Private Heroism and Public Purpose

The progressive economic narrative today begins with the stagnation and growing inequality that characterizes this period of change and possibility. That seems a natural enough starting point. Throughout this century, progressive movements have found their purpose in capitalism's failure to deliver on its promises to ordinary citizens. Once again, this is the central challenge of our own time.

While the best-educated and global entrepreneurs are prospering, the great majority of voters face stagnant incomes; blue-collar workers face income decline. According to the congressional Democrats' policy chief, David Obey of Wisconsin, this has pushed "frustration to new peaks because families have run out of ways to cope."

Unfortunately, the public has been little moved by the progressive analysis and expressions of concern. Overall, voters are somewhat more inclined to trust the Republicans on the economy (43 to 36 percent, according to an Emily's List national survey in May 1996), and within the working-class and lower-middle-class electorate—the presumptive audience for a progressive critique of the economy—the Republicans are clearly ascendant. White, blue-collar men think the Republicans are much better at handling the economy (by 11 points, 48 percent to 37 percent). But even white women in blue-collar, sales, and clerical jobs and other low-wage occupations favor the Republicans on these material issues: by 8 points on handling the economy and 14 on ensuring economic security. What is going on?

The problem, as my focus-group research for the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union indicates, is that progressives do not adequately understand the lives and struggles of working- and middle-class families. It is not that these voters share the conservatives' view of a successful market economy. The working middle class knows all too well that the economy is stagnant for them—that growth is too anemic to generalize its bounty and that jobs no longer offer the pay increases or advancement that raise living standards. But working Americans have hardly given up. They have thrown themselves into a personal and somewhat lonely struggle to pull their families up the ladder to a better life, despite the income stagnation that surrounds them. They are scrambling to work longer hours and more jobs, to get skills training, to form independent businesses. They are drawing upon their own attitudes and values, their family, and church. As they see things, they get little help from an economy that seems content with flaccid wage increases, from employers who are no longer loyal to their employees, or from a government that is indifferent to the ordinary citizen except at tax time.

The central drama of our economy is the success of working people making a better life for their families, despite the odds, despite the stagnation and the loneliness of the struggle. Working America is full of heroes. Progressives, however, continue to tell a bleak story about slow income growth, inequality, corporate irresponsibility, about terrible odds facing working people—all of which is true. In the process, progressives have failed to notice that the real story is the heroism—the personal struggle of working people who are succeeding despite the odds.

Whether progressives recapture the loyalties of working America depends on whether they understand this drama and the heroism, and fashion a narrative and program that places the lives of working people once again at the center of progressive politics.


These noncollege-educated working- and middle-class voters believe their wages are stagnant and they are scrambling to pay the bills, just as the progressives expect. The real world of working people is a world without raises. The notion of stagnant "real wages" is not a theoretical concept. For the mass of downscale voters, it is simply the way the world now works: One does not get raises that matter, unless one works longer hours, a higher-paying shift, or an additional job.

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Downscale voters see themselves as caught in the "money situation." These individuals live in an economic world full of rising taxes, prices, and bills that create debt and deplete savings. Groceries are going up, and so are the co-payments for health care; and, of course, "the taxes are going up, everything's just getting higher and higher." So the measure of well-being in this new economy has been reduced to the simple conclusion that "we've been paying our bills," "we've been making the bills." When you are covering the bills, you are successfully caring for your family.

For a majority of these noncollege voters—55 percent—the goal in life is simply "security" or "self-sufficiency." Another quarter want "a better life," but that may be no more than getting ahead of the bills. Barely 20 percent talk about "prosperity." The economic horizons have been lowered because life for working- and middle-class America has become "a scramble." In the words of a noncollege-educated woman from Wisconsin:

Nine years ago, I was getting paid $8.50, $9.00 an hour. That was a union job. I'm really sickened when I think of jobs and the possibility that I would have to go and possibly to a . . . temporary agency because that is the most insulting job that you can have, in pay, dignity, and it's like what you have to do to raise your family. And I know, there are times I had three jobs just to raise my 20-year old.

People are clearly piecing together multiple jobs, working longer hours and overtime, juggling bills, starting new jobs, and starting new businesses to try to create good times for themselves. They are able to scramble because the economy is generating a lot of jobs, but the result is not "good times," just the opportunity to scramble.

Yet despite the raiseless economy, the money situation, and the scramble, these working- and middle-class voters believe their overall economic position is improving and taking them just above the average American. That is the paradox of living standards and the key to understanding how people view our current economy. On the one hand, they believe that people no longer get wage increases that matter at work and that the overall economy is failing to lift all boats. On the other hand, they believe they are achieving a higher living standard and better life for their families, because of their own personal efforts and the choices and sacrifices that they are making.

In our focus groups, we presented the participants with a ladder, with zero representing the lowest possible living standard, and ten, the highest rung, representing the highest; the fifth rung was the midpoint. Participants were asked to locate themselves right now and then to locate themselves five years from now. They were asked to locate the average American right now and, again, five years from now. Finally, they were asked to locate where their children would stand at a comparable point in life.

Both the noncollege men and noncollege women place themselves just above the average (at 5.5 and 5.8, respectively). But more important, they do not see themselves as stuck. They expect to see their living standards rise over the next five years—for the noncollege men, up to 6.7, and for noncollege women, to 7.3. Those are big jumps and, on the face of it, not very consistent with the reported stagnation of wages and struggles with bills and money.

At the same time, these noncollege voters view the "average American" as just below average—about 4.7 on the ladder. But unlike the survey participants, the average American is not going anywhere. In five years, he or she rises only a fraction of a rung to the exact midpoint, 5.0. The living standards of average Americans are seen as simply stagnant.

The noncollege participants expect their children to reach a point close to where they themselves are now, though usually below their own expectations for the next five years. That is not a bleak scenario, though it hardly fits historic notions of successive generations, each a step closer to realizing the "American dream."

With the odds so long and the stagnation so pervasive, how does it happen that people believe they are achieving a better life for their families?

We asked people to explain their family's ascent up the ladder, and they describe a personal and somewhat heroic narrative of people struggling on their own and making choices that enable their family to achieve a better life. This has little to do with economic growth or a rising median income. This is about individual effort that indeed can produce more material prosperity.

  • People expect to raise their living standards by working longer hours, doing overtime, or working at multiple jobs.
  • Many intend to get the education, skills, or certification to get a job that pays more.
  • Many think about becoming self-employed, creating their own business, or helping their spouse who is trying to set up a business on the side.
  • Nearly everybody presumes that when the children reach school age, the women (or wives) will go back to work and will be able to bring in more money.
  • Later on, when the children have "moved out of the house" or when the "kids are raised," the women will have the "freedom to take a job."
  • When the kids graduate from college, the tuition bills will suddenly drop.
  • At some point in life, the mortgage will be paid off, and people will have a lot more money each month.

One has a sense that this is a lifetime narrative that people fully understand, even early in the process. They can raise the living standards of their families by acting responsibly, joining the labor force or working more hours, seeing the children grow up to adulthood and independence, and paying off a mortgage and owning something. The end point is a retirement that no longer requires that kind of scramble.


There is no sign in this discourse of government or political parties or organizations. What people have going for them in this economy are their own wits.

First, they have their own attitude toward work. About a third mention dependability, energy, a willingness to work hard, and an ability to work with people: "I don't give up. I've got a lot of vision, I make things happen, one way or another. Usually, anyway" (noncollege man, Georgia); "I'm there, I'm on time, and I'm not out, I'm not sick, I'm capable, I don't fool around, I do my job" (noncollege woman, New Jersey).

Second, people rely on their families—to support them, to provide moral support, to carry the main work load, to provide a supplemental income, to make it possible to get more training or education. "My husband's a very hard worker. The job that he has offers a lot of overtime, so he's really working hard" (noncollege woman, New Jersey); "That my husband has a very dependable job, and my strong faith in the Lord" (noncollege woman, Georgia); "The wife's still very employable, so we're not hurting in that sense" (noncollege man, Georgia); "My family, my wife, my little boy. Uh, at least I have a job. I revolve my life around my family and, you know, if I can make them happy, then that's, that makes my life complete" (noncollege man, California).

Third, a 10 percent to 15 percent slice of these noncollege participants point to their niches in small business or their ability to work independently or for themselves. That enables them to escape the job market and, they hope, its wage limitations. Participants talk about starting small businesses, getting out on your own, being your own boss. These independent economic activities have a broad range—from opening a bookstore to providing child care in the home, cleaning houses, addressing and folding envelopes at home, landscaping, selling Herbal Life, and building a career in real estate or as a stockbroker.

Finally, people talk with great intensity about educating themselves or their families. It is hard to overestimate how important education and skills training are to these noncollege voters—perhaps the most important strategy for people to gain an advantage in this stagnant economy. For a quarter of the participants, education is the primary strategy for getting a better job and a higher wage; lack of education is considered the biggest thing holding people back in their current careers and jobs; and schooling and education, particularly a college education, stand out from everything else as people's best hope for their children doing better in life.

The focus on education carries across gender lines, though the men tend to focus more narrowly and practically on skills training and computers: "I went back to school for air conditioning and refrigeration"; "I am constantly reading computer books"; "I've learned technical things, like I've learned drafting"; "I'm in data processing . . . you have a better chance than . . . assembly line operators." The women, on the other hand, tend to focus on education in general and the use of education as a route back into the full-time job market.

People become even more graphic in speaking about their lack of education as a primary obstacle to their making a good living. The college degree is a great divide, and most of these working- and lower-middle-class voters find themselves on the other side, working very hard to make a living: "I didn't further my education. When I was working I couldn't get a good job because I didn't have any real good skills, but I consider myself an intelligent person, even though I don't have any of those degrees" (noncollege woman, Georgia); "My husband doesn't have a college education, so he's a blue-collar worker. So he's got to kind of bust butt to get ahead. Unfortunately, we don't get a break. We're that middle class" (noncollege woman, New Jersey).

These noncollege participants are obsessed with education for their children as the one thing that can break them out of the current economic probabilities. One noncollege man in Georgia talked about his daughter giving up on college to join her new husband at the Marine base. Now she has two children and is delivering newspapers for $8.50 an hour. "I didn't want it to go through," he observed, "because I knew that it would affect her schooling, and that, in turn, will affect her earning potential these days." It is education that enables the children to reach a different point on the ladder.


This struggle to rise above the average is highly personal. It depends on people's qualities and attitudes, on their personal determination to improve themselves and get an education. It depends on the support and work of family members. Without those things, one would struggle like the rest of America, not getting anywhere. But the resources and strategies are private; as one of the men bluntly put it, "unless you're willing to watch out for yourself or do something for yourself, nobody else is really going to help you." When asked who is on their side, about a third of the participants look to family, about 10 percent look to friends, and about a quarter look to the church.

People have little expectation that civic organizations will rise to their defense or advance their interests. Barely anybody thinks of unions.

Barely one in ten of the participants mention political leaders as a force on their side. But it is not just an oversight, as people focus on their private lives and choices. People in these interviews go out of their way, without prompting, to point out that political leaders have failed them, that they are supposed to be helpful, but that you cannot depend on them to make things better for ordinary people. People want a popular politics to help them, but unfortunately the politicians are too busy helping themselves. That is why one must look elsewhere: "We go to church every Sunday, and we believe that God will provide. My parents are there for me, his mother's there for him. And I'd like to think the people that we elect are there for me too, but sometimes I'm not too sure" (noncollege woman, New Jersey).

When we asked what is holding them back, these working- and middle-class voters offer a highly politicized response—the politicians, government, and, above all, "the tax man." People see themselves struggling to get ahead against the odds. Government is not there with a helping hand—it's there with its hands in people's pockets, taking their money for taxes, sometimes for welfare. About half of the participants volunteer something about government and politics holding them back, with the emphasis on government, politicians, taxes, and the Congress, in that order.

An overwhelming two-thirds think the government makes things harder, rather than easier, for people. This instinctive aversion to government is not about philosophy, it is about money: "They take too much of my money" (noncollege woman, New Jersey); "Since they have their nose in, it's harder, because they want more money" (noncollege woman, California); "It's taxes, taxes, taxes" (noncollege man, Georgia).

Employers fare better than the government. Sizable majorities of these noncollege male voters say their employers make life "easier" rather than "harder" for them, though that seems very much a pragmatic response related to work. Virtually every one of the participants described themselves as "loyal" to their employers and companies, but a majority of the men thought their employers are not loyal to them. Women were apt to think their employers were loyal, but that reflects the greater tendency of these married women to work part-time or in small businesses. Clearly, these working people were sensitive to a new sense of insecurity: "The days of the kind of respect that you used to get from your employers are long gone and hard to find. A lot of them feel as though . . . we are a dime a dozen, and we are easily replaced. So there is no sense of loyalty" (noncollege man, Wisconsin); "I think companies . . . don't have a heart, they don't have emotions. They have bottom lines" (noncollege woman, Georgia).

Much of the discussion now takes these disloyal practices as the norm, maybe a necessity, given the changing, competitive economy: "I can't blame them at all, but . . . if they don't need you, you're out the door" (noncollege woman, Georgia). Whatever the motivation, the result is the same—working people on their own.


It should not be surprising, then, that these people think of themselves as virtuous. They have assumed responsibility for the bills, the children, going to work, and getting an education, without much help from anybody else. Above all, they have been responsible: 80 percent to 90 percent of the noncollege men and women say "responsibility" is the most important value. In almost all cases, the noncollege participants combine the value of responsibility with the value of "hard work" or "self-reliance." This reflects their lives.

The grievances of the downscale electorate are rooted in behavior that offends these virtues. They see the world through this prism: those who support their personal efforts and those that undermine them; those who respect their virtue and those who disregard or take advantage of it; those who live by the same values and those who do not. It is the tension between virtue and grievance—rather than between labor and capital—that animates the working- and lower-middle-class electorate and that creates political energy. Political and economic messages will have to be rooted in this discourse about virtue if they are to capture the attention of downscale America.

The "bad guys" are those who do not respect the struggle and the virtues of working- and middle-class America. Government is a big part of the story, though not all of it. Almost a third of the men immediately point to the government, bureaucrats, and taxes; almost 20 percent cite Dole, Gingrich, and the Congress; almost 10 percent cite Clinton. More than half the men, then, begin with politicized responses about the "bad" forces. The women are somewhat less political and less certain about who the bad guys are. A number of the men and women talk about welfare as counterpoised to the "good forces," which folds into the general sense of grievance. And almost a third of the men and about 20 percent of the women focus on big business, the rich and powerful, and the greedy as "bad guys."

The "good guys," on the other hand, are the working- and middle-class people, the people who work, who are self-reliant, and who take responsibility; they include the small business people who put everything on the line: "The good guys are the guys out there working and busting their tushes, and the bad guys are the ones that are spending all the money that they should be trying to save to pay off their debts" (noncollege woman, California); "Nothing is handed. Middle class has to work for it too, but nothing is handed to us" (noncollege woman, New Jersey).


The starting point in any successful narrative on the economy begins with the heroes—working- and middle-class people who are killing themselves to make a better life for their families, despite the odds.

The conservatives have been winning this battle to gain the support of working people because they, at least, seem able to identify with the personal initiative and responsibility and with the progress people are making. But the conservatives have not won over working people entirely, because they cannot acknowledge the seriousness of the odds and the costs people bear to make things better for their families. People are succeeding not because the economy is growing or because employers are raising people's pay. Conservatives cannot see the drama and poignancy of this personal struggle because they cannot allow themselves to acknowledge that markets and business are failing to generalize their prosperity.

Progressives have also taken little notice of the heroes and their successful efforts to make a better life for their families, but that is where their narrative must start. Progressives have relished talking about the bleakness of the economy for working people and presumed that was the end of the story. We now understand that it is only the beginning.

Our interviews suggest four areas where progressives have an opportunity to change the terms of this discourse:

Growth. There are strong currents within both progressive and conservative political and economic thinking emphasizing the country's ability to grow at a greater rate and thus lower unemployment and raise real incomes. Obviously, Jeff Faux, Lester Thurow, and James Galbraith offer radically different prescriptions from Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes. Yet all are trying, in effect, to change the rules of the game, so that heroism is not the only route to a better life.

But the two-decade-long stagnation of incomes and the pervasiveness of the personal struggle have left the public cautious about the likelihood of a general rise in prosperity. Real growth would no doubt drastically affect this story, but for now, downscale voters are very doubtful. People do believe there are more jobs available today, but they scorn the idea that there has been growth—which likely implies something headier, like real income growth. "Somebody's lying. . . . The economy is growing? Where is it growing?"; "It makes me feel our economy is nothing but a joke"; "But the economy is not growing for the regular people."

Progressives need to make the case for real growth and push economic policymakers to create it. The citizen in a growing country may not feel so alone and may be able to contemplate what people can achieve together.

Money. Absent "growth" that changes the odds, working people are looking for governmental actions that make it easier, rather than harder, as they try to bring their families up the ladder. Narrowly understood, this is about money—how to put more money in people's pockets as they try to do the right thing. Republicans understand this micro approach to the economic narrative, which is why they want to cut people's taxes. How else can we explain Republican candidate Bob Dole at the gas pump, promising voters another 19 dollars a year?

Progressives have an opportunity to talk about enhancement of people's personal resources to increase the probability that this scramble will succeed. Broadly understood, this is a narrative that can encompass schooling, skills training, affordable college, middle-class tax cuts, health insurance, pensions, Medicare, and Social Security. On all these policies that aid people in their lifetime economic strategies, Democrats have a strong, sometimes overwhelming advantage over the Republicans. But the policies need a story that shows how they add up to a progressive effort to help working- and middle-class Americans make a better life in this new economy.

Not on your own. The ordinary voter is close to being able to recite a mantra about government: It is too big and expensive, wasteful and bureaucratic, and it only messes things up—so cut spending and taxes and let the people spend their own money.

There is room, however, to educate voters about the role of government in making people's lives easier and safer. Instinctively, these voters think the opposite, but it does not take a lot of argument to move many of these voters to think differently about the issue. We read the respondents a simple list: minimum wage, 40-hour work week, COBRA, workplace safety rules, family and medical leave, college loans, and the right to organize unions. (We did not include Medicare or Social Security.) After hearing it, 18 percent of the noncollege men and 36 percent of the noncollege women changed their minds about government: "Maybe it's something that a lot of those I have just taken for granted, like $4.25 an hour or having set wages and having COBRA, because that has been around for awhile and I'm familiar with it" (noncollege woman, Georgia); "They do help each of us, ensure each of us safety and security so you're not eating tainted food and you're not working in an environment that is toxic without precautions being taken" (noncollege woman, Georgia); "All of the things that the govern ment is regulating and God forbid, without some of those things, we really would be in deep doo-doo" (noncollege woman, New Jersey).

While Democrats have been shy about defending government, their silence has no doubt left voters more alone than they really are. It has also left conservatives free to savage an abstracted, burdensome government. Progressives clearly have an opportunity to rebuild the legitimacy of government that is less costly and intrusive but that is also capable of helping people advance themselves and make better lives for themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Democratic politics. These working- and middle-class voters think they are on their own, but it is not out of choice. Politicians have abandoned them. The government works for the special interests and has forgotten the ordinary people who are supposed to be the center of the story. In the absence of a democratic politics, these voters are indeed willing to go it alone and settle for lower taxes.

The heroism is not about a desire to go it alone. Yet with government and parties so indifferent to ordinary citizens, one's time is better spent in private solutions. Why should they believe that this government, Congress, and class of politicians are capable of doing the right thing on the economy, taxes, or health care? To allow people to give something other than the obvious answer, progressives will have to fight to renew democratic politics and government. Then people can imagine once again that they have the power to improve the odds, not just as exceptional heroes, but as hard-working people trying to make a better life for their families.

In the end, this must be more than a narrative, because if it is only a story or rhetoric or empathy, the electorate's hard-won skepticism will win out again—and rightly so. People have become increasingly cynical about politicians who seem to honor their experience but in the end do not deliver much except taxes.

Four years ago, the Democrats honored the "forgotten middle class" and rekindled people's hopes that the rules could be changed—that economic growth would be so robust that people would not have to work harder and harder for less and less, that they would be able to get affordable health insurance, that their tax dollars would not be wasted on welfare, and that the ordinary citizen would be able to walk down the corridors of power again. The Republicans reaped the rewards in 1994 when the public concluded that those hopes had been false. That the Republicans in Congress had worked mightily to kill the Clinton program did not matter as much as the anger with Democrats for urging people to believe things could be different. Working- and middle-class voters have not turned to the Republicans; they have turned to themselves. But that lonely struggle and worldview—working people on their own against the economy, with the government more an obstacle than an ally—favors the Republican, social-Darwinist view of the world. Progressives will win over working people only if they offer a narrative and a program that allows people, short of heroism, to achieve a better life for their families.

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