When I opened my copy of The New York Times this morning, I saw this photo, in which a bunch of burly looking guys in hard hats are protesting the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. Hard hats -- now where have we seen that before?
Well, we saw it during the 1960s, when the Nixon administration saw electoral gold in pictures of construction workers in hard hats beating up hippies, demonstrating that the working man was on the side of the Republican Party against the unruly, effeminate elitists of the anti-war movement. And we saw it in 2001, as conservatives looked to hard hats to help create the illusion of blue-collar support for George W. Bush's tax-cut plan, whose benefits went mostly to the wealthy:
[The National Association of Manufacturers], which pushed for yesterday's passage of President Bush's proposal to reduce income tax rates, circulated a memo among business groups this week urging lobbyists to show up in full force at the photo opportunity.
And it urged them to be "dressed down" so that "a sea of hard hats" could flank Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other House GOP leaders to help buttress Republican arguments that the plan helps blue-collar Americans.
"The theme involves working Americans. Visually, this will involve a sea of hard hats, which our construction and contractor and building groups are working very hard to provide," said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. "But the Speaker's office was very clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to participate -- AND WE DO NEED BODIES -- they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc. We plan to have hard hats for people to wear. Other groups are providing waiters/waitresses, and other types of workers."
Ah yes, "real worker types." I suppose that in this case, it's partly that some of the construction workers working on the Ground Zero site are in fact opposed to the Park 51 project, so for all we know the guys in hard hats could be actual construction workers. But the hard hat remains a potent symbol. It says that the wearer is a real man, a blue-collar man, and therefore whatever he's opposing is the opinion of effete snobs and latte-sipping elitists. And that message never gets old.
-- Paul Waldman