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2008 Elections: Class in drag: In American politics, the poor are dressed up as “working class”: [October 2008]

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“Lunch-bucket Joe.”  The term's being used to describe Joe Biden, and it emerges breathlessly from the lips of Democrats thrilled at having found someone who can, supposedly, represent the working-class stiff whose vote once seemed locked in favor of Hillary Clinton.  That would be Clinton of the “Sisterhood of the traveling (raw silk) pantsuits,” the millionaire who downed shots to demonstrate her connection to the boys in the working class.

On the Republican side, we have the spectacle of John McCain, who can’t remember how many houses he owns, at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in a checked shirt and a baseball cap declaring that he prefers the sound of 150 Harleys to the applause of Berliners (after Obama’s overseas tour).  John McCain, biker dude.

Obama, who has the temerity to speak well in English, is being criticized for not being folksy enough in his speeches.  In a recent New York Timesop-ed, Roger Cohen reports standing next to a man at a January rally who kept correcting the candidate's use of “isn’t”: “Ain’t right, Barack, ain’t right.”

So here we are.  Forty-six million Americans are uninsured, and 37.3 million live in poverty.  And our biggest concern about the Presidential candidates is whether or not they can speak authentically like, and to, the “average Joe.”

This is class in drag.  Our sentimentality about the “working class” allows us to forget the depth of the inequality we face.  To speak of the “working class” allows us to forget that many of are just plain poor.  Class categories have always been fictitious signposts on the highway to a vaunted class mobility, the kind that allows us to imagine ourselves as different from snooty Europeans or caste-bound Asians.  Ironically, most of those dubbed “lunch-bucket Joes,” would probably rather see themselves as “middle-class.”  But nobody identifies themselves as poor, despite ample evidence that poverty is on the rise.

When we argue about which candidate speaks for the working man, we're conveniently forgetting that only the elites can afford to run for office these days.  Sadly, it’s the conservative George Will who put it precisely when he said, and I paraphrase, that Americans ought to stop being sentimental about being ruled by elites and simply ask themselves which elites might rule.

To speak of the “lunch-bucket crowd” is just one more way to distance ourselves from the realities of inequality.  The figure of the working-class man can be taken up with impunity by men like Biden who’ve spent most of their lives in the privileged halls of power.  It haunts a candidate like Obama, who must prove that he’s not black like Jesse Jackson but can talk like a working-class white man.

Will we ever get beyond our sentimental attachment to a caricature of the lunch-bucket Joes and actually address the issue of inequality?  It ain’t gonna happen -- unless we realize that allowing Washington elites to dress up as the “rest of us” under the guise of effecting change is as bad as the “rest of us” forgetting that we're often actually poor.

This and other Op-eds on the subject of the 2008 election can be found here.

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