While George W. Bush has been sinking in the polls lately, a few beats on the war drum could reverse that trend and re-elect him in 2004. Ironically, the sector of American society now poised to keep him in the White House is the one that stands to lose the most from virtually all of his policies -- blue-collar men. A full 49 percent of them, and 38 percent of blue-collar women, told a January 2003 Roper poll they would vote for Bush in 2004.
In fact, blue-collar workers were more pro-Bush than professionals and managers, among whom only 40 percent of men and 32 percent of women tell pollsters that they favor the president. That is, people who reported to Roper such occupations as painter, furniture mover, waitress and sewer repairman were more likely to be for our pro-big business president than people with occupations like doctor, attorney, CPA or property manager. High-school graduates and dropouts were more pro-Bush (41 percent) than people with graduate degrees (36 percent). And people with family incomes of $30,000 or less were no more opposed to Bush than those with incomes of $75,000 or more.
We should think about this. The blue-collar vote is huge. Skilled and semi-skilled manual jobs are on the decline, of course, but if we count as blue-collar those workers without a college degree, as Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers do in their book Why the White Working Class Still Matters, then blue-collar voters represent 55 percent of all voters. They are, the authors note, the real swing vote in America: "Their loyalties shift the most from election to election and in so doing determine the winners in American politics."
This fact has not been lost on Republican strategists, who are now targeting right-leaning blue-collar men, or as the politicos call them, "Nascar Dads." These are, reporter Liz Clarke of the Washington Post tells us, "lower or middle-class men who once voted Democratic but who now favor Republicans." Nascar Dads, commentator Bill Decker adds, are likely to be racing-car fans, live in rural areas and have voted for Bush in 2000. Bush is giving special attention to steelworkers, autoworkers, carpenters and other building-trades workers, according to Richard Dunham and Aaron Bernstein of Business Week, and finding common cause on such issues as placing tariffs on imported steel and offering tax breaks on pensions.
We can certainly understand why Bush wants blue-collar voters. But why would a near majority of blue-collar voters still want Bush? Millionaires, billionaires for Bush -- well, sure, he's their man. But why pipe fitters and cafeteria workers? Some are drawn to his pro-marriage, pro-church, pro-gun stands, but could those issues override a voter's economic self-interest?
Let's consider the situation. Since Bush took office in 2000, the United States has lost 4.9 million jobs (2.5 million net), the vast majority of them in manufacturing. While this cannot be blamed entirely on Bush, his bleed-'em-dry approach to the non-Pentagon parts of the government has led him to do nothing to help blue-collar workers learn new trades, find affordable housing or help their children go to college. The loosening of Occupational Safety & amp; Health Administration regulations has made plants less safe. Bush's agricultural policies favor agribusiness and have put many small and medium-sized farms into bankruptcy. His tax cuts are creating state budget shortfalls, which will hit the public schools blue-collar children attend, and erode what services they now get. He has put industrialists in environmental oversight posts, so that the air and water will grow dirtier. His administration's disregard for the severe understaffing of America's nursing homes means worse care for the elderly parents of the Nascar Dads as they live out their last days. His invasion of Iraq has sent blue-collar children and relatives to the front. Indeed, his entire tap-the-hornets'-nest foreign policy has made the America arguably less secure than it was before he took office. Many blue-collar voters know at least some of this already. So why are so many of them pro-Bush anyway?
Forgotten Americans -- In an essay, "The White Man Unburdened," in a recent New York Review of Books, Norman Mailer argued that the war in Iraq returned to white males a lost sense of mastery, offering them a feeling of revenge for imagined wrongs and a sense of psychic rejuvenation. In the last 30 years, white men have taken a drubbing, he notes, especially the three-quarters of them who lack college degrees. From l979-99, for example, real wages for male high-school graduates dropped 24 percent. In addition, Mailer notes, white working class men have lost white champions in football, basketball and boxing. (A lot of white men cheer black athletes, of course, whomever they vote for.) But the war in Iraq, Mailer notes, gave white men white heroes. By climbing into his jumpsuit, stepping out of an S-3B Viking jet onto the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush posed as -- one could say impersonated -- such a hero.
Mailer focuses on white men and their support for the war in Iraq. But we're talking about something that cuts deeper into emotional life, and stretches farther back into the twin histories of American labor and Republican presidencies. For Republicans have been capturing blue-collar hearts for some time now. In the summer of l971, Jefferson Cowie tells us in a recent essay, Richard Nixon worked out a semi-clandestine "blue-collar strategy." Nixon instructed Jerome Rosow of the Department of Labor to draw up a confidential report, only 25 copies of which were circulated. One of them got into the hands of a Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed it under the banner, "Secret Report Tells Nixon How to Help White Workingmen and Win Their Votes."
As the article noted, "President Nixon has before him a confidential blueprint designed to help him capture the hearts and votes of the nation's white working men -- the traditionally Democratic 'forgotten Americans' that the Administration believes are ripe for political plucking." According to his close advisor, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's plan was to maintain an image as "a tough, courageous, masculine leader." The never-ending Nixon tapes actually catch Nixon talking with aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman about an episode in the popular television show All in the Family in which the working-class Archie Bunker confronts an old buddy, a former football player, who has just come out of the closet as gay. Nixon then recounts on tape how civilizations decline when homosexuality rises, and concludes, "We have to stand up to this." As Cowie sums it up, "It was neither the entire working class nor its material grievances on which the administration would focus; rather it was the 'feeling of being forgotten' among white male workers that Nixon and his advisors would seek to tap."
Until Nixon, Republicans had for a century written off the blue-collar voter. But turning Marx on his head, Nixon appealed not to a desire for real economic change but to the distress caused by the absence of it. And Nixon's strategy worked for him, just as it's doing again now. In the l972 contest between Nixon and McGovern, 57 percent of the manual worker vote and 54 percent of the union vote went to Nixon. (This meant 22 and 25-point gains for Nixon over his l968 presidential run.) After Nixon, other Republican presidents -- Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr. -- followed in the same footsteps, although not always so cleverly.
Now Bush Jr. is pursuing a sequel strategy by again appealing to the emotions of male blue-collar voters. Only he's adding a new element to the mix. Instead of appealing, as Nixon did, to anger at economic decline, Bush is appealing to fear of economic displacement, and offering the Nascar Dad a set of villains to blame, and a hero to thank: George W. Bush.
Let's begin by re-imagining the blue-collar man, for we do not normally think of him as a fearful man. The very term "Nascar Dad," like the earlier term "Joe Six-Pack," suggests somewhat dismissively, an "I'm-alright-Jack" kind of guy. We imagine him with his son, some money in his pocket, in the stands with the other guys rooting for his favorite driver and car. The term doesn't call to mind a restless house-husband or a despondent divorcee living back in his parents' house and seeing his kids every other weekend. In other words, the very image we start with may lead us away from clues to his worldview, his feelings, his politics and the links between these.
Since the l970s, the blue-collar man has taken a lot of economic hits. The buying power of his paycheck, the size of his benefits, the security of his job -- all these have diminished. As Ed Landry, a 62-year-old-machinist interviewed by Paul Solman on the Lehrer News Hour said, "We went to lunch and our jobs went to China." He searched for another job and couldn't find one. He was even turned down for a job as a grocery bagger. "I was told that we'd get back to you." "Did they?" Solman asked. "No. I couldn't believe it myself. I couldn't get the job." In today's jobless recovery, the average jobless stint for a man like Landry is now 19 weeks, the longest since l983. Jobs that don't even exist at present may eventually open up, experts reassure us, but they aren't opening up yet. In the meantime, three out of every four available jobs are low-level service jobs. A lot of workers like Ed Landry, cast out of one economic sector, have been unable to land a job even at the bottom of another.
For anyone who stakes his pride on earning an honest day's pay, this economic fall is, unsurprisingly enough, hard to bear. How do these blue-collar men feel about it? Ed Landry said he felt "numb." Others are anxious, humiliated and -- as who wouldn't be? -- fearful. But in cultural terms, Nascar Dad isn't supposed to feel afraid.
What he can feel, however, is angry. As Susan Faludi has described so well in her book Stiffed, that is what many such men feel. As a friend who works in a Maine lumber mill among blue-collar Republicans explained about his co-workers, "They felt that everyone else -- women, kids, minorities -- were all moving up, and they felt like they were moving down. Even the spotted owl seemed like it was on its way up, while he and his job, were on the way down. And he's angry."
Let Them Eat War -- But is that anger directed downward -- at "welfare cheats," women and immigrants -- or is it aimed up at job exporters and rich tax dodgers? Or out at alien enemies? The answer is likely to depend on the political turn of the screw. The Republicans are clearly doing all they can to aim that anger down or out, but in any case away from the rich beneficiaries of Bush's tax cut. Unhinging the personal from the political, playing on identity politics, Republican strategists have offered the blue-collar voter a Faustian bargain: We'll lift your self-respect by putting down women, immigrants, even those spotted owls. We'll honor the manly fortitude you've shown in taking bad news. But (and this is implicit) don't ask us to do anything to change that bad news. Instead of Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake," we have -- and this is Bush's twist on the old Nixonian strategy -- "let them eat war."
Paired with this is an aggressive right-wing attempt to mobilize blue-collar fear, resentment and a sense of being lost -- and attach it to the fear of American vulnerability, American loss. By doing so, Bush aims to win the blue-collar man's identification with big business, empire and himself. The resentment anyone might feel at the personnel officer who didn't have the courtesy to call him back and tell him he didn't have the job, Bush now redirects toward the target of Osama bin Laden, and when we can't find him, Saddam Hussein and when we can't find him. ... These enemies are so familiar that we see them close up on the small screen in our bedrooms and call them by their first names.
Whether strutting across a flight deck or mocking the enemy, Bush, with his seemingly fearless bravado -- ironically born of class entitlement -- offers an aura of confidence. And this confidence dampens, even if temporarily, the feelings of insecurity and fear exacerbated by virtually every major domestic and foreign policy initiative of the Bush administration. Maybe it comes down to this: George W. Bush is deregulating American global capitalism with one hand while regulating the feelings it produces with the other. He speaks to a working man's lost pride and his fear of the future by offering an image of fearlessness. He poses here in his union jacket, there in his pilot's jumpsuit, taunting the Iraqis to "bring 'em on" -- all of it meant to feed something in the heart of a frightened man. In this light, even Bush's "bad boy" past is a plus.
But there is a chance all this won't work. For one thing, the war may turn out to have been a bad idea. For another thing, working men may smell a skunk. Many of them may resent those they think have emerged from the pack behind them and are now getting ahead, and they may fear for their future. But they may also come to question whether they've been offered Osama bin Laden as a stand-in for the many unfixed problems they face. They may wonder whether their own emotions aren't just one more natural resource the Republicans are exploiting for their profit.
What we urgently need now, of course, is a presidential candidate who addresses the root causes of blue-collar anger and fear and who actually tackles the problems before us all, instead of pandering to the emotions that bad times evoke.
Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Second Shift, The Time Bind and a collection of essays, The Commercialization of Intimate Life. This essay first appeared on tomdispatch.com.
Publication date: 10/30/03