Thursday, October 30, 2008

Joe the Plumber's Sham Identity, Real Menace

GOP Swan Song:
New Messages,
New Threats

By Bill Fletcher, Jr

The 'Joe the Plumber' story has unraveled, yet Senator McCain continues to make reference to what is, in fact, a mythical character. Sure, there is a Joe, but he is not what he described himself to be. This has been exposed. Yet, McCain continues to reference 'Joe the Plumber' as if to lend credibility to his story.

It would be easy enough to laugh off the story of a white man who would like to believe that he will, someday, be the person that he presented himself to be, but the story tells us as much about the consciousness of many middle income and working class whites as it tells us about the propaganda strategy of the political Right. It is not just that Joe the Plumber, aka Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Sam J. Wurzelbacher, is not the person that Senator Obama believed him to be. Wurzelbacher, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, seems to have 'high hopes,' that is, he is prepared to ignore his current situation of being a low to moderate income, working class, single parent who would benefit from Senator Obama's tax plan. Instead, he has embraced an identity that makes it easier for him to identify with the politics of McCain/Palin.

This incident highlights the desperate attempts by a section of the white working class to find some means to identify with a candidate who has a platform and approach contrary to their short and long-term economic interests. There are only three ways to pull that off, and Joe the Plumber found one: invent a new identity. A second way is to focus on issues that have little to do with one's living standard, i.e., so- called cultural issues. The third way is to simply acknowledge that one cannot vote for a Black man.

Yet the Joe the Plumber incident also tells us something about the messages being advanced by the Right, and specifically, by the McCain/Palin campaign. In a fit of desperation, the McCain/Palin campaign is suggesting that it does not matter whether or not Joe the Plumber is a myth. In fact, the McCain/Palin campaign has refused to acknowledge that the story is just this side of a hoax. Rather, they continue to reference this man as if his story is completely credible. In doing this, they raise, once again, the irrationalist side of their right-wing politics. In effect, the McCain/Palin campaign is saying that facts are irrelevant.

Wurzelbacher's aspirations speak to the dream of climbing the ladder of success and upward mobility, a dream that has proved to be a myth for many; a myth that has been preached to all citizens and residents of the USA, but absorbed largely by the white population. It is a myth that says if you work hard, you advance; if you are dedicated to your job, your living standard improves; and if you work hard and prove your value to the company (and to society) the living standard of your children will always be better than your own.

So, the question that arises is simple but profound: what happens when one finds out that this story line is true for only small numbers of people? There seem to be 2-3 answers. One can get angry and recognize that one has been hood-winked by the system and, as a result, turn on the system, i.e., move to the Left. In the alternative, one can feel betrayed and turn on those who one perceives to have been the source of the betrayal. Or, one can engage in fantasy, and pretend that one's current circumstances are only temporary, to soon be replaced by something a lot better.

Wurzelbacher is currently fantasizing, but this fantasy can easily morph into option #2, or the right-wing populism about which I and others have been warning. In either case, options #2 and #3 correspond to the message that sections of the political Right wish to advance. They say, in essence, that the only reason that you - the white worker or white small business person - are not succeeding has little to do with the system, but has to do with the 'other.' In the case of the current economic crisis, the problem for McCain and the Right is not the system, but a few greedy individuals. This is the sort of message that Wurzelbacher wants to hear. The message goes: there is nothing wrong with the system; there is nothing that should really stop him from becoming the person he wants to believe he can be; the only obstacles are some greedy, shady individuals, and, quite possibly, the tax plan of a Black man that allegedly might take money away from that he does not currently possess.

The myth that surrounds Joe the Plumber is a powerful one. It is a myth that many people insist on believing despite a great deal of evidence that it is largely a fraud. Although whites have always had a relative advantage over people of color, this has never meant that whites automatically succeed or rise to the upper crust. Nevertheless, in challenging the myth, one is calling into question a belief system that so many people, particularly within white America, have grown to accept.

Senator Obama has described the current economic crisis as being far more than a crisis created by some individuals. He has pointed to the results of thirty years of deregulation. This is an important contrast with Senator McCain. Yet it is not enough. Wurzelbacher/Joe the Plumber, and others like him, deeply wish to believe the myth with which they have grown up. The myth in its entirety must be shattered. That can only happen by confronting the truth that the current economic crisis and the thirty plus year decline in the living standards of the average working person are not the result of some 'other', e.g., Jews, Blacks, minorities, immigrants, but, as I raised in my last commentary, are the result of a very amoral economic system.

[ Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the Executive Editor of, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of the book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.]


Tina Beacock said...

Only a pawn in their game, as Dylan said it -- WE is the way white workers have been conned for decades to identify with the (white, usually male) boss who is oppresing HIM and his fellow workers (of all colors and genders).
While Obama has named this scam (98% of plumbers don't make 1/4 of a million) why hasn't he just absorbed the rhetoric of Edwards and (very late) Clinton about WORKING PEOPLE, not just middle class?

Carl Davidson said...

Here in Western PA, both Obama and Biden used the straight-up 'working class' terminology when they're talking to local workers at rallies, at least the ones I've been to or heard.

In the national media through, the media honchos prevail, and say most everyone knows they're not 'upper class,' and no one likes to be called 'lower class,' so 'middle class' gets it.

I find that when you talk with workers sitting on their porch, they look around and call themselves 'middle class,' but if you talk to them at work or the union hall, they look at their hands or jackets, and it 'working class.'

I'm waiting for when we can do like Bob Dylan did in 'Working Man Blues' in his most recent album, and just use 'proletariat.'

Anonymous said...

This does not impress me. First of all Obama is not going to "end capitalism" or reinstitute a slew of regulations. His advisors include many of the people who encouraged and benefited from deregulation, including Rubin. Either Obama is a triangulator or a liar about his position on the economy or maybe some of both.

During the Ohio primaries, he used his financial largesse to lambast Clinton on NAFTA. But only a few media outlets reported the fact that he said he would not seek the repeal of NAFTA and that he would only demand that the signatories renegotiate it. Later, after he won the nomination, he said he would not seek to renegotiate it unilaterally.

Also, Obama only talked about the "middle-class" during the rustbelt primaries. Why didn't he talk about poor folk in the south or in large coastal urban areas? Because he wanted white middle-income votes. He already had poor black people's votes. Like everything else, he raises this issue for opportunistic gain.

He voted for FISA and the Patriot Act. He supports the death penalty in rape cases, despite the horrific racial pattern in those cases prior to the court invalidating it in the 70s (100 percent of the victims were white, over 80 percent of the men executed were black). He sided with Scalia on gun control (and the death penalty). And he has waffled so much on Iraq that I cannot even bear to listen to him anymore.

The worst thing about all of this is the uncritical acceptance of Obama by so-called progressives. Progressives should not cheerlead candidates with such "mainstream" records. If Obama was billed as simply another mainstream Democrat, that would be one thing. But he was the LEFTIST candidate - far more to the left than Clinton, whom people demonized as a hawkish, pathetic liar. Edwards talked more about POVERTY than Obama. Now you guys are trying to revise history, although it only recently occurred. If this is what an Obama victory means, then we are basically getting "more of the same."

Carl Davidson said...

What are you carrying on about? This site has some of the best critiques of Obama around, and have pegged him as a liberal speaking to the center from day one.

But if you can't figure out what side your on in this battle by this time, you're probably right that your 'left' and our left doesn't have all that much in common.

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