Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why Obama fails to connect with working-class voters

Writing in the Guardian, American sociologist Richard Sennett explains why Obama's biography and message does not resonate better with working-class Americans:
One thing I've learned about political messages targeted at the working class is that declaring "the system has screwed you" is likely to backfire. It casts the listener into the role of victim, a role which workers find demeaning. Better crafted political language is more impersonal, as in "there's something wrong with the system"; such messages treat everyone as in the same boat.

One issue the Obama campaign needs to think through is that the mantra of "change you can believe in" runs up against a streak of fatalism in the American working class. This fatalism has a particular cast. Lower-level workers tend to be treated on the job as invisible. The centre-left agenda for reform has seldom focused on such bread-and-butter issues as better vocational schools, insurance against industrial accidents, or skills-development programmes for salesmen, secretaries and clerks; these issues don't register on the political radar just because they are so ordinary, so boring, so unexciting. The fatalism of American workers emerges as a result: those who say they are on your side don't see you.

The right has done nothing more substantial for these workers, but it has offered two cultural substitutes: nationalism and nostalgia. To make "change you can believe in" credible, the changes have to be more concrete.

Working-class Americans are not only invisible to the political parties, their interests and needs are similarly ignored by the news media.

For a campaign strategy that succeeds with these voters, Sennett believes Obama needs to be "focusing on what workers do, rather than on who they are."


  1. Unoions are adequately represented. What bugs me is the way Americans use and rely on the services of thousands of workers who are paid minimum wage or a few dollars more and are just ignored or overlooked. Imagine going into a public washroom that hasnt be cleaned for even one day. How much gratituse is shown to the people, mostly women who ring up your groceries. Look.... someone has to do these jobs. The solutions of education, job training dont apply. Respect this work and pay accordingly, to these vital services which are just as importnt as plumbers, carpenters, nurses,etc.

  2. ML Johnstone,

    Short of new laws that make it easier for workers to start unions, I don't think WalMart and other companies are likely to increase pay for these workers. Can you see any alternative?

  3. So sorry about my typos. I am actually a very good speller but have a sticky key laptop.
    I also need to research existing laws to find out what can be done.
    I live in BC, canada. Hospital workers, who keep the hygeine happening in hospitals were forced to go from $17.00 an hour to $11.00.
    The big unions were not active on this. They tend to support only the other big unions.
    People could give their local cashier, low wage server a monthly donation.Basically a TIP! A way to say: Thank you for your service!

  4. I see. Just like the practice in Europe with the WC attendant.

    Nevertheless, many of those most deserving of better pay serve clients least able to tip. For example, those who provide mental health services to the homeless.

  5. The problem of depending on tipping to make up an inadequate wage is at least twofold,as I see it.
    First,it puts the user and the provider of the service in an adversarial position right off the bat. A tip is intended as a reward for exemplary service,what is well above and beyond the requirements of doing one's job adequately. To have to expect it as part of wage compensation brings it into the realm of tribute,and adds an element of extortion.
    Secondly, it takes the moral and ethical onus off the employer to pay an adequate wage, and forces the customer or client to accept the responsibility of being a surrogate employer. I think that the practice of a mandatory tip being included in a bill for a restaurant meal, for example, is shameful. It should be an admission that the employer is too cheap or greedy to pay his workers an adequate, livable wage and should expose them to public censure and ridicule.


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