The politics of labor, in an evolving America

The Argument

The role of working-class U.S. voters depends on definitions of work and class.

September 03, 2000|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

It's been a long time since Democratic presidential candidates kicked off their campaigns with Labor Day rallies in downtown Detroit, but Vice President Al Gore is gambling that working-class voters will decide this election. Gore has settled on a stump speech that recalls his party's populist traditions: "fighting for working families," siding with "the people, not the powerful," and bashing Big Oil, insurance companies and drug companies.

While it is boosting his poll ratings, Gore's rhetoric is receiving mixed reviews. His Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, calls it "class warfare." And some centrist Democrats are also skeptical, including an unnamed adviser to President Bill Clinton, who told a reporter, "The tone is off for these times."

The dust-up about Gore's rhetoric reflects an argument among the public intellectuals whose books influence political leaders. Four recent political books debate whether national politics should focus on the affluent or the anxious, raising issues that go well beyond the narrow world of policy experts: Is the new economy rewarding most working people or only a fortunate few? Do most Americans face the future with confidence or uncertainty? And should American politics emphasize the aspirations of a well-educated "learning class" or the anxieties of a hard-pressed working class?

Making the case for paycheck politics are "America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters" by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers (Basic Books, 215 pages, $27) and "The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy" by Theda Skocpol (W. W. Norton & Co., 207 pages, $25.95). Significantly, both books have blurbs by Stanley Greenberg, the political theorist and pollster who recently joined Gore's campaign.

Weighing in with opposing opinions are "Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton" by Kenneth S. Baer (University Press of Kansas, 361 pages, $29.95) and "Bull Run: Wall Street, the Democrats, and the New Politics of Personal Finance" by Daniel Gross (Public Affairs Books, 236 pages, $25). Baer's book is a laudatory history of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which opposes pessimistic views of the new economy and populist prescriptions for it, and Gross emphasizes the growing number of Americans who own stocks and mutual funds.

The most influential is "America's Forgotten Majority," which a Wall Street Journal editorial blamed for what it called Gore's "schlock populism." Teixeira and Rogers demonstrate that a majority of voters have modest family incomes, don't have four-year college degrees, and suffered more than 20 years of stagnant wages before their earnings rebounded over the past two years. They have been ignored by politicians from both parties in favor of more glamorous groups, from affluent "soccer moms" to the "wired workers" who are doing well in the new economy.

Working-class voters have responded to this neglect by abandoning their earlier allegiance to the Democrats and becoming the swing voters of contemporary politics. Thus, they supported Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush from 1980 through 1988, dropped Bush in favor of Clinton in 1992, dumped the Democratic Congress in 1994, and re-elected Clinton in 1996.

Although their emphasis on whites may be jarring to some leftists (it's because blacks and Hispanics across the economic spectrum vote heavily Democratic), Teixeira and Rogers' most controversial claim is that white working-class voters are potential supporters for a "pragmatic liberal" agenda.

According to the authors, these voters are skeptical of government, not on philosophical grounds but because they believe it has failed to meet their needs. But they would support substantive measures to address "the new insecurity" afflicting working-class families, including dwindling health coverage, disappearing pensions and the need for continuing education to find new and better jobs in a churning economy. Also, the authors maintain, whites have become more tolerant on racial and social issues:

"The Missing Middle" fleshes out both this analysis and this agenda. The title has many meanings, for as Skocpol contends, ordinary Americans have been estranged from politics because it ignores the middle class, the middle-aged, and those caught in the middle of politically polarized debates.

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