Opinion

Blue-collar America is smarter than you may think

Political tributes should mind the subtle bias against the intelligence of the working class.

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"They treat us like mules," the guy installing my washer tells me, his eyes narrowing as he wipes his hands. I had just complimented him and his partner on the speed and assurance of their work. He explains that it's rare that customers speak to him this way.

I know what he's talking about. My mother was a waitress all her life, in coffee shops and fast-paced chain restaurants. It was hard work, but she liked it, liked "being among the public," as she would say. But that work had its sting, too – the customer who would treat her like a servant or, her biggest complaint, like she was not that bright.

There's a lesson here for this political season: the subtle and not-so-subtle insults that blue-collar and service workers endure as part of their working lives. And those insults often have to do with intelligence.

We like to think of the United States as a classless society. The belief in economic mobility is central to the American Dream, and we pride ourselves on our spirit of egalitarianism. But we also have a troubling streak of aristocratic bias in our national temperament, and one way it manifests itself is in the assumptions we make about people who work with their hands.

Working people sense this bias and react to it when they vote. The common political wisdom is that hot-button social issues have driven blue-collar voters rightward. But there are other cultural dynamics at play as well. And Democrats can be as oblivious to these dynamics as Republicans – though the Grand Old Party did appeal to them in St. Paul.

Let's go back to those two men installing my washer and dryer. They do a lot of heavy lifting quickly – mine was the first of 15 deliveries – and efficiently, to avoid injury. Between them there is ongoing communication, verbal and nonverbal, to coordinate the lift, negotiate the tight fit, move in rhythm with each other. And all the while, they are weighing options, making decisions and solving problems – as when my new dryer didn't match up with the gas outlet.

Think about what a good waitress has to do in the busy restaurant: remember orders and monitor them, attend to a dynamic, quickly changing environment, prioritize tasks and manage the flow of work, make decisions on the fly.

There's the carpenter using a number of mathematical concepts – symmetry, proportion, congruence, the properties of angles – and visualizing these concepts while building a cabinet, a flight of stairs, or a pitched roof.

The hairstylist's practice is a mix of technique, knowledge about the biology of hair, aesthetic judgment, and communication skill. The mechanic, electrician, and plumber are troubleshooters and problem solvers. Even the routinized factory floor calls for working smarts.

When has any of this made its way into our political speeches? From either party. Even on Labor Day.

Last week, the GOP masterfully invoked some old cultural suspicions: country folk versus city and east-coast versus heartland education. But these are symbolic populist gestures, not the stuff of true engagement.

Judgments about intelligence carry great weight in our society, and we have a tendency to make sweeping assessments of people's intelligence based on the kind of work they do.

Political tributes to labor over the next two months will render the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps. But few will also celebrate the thought bright behind the eye, or offer an image that links hand and brain.

It would be fitting in a country with an egalitarian vision of itself to have a truer, richer sense of all that is involved in the wide range of work that surrounds and sustains us.

Those politicians who can communicate that sense will tap a deep reserve of neglected feeling. And those who can honor and use work in explaining and personalizing their policies will find a welcome reception.

Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA and author of "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker."

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