Why half of blue-collar men support Bush
Bush appeals to their feelings of losing status, being marginalized -- while helping to make that happen.
Leave No NASCAR Dad Behind
December 19, 2003
"Ironically, the sector of American society now poised to keep George Bush in the White House is the one which stands to lose the most from virtually all of his policies - blue-collar men. A full 49 percent of them and 38 percent percent of blue-collar women told a January 2003 Roper poll they would vote for Bush in 2004."
- Arlie Hochschild
Perhaps the central paradox for a Democratic presidential candidate is figuring out how to attract some of the 50 percent of blue-collar workers who might vote for Bush. Howard Dean awkwardly addressed the issue when he referred to the need to attract guys with "Confederate flag bumper stickers." Dean used the wrong metaphor, but he was correct in identifying a key election challenge for the Democrats.
In her recent article, Let Them Eat War, Hochschild doesn't mince words: Bush's "policy - and this his political advisor Karl Rove has carefully calibrated - is something like the old bait-and-switch. He continues to take the steaks out of the blue-collar refrigerator and to declare instead, 'let them eat war.' He has been, in effect, strip-mining the emotional responses of blue-collar men to the problems his own administration is so intent on causing."
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."
In "Let Them Eat War," you say that Bush - and I quote - "continues to take the steaks out of the blue-collar refrigerator and to declare instead, 'let them eat war.'" Can you explain how this bait-and-switch basically works?
Arlie Hochschild: Let me back up first before I answer that, though, so I can nail down some poll results. They came as a bit of a surprise to me. A full 49 percent of blue-collar men and 38 percent of blue-collar women indicated in a January '03 Roper poll that they would vote for Bush in 2004. We can now compare that to the smaller proportion of pro-Bush professionals and managers. 40 percent of male and 32 percent of female professionals and managers plan to vote for Bush.
So if we compare occupational groups, blue-collar workers are more in favor of Bush than the white-collar sector. If we compare educational groups, we find the same thing. High school graduates and dropouts are more pro-Bush than people with graduate degrees. And if we compare income groups, we find people with family incomes of $30,000 or less are no more opposed to Bush - about the same - as those with incomes of $75,000 or more.
The surprise is that the people most hurt by Bush's policies are his strongest supporters. We know that there have been 2.5 million jobs lost in his presidency. He's kind of got a "bleed 'em dry" approach to the non-Pentagon part of government spending. He's not doing anything to help blue-collar workers learn new trades, or get a house, or help their kids go to college. He's loosening the Occupation Health and Safety regulations. The plants the guys work at are less safe. His agricultural policies are putting small farmers out of business. So we have to ask: why would they vote Republican?
Tax cuts are creating budget shortfalls for the schools the guy's kids go to. The library hours are shorter. And, given Bush putting the foxes in the henhouse in environmental posts, the air and water are going to get dirtier. Kids are more likely to get asthma. He's even loosening regulations for nursing homes, so the man's elderly parents are going to have worse care in their later days. All of Bush's military adventures - the ones he's already done in Iraq, and perhaps Iran and Syria, impact the blue-collar guy more than anyone else. His kids are going to go, or his brother is going to go, or he's going to go and possibly be killed.
And yet this blue-collar guy's more likely to be for these wars. Do you think we should go into Syria? There was an item in a poll on that. A blue-collar guy is more likely to say "yes" than the professional or managerial guy who's less likely to go or see his kids go off to war.
So I'm looking at this data and it's a surprise that 50 percent of blue collar males don't seem to be voting in - what we might think they would see as - their self-interest.
Well, what is it? You identify a sort of an emotional trade-off, basically, that the blue-collar support of Bush isn't based on facts; indeed, many of these blue-collar males are aware of the facts. But Bush is offering something else. He's offering them, as you say, confidence in reestablishing their role in the center of the patriarchal world.
AH: Right. And this is a delicate point to try to get across. I think we all have feelings and they all can get appealed to. It doesn't mean a person is stupid if their feelings are getting appealed to. But I do think that this is going on, and that there's a kind of a dilemma here that the blue-collar guy, since the '70s on, has been suffering a giant economic downward slide. His paycheck is worth less. His job has become less secure. His benefits have been carved down. And all of this is bad, bad news for him. His wife's had to go to work, and now, 30 years later, the two of them earn what he alone would have earlier earned.
With this economic hit has come a cultural hit. Now I think it's a worldwide story, a kind of economic undermining of patriarchal customs and expectations. And so, with this economic decline may come marital instability - a lot of hard things have hit this guy. And so how he feels psychologically becomes a really important question. And I think the story is that he believes - whether it's true or not - that a lot of people have come up from behind him. Women have come from behind. Minorities have come from behind and gotten ahead; immigrants, new arrivals, have come from behind and have gotten ahead. Even the spotted owl - a lot of them are not environmentalists because they think somebody's now putting animal rights over their human rights. As he's sliding down, he imagines all these groups moving up.
And a very understandable thing to do is to look at them and want them to go back where they came from. The feeling is one of frustration, fear, anger. What he's not doing is looking at Bush, the guy at the top, who's rigging the whole economic game, and who's not doing a thing to support him, and who's actually deflecting blame away from the top. So it comes down to this: those feelings that come with a kind of loss of position, income and status among blue-collar males are being exploited instead of addressed.
In this age, when liberals are accused of being politically correct, the right-wing movement is probably even more of a practitioner of political correctness on many accounts. And Bush can't communicate directly to the white male about how he stands for the white male being on top, so there's a lot of coding going on, it seems. And much of this is subliminal, because Bush can't say, well, I keep Laura in her place, but -
AH: You never see her. She's in a lockbox.
And she's always walking behind him and is carefully scripted to say as little as possible. If she says anything, it's once or twice a month, and it's a sentence or two, or maybe a highly controlled interview. In their relationship, she symbolizes the woman who is always deferential to the husband. And Bush himself, although he comes from entitlement, in many ways he shows that the more he fails, the more secure maybe white males feel who are feeling uncomfortable with their position, because he's still the President of the United States. It is a reinforcement of all of the white males - that no matter how much they screw up, they're still head of the family.
AH: I think that's a really very perceptive remark. Bush is a kind of a Dagwood, you know? However awkward and wrong-headed, he's still the head of the family.
That may be reassuring to blue-collar males. I won't be just thrown out of my family if I cheat, or if I spend my money drinking, because I'll come back and ultimately I'm the head of the family and I'll be forgiven. It's a patriarchal archetype that the male head of the household is always forgiven his failings.
AH: Bush is the upper-class mess-up who ends up on top anyway. It is subliminal: If you mess up, don't worry. The reason that becomes important, I think, is that we live in a culture of individualism. And if you lose a job, it's your fault you lost the job. It's your credit if you do well, and your fault if you do badly. And so for him to be the mess-up that gets ahead anyway is sort of an end-run around this whole burdensome ideology of individualism.
So it's a triumph of white males through all this adversity of civil rights, "quota systems" for minorities and feminism. There's a man who's been a complete screw-up, and now he's President of the United States. I'm a blue-collar male and I don't care if he's wealthy. He's standing up for the white guy being the head of the household and the decision maker.
AH: And that might become all the more important if he begins to feel it's all he's got left. And Bush represents it - since it sure doesn't look like he's earned his title. Look at Bush's adolescence and young adulthood - it's really extended until he was 40. He was careening around in Daddy's car, getting tickets for drunken driving, stealing the wreath off the Macy's front door. He was dragging a garbage can from a neighbor's driveway down the street and careening around.
He's still careening around. That's what he's doing in Iraq - careening around. We are the neighbor's garbage can; he's dragging us with him.
But how that gets to be an asset subliminally for this important swing vote group is that you can mess up and still end up on top. He's not providing any policies to help that happen. That is the sleight of hand. He's actually making the workingman's life a thousand times harder.
That's the key to your commentary, "Let Them Eat War" - whether or not a male blue-collar worker realizes it, on a conscious level or not, that he is trading off his individual well-being. Bush is hurting this guy's well being on all number of fronts - job loss, elimination of overtime pay, reduction in future Social Security, future Medicare costs, long-term care and support, et cetera. Bush is basically adopting a policy of taking as much as he can for the business cronies who support him by taking away income from the workingman. Still, 50 percent support him because he's a white guy and he represents the triumph of the white guy in a world that's threatening to him.
AH: If you just take what's happening to the blue-collar guy's kids with Bush's "Children Left Behind" policy, as I would call it, he's basically penalizing schools that have failing kids. If those schools have kids who continue to fail, they get even less funding than they now get. He's actually going to redistribute funds away from the very schools and kids that need it the most, and a lot of those are blue-collar kids. So Bush is taking the future as well as the present away from these blue-collar men. And it's all to sell them a fairy tale.
To sell them a fairy tale of a lost world where the white male was king.
AH: Where your personal bravado will win out despite declining times - about which Bush does nothing.
He's picking their pockets but saying to them - with a wink and a nod, in politically correct code words and symbols - like that all-male signing of the late-term abortion bill, where only white males were present - the white guys are in charge here. "Notice there's no women," Bush is coding to them. "We're reigning them in, but not officially - we're going to say we're all for women."
And then a wink, a wink and a nod.
And the white blue-collar worker for Bush says that's fine, and 50 percent of the blue-collar workers say I need psychological reassurance more than I need...
AH: More than I need the home loans, more than I need my kids to have a good school, more than I need the library open for more than two hours a day, more than I need a safe neighborhood or a safe playground, more than I need better staff-patient ratios in the nursing home I send my parents to - more than all that.
Let me quote from your commentary: "George W. Bush is deregulating American global capitalism with one hand while regulating the feelings it produces with the other. Or, to put it another way, he is doing nothing to change the causes of fear and everything to channel the feeling and expression of it. He speaks to a working man's lost pride and his fear of the future by offering an image of fearlessness."
The very feelings that are causing the anxiety among that 50 percent of the blue-collar males, Bush is only worsening, while at the same time, he's luring them to vote for him by offering them the emotional security of being a screw-up white-male who remains on top and gets to wear the trappings of a "real man," even though he avoided serving in Vietnam and went AWOL.
AH: That's a very good summary of it. I think it's a giant hoax.
How does Rush Limbaugh play into this? He's an essential factor, his drug addiction aside.
AH: Oh, he's huge. He's the push-from-behind guy for three hours a day, nationwide, often during commuter time. We are really subjected to a certain emotional tone of resentment - a recounting of the latest political news in resentment-drenched language. Actually, my husband and I were in Maine this summer, and I did a lot of commuting back and forth and I listened to Rush Limbaugh a lot. And you know what's really interesting is where he puts his anger, and where he doesn't put it. He is the cheerleader for George Bush. In fact, George isn't right wing enough for Rush Limbaugh.
Here is what he will do: He let Halliburton go. Dick Cheney's company has, without any bidding, gotten multi-billion dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq. No bidding? A private contract? This really is kind of immoral cronyism. (In fact, the New York Times today reports that Halliburton is charging twice what other companies charge to truck Kuwaiti fuel into Iraq). Well, not a word from Rush Limbaugh about Halliburton. He's not angry about that. Nothing said about that contract. But when it comes to talk about Hillary Clinton's new book, he lambastes her up and down and around. He said, regarding Wellesley College - I cannot even stand to go on that campus, not even close to that campus, because it produces women like Hillary Clinton.
So, what do we have? We have a benign pass and wink for Halliburton - no anger there. And we have this fury at the campus surrounding the college that produced women like Hillary Clinton. We drop the bomb on Hillary Clinton and say nothing about top-level malfeasance.
That is part of the emotional climate that stirs up the understandably hurt feelings of downwardly mobile blue-collar men. And there's a whole hemorrhage in the economic sector which has provided them jobs. That is a structural reality. We really need a Marshall Plan response to it. The blue-collar guy's upset; he has a right to be upset. We are with him on that. I'm upset too.
It's not his fault that industrial jobs are going to China and Indonesia. We need a structural answer to a structural problem. But instead of that, the blue-collar guy feels privately bad. And the worst side of his bad feelings is being appealed to by Bush.
As you pointed out, Rush Limbaugh is essential to this sort of strategy, because Rush Limbaugh is sort of the guy who works up the crowd to a frenzy. He does what Bush can't officially do, which is appeal to all the demagogic instincts one can do, and all the showmanship. He basically scapegoats intelligent women, to make Hillary Clinton the source of all the problems America faces. It's ludicrous.
AH: Yes, Limbaugh is working up the crowd, inspiring anger, fixing blame on women - especially working women and the very wives that are holding up the families these blue-collar guys are members of. And he's switching it to a kind of market evangelism. Everything about the market is good, so he's getting the blue-collar guy to escape his problems by focusing on the wonders and magic of the market. He's even said he's really hostile to environmentalism - what do we care about spotted owls and butterflies, he asks. The only bird that matters is the Kentucky Fried Chicken, because we eat chickens and we buy chickens. Only those animals matter. So let's protect them and nothing else.
But he doesn't point out, of course, that the Bush Administration fixes the market so only its supporters get fat contracts. There is no free market, as we imagine it. The Bush Cartel is all crony contracts for campaign contributions. Entrepreneurialism and fair market practices don't get rewarded in the Bush model of pay-to-play fat cats.
AH: Exactly. And Limbaugh doesn't point out that the very people who are outsourcing jobs to Third World countries and leaving high pools of unemployed in our country sing the praises of the free market.
Elimination of overtime required pay. He doesn't point any of this out.
AH: Right. And a reduction in benefits, and job instability - this whole flexible-ization - "we'll give you a half-time job and I won't tell you exactly when it's going to be and how long it'll last. And the wages will be half of what they were five years ago, but you're lucky to have a job. We won't count you as unemployed." All of that is happening due to the so-called free market. And Rush Limbaugh is making it the God, the solution. He's getting the forgotten guy to identify with the CEO of Halliburton, and forgetting that this very market has been rigged to the disadvantage of the working person.
Limbaugh is kind of like the guy who's claiming he caught a mugger (who is just some poor sucker who accidentally was passing by and looked disheveled) and the crowd gathers around. While Limbaugh claims that "We've got to lynch the man who's been picking pockets in the neighborhood" - as he latches on to some hapless soul by the scruff of the neck - the Bush administration, meanwhile, is picking everyone's pocket in the audience.
Let me ask you one more question. I know you're a sociologist, and this may be too speculative, but in your commentary you use the term "NASCAR Dad," which is a popular term in this campaign season. Let's assume that's what Howard Dean meant when he said the guy with the Confederate flag bumper sticker on the back of his pickup truck shouldn't be overlooked by Democrats.
It's probably almost certain if the Democrats can make significant inroads in this split-down-the-middle white male blue-collar vote, the Democratic candidate would win the next election. How does a Democratic candidate stand up for universal rights - including for women and minorities - and for a secular society, and still be able to access at least some percentage of that blue-collar, white male vote that's going to Bush because of insecurities about those very issues?
AH: By appealing to the blue-collar guy's better half, by appealing to his good side. And by exposing this hoax.
I think that the Democrats can appeal to the blue-collar man or the - I won't call him a NASCAR Dad, but the blue-collar voter, male voter - by saying, "You've been exposed to a giant hoax, and here's what the hoax is. It is offering you a make-believe candied apple with one hand and picking your pocket with the other hand. And take your own feelings back. They're yours. And put them behind a vote for someone who's going to really solve your problems. Set about seriously setting up a domestic agenda that makes a difference to you."
This series of wars that's an imperial stretch into the Middle East - how does that help the blue-collar man, except for killing his relatives? The Democrats can say that's Bush's war. That's not a U.S. war. It has nothing to do with U.S. security. In fact, it's a whole "tap the hornet's nest" approach to international relations which makes us all a great deal less safe. So tell the blue-collar guy that this is a giant ruse and a scapegoating.
And someone's picking your pocket and it's the Bush Administration.
AH: It's the Bush Administration. I think Dean is plainspoken. He can just say that.
I don't know. The Democrats have, for the past 20 years, it seems, been unable to call the Republicans' bluff. They tiptoe around this hoax without calling it on the carpet like it is.
AH: There's been a whole hug-the-middle strategy of the Democratic Leadership Council, and that worked for Clinton. But it's not going to work for anybody after Clinton. I think the Democrats have got to go in the opposite direction - stop hugging the middle. Get out there behind the issues we really believe in. And I guess along with that we have to enliven a vision of what life would be like if we weren't just privately rich, but rather, all publicly rich. If we really had great schools, and great playgrounds, and great public hospitals, and then there wouldn't be such a desperate scramble to be privately well off.
This is the ultimate thing - not to be afraid to say there's another America that doesn't leave us hanging, each on our own, and then feeling bad about feeling bad, and that says we can structurally wire it so there aren't failures here. That's the problem we've got to fix - by providing a vision of an alternative.
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