Traditionally, Americans are big believers in the dignity of work. Being unemployed is felt to be shameful while anyone who works for a living, no matter how humble the job, can feel proud.
Republicans have corroded this view with an endless focus on the rich. People who work hard but don’t earn much are losers. Instead, we need to focus on the “job creators,” which seems to mean giving wealthy people ever more tax breaks and cutting basic services for average Americans in the manner of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
Democrats have tried to take advantage of this with attacks on the rich but have often gone about it in ways that unthinkingly alienate the very people that they’re trying to attract. Many Democrats routinely describe all sorts of jobs as lousy for their low pay and status, or failure to allow much in the way of advancement.
Using McDonald’s employees or fast-food workers as bywords for jobs that stink unintentionally insults thousands and doesn’t acknowledge that these jobs actually require skills and ability to work under pressure. Calls for retraining workers and making it easier to obtain more education are laudable ideas. However, telling people that they need to do it so they can obtain “better” jobs comes across as patronizing at an incredibly stressful time, especially since many of the new jobs pay less than the lost jobs.
Parking attendants know that they work for low pay in a dark environment with too much pollution. For many in their situation, however, this may be as far as they end up going for a variety of reasons—not all related to lack of opportunity. They do these jobs year in and year out because it puts bread on the table and in the hope that their kids can do better. Even if they could use a helping hand, they want to retain their dignity and their respect.
There is a fine line between helping people improve their lives and denigrating the jobs they take to support their families. People who work in “lousy” jobs already know about the low pay and status. Just as they don’t need Republicans to tell them they’re chumps, they also don’t need Democrats saying their jobs are bad or somehow not good enough, which quickly gets read that they are not good enough.
A great part of Trump’s success was making whites who work these jobs feel respected in execrable identity terms that communicate that they are the “real” Americans and should come ahead of “those” people and snooty elites of both parties. Obviously, Democrats shouldn’t emulate this approach. A core Democratic belief is that we’re all real Americans.
But at the same time, Democrats have to find a way to communicate more respect for these jobs and the people who hold them. Democratic presidents from Clinton to Obama have heralded the many Americans who work two jobs to support their families, which is a good start though not a solution to this knotty problem.
It’s also not a quick fix for the bigger problem that many Americans feel that they are falling behind no matter how hard they work. The Republican approach now centers on gutting health care, tax cuts, and making Archie Bunker look tolerant, so Democrats have a real opening if they don’t unintentionally denigrate the voters.