Biden and Ryan redefine working class for their own purposes

Both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions featured efforts to portray their leaders as having blue-collar roots. However, as this analysis points out, these testimonies were working with altered definitions of what it means to be blue-collar.

Merriam Webster’s defines blue-collar labor as “of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing.” But the Washington definition of blue-collar is different. From an analysis of punditry, the qualities that define blue collar are being white, being male, being religious — especially Catholic — being from the interior, and having mainstream cultural interests totally unrelated to social class, such as “liking hockey” or “liking 1970s rock music.”…

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: “My dad never wore a blue collar,” Biden said in June. “Barack makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory.”…

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Worn Chambray. “This campaign, Biden — with his blue collar background — is focusing on helping Obama where the president tends to be weak: in appealing to blue collar and swing state voters,” the Associated Press reported Friday. “One of the weapons used by Obama to court white men is Vice President Joe Biden, who has a kinship with blue-collar voters, particularly in critical battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan,” The Dallas Morning News said Thursday…

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Ryan is Catholic, and from a state where there are farms. Ryan likes Led Zeppelin, which is somehow blue collar despite inspiring countless blacklight posters in dorms nationwide. He has other hobbies that require equipment you buy in malls. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting,” Ryan said on August 12. “I got a new chainsaw… It was nice. It’s a Stihl.” Homeowner Stihl chainsaws run between $179.95 and $359.95 at the local Janesville Stihl dealer. “He is very grounded in roots that weren’t so glamorous coming up in life,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told PBS before the Republican National Convention.  “And the American people will hear his story tonight, hear how he lost his father and had to work hard and assume hourly wage jobs when he was young.” Yes, friends, Ryan’s Dickinsian youth involved a part-time job at McDonalds. (In fairness, it does not appear that anyone in Washington has ever claimed Eric Cantor has “blue collar appeal.”)

This helps illustrate several points about social class in the United States:

1. Categories of social class can often be quite fuzzy. Often, income is used to mark off different classes but social scientists and the public themselves have difficulty deciding where exactly these boundaries should be drawn. For example, we could also look at how Romney and Obama talk about and promote middle-class values yet neither are currently living middle-class lives according to their income.

2. Social class is not just about having a certain level of income; there is also a cultural dimension, certain behaviors and tastes associated with different classes (a la Bourdieu). For both Biden and Ryan, it sounds like they want to claim some of these cultural markers which plenty of Americans might also share.

3. I wonder how much the media and American voters want to discuss such claims from politicians about social class. Compared to some other countries, Americans are more reluctant to talk about class and sometimes talk and act like it doesn’t even exist. For example, Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail that he didn’t even want to use the term middle-class because it is divisive.

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