Class and Warfare

Democrats and the rhetoric of patriotism

by Andrew Levison

The American Prospect magazine, September 2003


No matter how events develop in the coming months, either in Iraq or in American politics, Democrats who disagree with policies of the Bush administration will still have to confront a fundamental challenge: finding a way to talk foreign affairs with working-class Americans.

Until now, Republican mouthpieces and conservative commentators have had only limited success in demonizing Democrats as unpatriotic and weak in their support for the men and women in our armed forces. But the danger remains acute. If Democrats who favor a less belligerent foreign policy do not find the way to effectively present their ideas to working people, the partisan political debate in the coming campaign period could easily lead to a deepening social and political schism between the two groups-one that would resemble the disastrous polarization that developed during the war in Vietnam.

The basic problem today, ironically, is not that the Americans who can be considered working class support the administration's policies on and actions in Iraq at dramatically higher levels than those with higher educations. An April 2-6 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that while the military campaign was being waged, Americans with less than a high-school education and those with some level of college were essentially equal in their support for the war (with around 75 percent of both groups in favor). Equally, while there has been a steep decline in public support for President Bush's handling of Iraq, foreign policy and the war on terrorism in recent weeks, the extent of this decline has been roughly equal among those with only high-school educations and those with college degrees. A July 16 Zogby poll, for example, found no more than a 3 percent to 4 percent difference between the two groups in their evaluations of Bush's performance on the war on terrorism, and an even smaller difference in their views of his handling of foreign policy.

Rather, the problem is that there is a very deep and emotional commitment among a significant group of working-class voters to the belief that "supporting the troops" and "being patriotic" requires adopting a wartime attitude of unquestioning support for military leaders and a refusal to oppose or criticize any war-related policies or actions. While this view is shared by many college-educated voters as well, a substantial segment of the latter believe instead that criticism can be compatible with patriotism and support for those in uniform.

This set of attitudes among working-class Americans presents a substantial roadblock for Democratic candidates and others who wish to either criticize specific actions of the Bush administration or propose alternative policies. It is extremely difficult even to begin discussing such issues without providing an opening for conservative accusations that this kind of talk endangers the troops in the field or reveals a lack of patriotism. Understanding why these views are so deeply embedded in working-class culture is key to communicating with working-class people without triggering such suspicions.

One fundamental sociological reality shapes the attitudes of working-class voters regarding virtually every issue related to war and peace: They perceive America's military as a profoundly working-class institution.

As a New York Times article that appeared March 30, headlined "Military Mirrors a Working-Class America," noted: "The soldiers, sailors, pilots and others who are risking and now giving their lives in Iraq represent a slice of a broad swath of American society-but by no means all of it. Of the z8 servicemen killed who have been identified so far, 20 were white, 5 black, 3 Hispanic-proportions that neatly mirror those of the military as a whole. But just one was from a well-to-do family, and with the exception of a Naval Academy alumnus, just one had graduated from an elite college or university."

Indeed, while virtually all the enlisted men and women in the armed forces have high-school diplomas, only 3.5 percent are college graduates and only 10 percent attended college. In demographic terms, this makes the armed forces one of the most homogeneously working-class institutions in America.

These young people, whites as well as minorities, come disproportionately from blue-collar homes and neighborhoods in large cities, or from small towns, and they tend to be from the South, Midwest or Mountain West. Not only parents and relatives but also neighbors and schoolmates in these areas and communities recognize the men and women in uniform as people much like them.

Beyond this, working people also feel an additional psychic bond with the men and women in the armed forces because the soldiers uphold very deeply held and distinctly working-class values: ruggedness and bravery, teamwork and group solidarity, loyalty, heroism and self-sacrifice. In the rest of American culture these virtues are given a much lower value than intellectual ability, ambition, competitiveness and the achievement of material success. For high-school-educated young men and women who are often not "successful" in these latter terms, the armed forces provides them with the opportunity to be seen as role models and heroes to their families, friends and communities. When working-class Americans refer to "our boys in uniform," they are expressing an intensely felt emotional truth as well as a metaphorical one-that the soldiers and other personnel are not only literally their children but are also the representatives of some of the best values of their culture.

This intense identification with the members of the armed forces leads working people to feel that there is only one legitimate point of view on issues of war and peace: that of the ordinary soldier. Working-class Americans may feel sympathy for other groups, such as Iraqi civilians, or recognize a need to understand other groups, such as devout Muslims. But the idea of actually trying to view international problems from perspectives other than that of the frontline troops feels profoundly disloyal to the sacrifices the soldiers are making.

The identification with the troops also generates an emotional need for working people to believe that the armed forces are doing the right thing. This easily extends to a need to believe that their political and military leaders are following the right path. While people who are highly educated tend to study complex issues in depth and to feel that they have ways of effectively expressing their views when they disagree with government policies, working-class people generally do not. They do not have the time or resources to evaluate conflicting information and they very reasonably doubt that they will have any ability to influence events, regardless of what they conclude. They therefore tend to adopt the ethos of the armed forces themselves, an ethos that places a very high value on following orders and trusting superior officers.

These characteristics of working-class thinking are entirely understandable and, in many respects, quite admirable. But they present complex difficulties when Democrats try to raise objections or present alternatives to the Bush administration's policies. When Democratic critics attempt to examine the consequences of administration actions and policies from other points of view-taking Arab public opinion into account, for example, or worrying about the views of the leaders and citizens of other countries-they can easily be misperceived as cold and detached outsiders who lack sympathy for the troops. It's a short step from the fact that such critics do not exclusively identify with the men and women in the armed forces to a class-based perception that they are college-educated intellectuals who don't care about ordinary people. And when Democrats criticize the policies of the Bush administration or the missions on which it sends American soldiers, their criticisms, unless carefully stated, can easily be misperceived as an attack on the motives, the actions and the dedication of the troops themselves. The moment this emotional nerve is touched, the actual issue is invariably lost amid a surge of anger against the critics.

In recent weeks, the danger that the Democrats will fall into one or both of these traps has actually increased as President Bush's approval ratings have plummeted. In their haste to capitalize on Bush's suddenly evident vulnerability, Democrats may misinterpret the opinion-poll data to conclude that Americans are increasingly coming to share the views of those who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. The need to consolidate support from the anti-war wing of the party adds a powerful incentive for candidates to shift their campaign rhetoric and strategy in this direction. But the poll data suggest that, while voters have become significantly disillusioned with the administration's handling of the Iraq War, there has been no comparable decline in the support for the military action itself. This is particularly true for working-class voters, who see their patriotic support for the troops as inextricably linked to support for the war in general.

On the one hand, the high-school and college educated were roughly equal in their lowered evaluations of Bush's foreign policy and war on terrorism. But at the same time, when asked whether they would support or oppose war against Iraq "if the U.S. had to do it over again," 59 percent of Americans reaffirmed their support for military action. And in this case, there was a large and dramatic difference between high-school-educated voters, 66 percent of whom continued to support the war, and the college educated, only 53 percent of whom held a similar view. For working-class voters in particular, the growing disillusionment with the administration's handling of the Iraq War is quite distinct from their opinions on war and the military in general. Democrats whose attacks on the administration inadvertently cross the line between these two issues will run the risk of generating intense resentment. This danger is particularly acute because the Republican Party and the conservative media will pounce on any criticisms of the administration that can be interpreted as indifferent to the needs of the troops in the field-and then portray them as an elitist insult to the troops and all working-class people as well.

The Bush administration is profoundly vulnerable to Democratic challenges in this area, however. While the administration's policy entrepreneurs, business executives and political advisers carefully associate Bush with theatrically orchestrated displays of military pageantry, few if any of them actually identify with the soldiers themselves in any meaningful way. Quite the contrary, their attitude toward the troops and their treatment of them reflects a cynical and manipulative view of the men and women in the armed forces.

The most dramatic example of this is the way that the interests of American soldiers were sacrificed in order to accommodate the administration's ideological opposition to international cooperation. For U.S. forces, the administration's failure to agree with other nations on a multinational administration and peacekeeping force in Iraq has resulted in tours of duty that have been extended months beyond what would otherwise have been necessary. The troops have been left, as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) termed it, in "a shooting gallery," and anger, resentment and low morale have been growing as a result. The Bush administration has also failed to enforce a law, passed during the Clinton administration, that requires adequate pre-deployment medical examinations for troops going into combat. Such examinations are vital for diagnosing post-combat disorders, particularly from chemical or biological weapons, and for establishing veterans' rights to collect disability.

As a result, there is a profoundly important role that Democrats can play in the coming period: acting as genuine and impassioned advocates for the real needs and aspirations of the men and women in the armed forces. Democratic candidates can and should insist that, unlike the Bush administration, they will resist the temptation to place soldiers' lives at unnecessary risk in future military operations, that they will not subordinate the troops' interests to unilateralist and other ideological goals, that they will take every possible step to ensure that veterans receive all the services to which they are entitled, and that they will respect the soldiers and their families enough to always tell them the full truth about the costs and purposes of the actions to which troops will be committed. There will indeed be circumstances in which American troops must be sent into battle to defend against the threat of terrorism or for humanitarian relief, but Democrats can promise that they will not allow the patriotism of the men and women in the armed forces to be abused as it has been by the Bush administration.

By itself, a political strategy of this kind does not solve the larger problem many Democrats face in convincing working people that a more measured and collaborative approach to the threat of international terrorism would be preferable to the Bush administration's approach. But a strategy of this kind is an absolutely indispensable precondition for any such attempt.

For Democratic candidates in 2004, this approach offers a dramatically different way to challenge the Republicans on military issues and foreign affairs and to reach out to the millions of working-class Americans whose views on these issues are fundamentally shaped by their identification with the men and women of the armed forces. The Republicans, for all their ostentatious association with the symbols and trappings of the military, do not actually act as advocates and defenders of the ordinary enlisted men and women when a choice must be made between the soldiers' best interests and the Republican ideological agenda. This is a role Democrats can, and should, fulfill.

This role of advocacy may be unfamiliar to any Democrat too young to remember the World War 11 era, when New Deal politicians considered themselves not only the most genuine friends and representatives of the ordinary Gl Joes while the war was going on but also, through such programs as the Gl Bill, their advocates and champions in peacetime as well. In fact, it was the Democrats' sincere and passionate identification with the needs of the soldiers returning home that consolidated their reputation as the party of the "working man" in the period after World War 11. It is an approach that can help the Democrats earn that reputation once again. ~


ANDREW LEVISON is the author of The Working Class Majority and The Full Employment Alternative.`

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