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 electoratethe presumptive audience for a progressive
critique of the economythe 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 themthat 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 peopleall
of which is true. In the process, progressives have failed to notice that the
real story is the heroismthe 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
THE LADDER: THE PARADOX OF LIVING STANDARDS
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.
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 voters55 percentthe 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.
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 yearsfor 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 averageabout 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
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
- 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.
DRAWING ON THEIR OWN RESOURCES
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
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 familiesto 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 rangefrom 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 votersperhaps 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.
HANDS THAT DON'T HELP
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 responsethe 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 handit'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 sameworking
people on their own.
SELF-RELIANCE AND VIRTUE
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
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 grievancerather
than between labor and capitalthat 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 PROGRESSIVE ECONOMIC NARRATIVE
The starting point in any successful narrative on the economy begins with
the heroesworking- 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
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
growthwhich 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 moneyhow 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 upso 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
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
againand 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 changedthat 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 worldviewworking people on their own against the economy,
with the government more an obstacle than an allyfavors 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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