bit of evidence of wealth on the liberal side to say: "They are wealthy. We're just like you, we're not the intellectually elitist. Wouldn't you rather sit down to a beer and barbecue with us?" Having been born and raised in the country in both the public and private school system, I have been troubled by one question: Since when did stupidity become a virtue in the U.S.?
Timothy Noah: Since a certain western politician got himself elected president. I'm going to resist the urge to say who.
Chicago: What amazes me is comparing 1994 to 2008. That was "the year of the angry white male," and there was no bigger foe than Hillary Clinton. I think Sen. Clinton's ability to capture the white working-class vote (even if it's only in the Democratic primary so far) shows amazing resilience on her part.
Timothy Noah: Yes, her self-reinvention is quite remarkable. She's going around singing the praises of the 2nd Amendment, when in fact her position on firearms (lukewarm support for gun control and a strong disinclination to discuss the subject) is identical to Obama's. To me, the most appalling thing she's done in courting Pennsylvanians is sit down with Richard Mellon Scaife, who during the 1990s was the key funder of what Hillary Clinton then called the "vast right-wing conspiracy." As I wrote in an earlier "Chatterbox" column, it's preposterous to denounce Jeremiah Wright's "hate speech" while making peace with a world-class hater like Scaife. This is a guy who once accused the Clintons of killing Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel who killed himself in Bill Clinton's first term. He is also an unbelievable misogynist. There is no chance I could repeat here the word he once called a female reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review who was seeking an interview. He went on to say that she was ugly and that her mother was ugly.
Fairport, N.Y.: Let's be blunt here: a large part of this problem—the problem of working-class whites voting against health care and other services for themselves—stems from expensive media campaigns intended to bamboozle them into keeping the corporate party in power. Why don't people like you ever discuss this? Most of our media is owned by large corporations with outside business interests that dwarf the size of their media division. Of course they're going to use their media division to fool working-class voters into voting the interests of their corporate masters. Isn't that just common sense?
Timothy Noah: That's true, but we, the voters, have a duty not to let ourselves get bamboozled by such propaganda.
San Diego: Above you mention the possibility that the media's fixation on Obama's "bitter" comment may be a way for them to dispute that they are pro-Obama. This is slightly off-topic, but how about if the media did something similar to dispute that they are pro-McCain? He is his party's nominee for president, after all, so the media's tendency to shift focus from him to the Democratic race, as if Obama and Clinton were the only candidates around, is weak.
Timothy Noah: The media did do something to combat the accusation that it is pro-McCain. The New York Times ran a piece alleging that McCain got too close to a young female lobbyist. The story was poorly sourced and pretty smarmy, I thought.
Washington: Is there a difference between a Democrat and a progressive (who almost exclusively are Democrats)? I think the progressives—who certainly come across as very elitist—sort of have become the face of the party, whether or not they really are the majority of Democrats.
Timothy Noah: I really hate that word, "progressives." For one thing, it's historically faulty. The real progressives of the early 20th century more closely resemble today's center-left Democrats. I think the best word to describe these folks is the much-reviled term, "liberal." I don't mind calling myself a liberal. Anybody care to join me?
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.
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.
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).
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.
Timothy Noah: Thanks, everybody, for a stimulating hour of questions. I wish I had more answers for you.