Betsy Leondar-Wright: “Liberals need to get the elitism out of their messages.”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Wednesday night, Betsy Leondar-Wright gave a lecture entitled “Bridging the Blue-Red Divide: Untangling Class in the Midterm Election.” Leondar-Wright is on the board of Class Action, a non-profit that educates about class issues, and author of the book “Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists.”

She began her talk by discussing the recent midterm elections and the ways in which the results of those elections have been explained. She said that while watching analysts on television, “I always feel that class is under the surface but never spoken.” She gave the example of “John Kerry and the botched joke.” He was supposed to say “Stay in school and study hard or you’ll get us stuck in Iraq,” but he accidentally left out the “us,” and the story that John Kerry had insulted the military was shortly all over the media. Kerry’s staff explained that it was a “botched joke,” but Leondar-Wright believes that “this was not a botched joke, this was a Freudian slip… this was revealing his actual attitude about people with less economic opportunities than him.”

Kerry is a perfect example of a politician who “cannot pull off the public persona that’s required for running for office… you have to pretend you have folksy roots.” This “just plain folks” shtick has been going on for a long time, said Leondar-Wright, who pointed to the William Henry Harrison’s 1840 “log cabin and apple cider” campaign and Ronald Reagan as examples. Conservatives have long appealed to populist themes, but Leondar-Wright characterized this strategy as “deceptive right-wing populism… if you’re going to overcome it, you have to understand where it comes from and how it works.”

She identified three important components of right-wing populism. It comes from the fact that “politicians can count,” it’s pulled off by “an overemphasis on social issues,” and liberals have a difficult time overcoming it because of their own classism.

Politicians can count, and they know that the majority of the electorate is lower-middle or working class. Only 26% of adults have a BA degree or more, surveys where people self-define show that “forty-five percent are consistently working-class,” and “about sixty-five percent of employees are in working class jobs.” Politicians position themselves to be like the voters they are appealing to, and “when it’s false, sometimes it’s a skillful fake and sometimes it’s a laughably bad fake.”

Even when a politician does have working-class roots, “being part of an oppressed group does not mean your actions will be in that group’s interests.” Leondar-Wright gave Bill Clinton and the working class, Clarence Thomas and blacks, and Margaret Thatcher and women as examples. “You need to be skeptical of people who say ‘Elect me, I’m just like you.'”

All parts of the political spectrum have an incentive to “keep social issues in the spotlight and keep economic issues off the table, because they are all beholden to wealthy people and corporations to get in office.” This strategy works particularly well for Republicans, said Leondar-Wright, because working-class people generally are conservative on social issues and liberal on economic issues, and upper-middle-class and rich people are generally conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues.

After plotting these positions on a chart, Leondar-Wright asked her audience, “Who decided which of these gets called the conservative position? If someone is anti-abortion but pro raising the minimum wage, what are they? Why are social issues the issues that get to define politics?” She said that college-educated liberals need to realize that “if you put economic issues on the table, there’s all this progressive potential in the working class… there’s a lot of potential for cross-class unity if you stick to the economic issues.”

Analysts have been saying that the Democrats did well in the midterm elections because they ran a lot of social conservatives, but she claimed that “the way Democrats won was putting economic populism first,” pointing to examples such as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Jim Webb in Virginia. The data supports this, showing that half of the people who swung from Republican to Democrat this election were working class white males and fifteen percent were Latino.

She claimed that the people who made up “the bulk of Republican resurgence from 1960 to 2000” were “white, non-union, non-college-educated men…. they did not become anti-government but they did become disappointed in government.” This is because from 1979 to 2000, the median income of working-class white men actually fell. “Their belief in the redistributive powers of the government disappeared because they actually slid backwards… if there was a Democratic platform that would help them as well, they would jump on board.”

According to Leondar-Wright, “the right is more commonly in the position to betray working class economic issues,” so why have the Democrats had trouble capitalizing on their economic issues with the working class? She argued that “working-class people are unlikely to vote for people who remind them of the condescending authority figures in their lives.” When doing research for her book, she asked forty people to fill in the sentence “Middle class activists drive me crazy when…” and found that an overwhelming number working class people resented the “book learning” and “superiority” that college educated liberals projected.

If liberals want to build a cross-class movement, “we have to remember that we have power over our classism, but we don’t have power over their classism.” The right has had an easy time building the picture of snooty over-educated liberals “in part because upper-class liberals often act classist and rude… our discourse gets nastier when we’re talking about the lower class.” As an example, she pointed to November 2004, when Bush was re-elected and liberals couldn’t stop talking about how “stupid” Bush voters were.

“If you take away four words from this presentation,” stressed Leondar-Wright, “these should be them: Don’t Call Bush Stupid!” She argued that through our culture and educational system, “every working class person has been insulted by being told that they are stupid… when American voters call Bush dumb, they’re positioning themselves as the know-it-all that the people I interviewed hate.” In her view, liberals need to recognize that working class people “have strengths that are essential to building a movement… we need to do a lot more looking for commonalities and doing so in respectful ways, getting the elitism out of our messages and working on the classism that a lot of us have.”

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