Bruce Parker

John Edwards on Social Class

Filed By Bruce Parker | June 08, 2007 9:39 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Democratic Presidential Primary, John Edwards, Poverty, Presidential Race 2008, Social Class, Two Americas

When I began trying to locate myself inside the gay community and construct an identity around my attractions, growing up in Eastern Kentucky provided certain restrictions on the sources of information that were available to me. Almost all of my initial exposure to gay life came from literature, and, looking back on it, primarily from gay men writing about the AIDS epidemic in the form of novels and essays. I also was lucky enough occasionally to locate an Out magazine that I would devour from cover to cover. I enjoyed and still enjoy these staples of gay culture. However, something never seemed to fit quite right. I found it incredibly difficult to locate myself inside the stories of these men who were primarily living either upper middle class or affluent lives while I was watching my single mother work long hours just to make sure we had food on the table. Could I be gay if I didn't have money?

There are so many directions to take this conversation in because the intersections of social class and gay and/or queer identities is not a simple topic, and it's certainly one that needs to be addressed in a more complex way. However, I will talk a little bit about social class and politics. I have been avidly following all of the Democratic and Republican debates and am saddened by the absence of any substantial discourse about social class in this country and the harsh reality that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. John Edwards is the closest exception to this silence, and he is not speaking nearly as much this time about these issues as he did during his first campaign. In a New York Times article about Edwards, social class, and Paris Hilton that comes out today, Edwards is quoted as saying,

The issue is what are we going to do to create one America with universal health care, with more economic equality, having, raising the minimum wage, access to decent housing, access to college for kids who can't afford it? Those are the tools, some of the tools, that allow us to close the gap that exists in America today between those who are doing well and everything else. I think the next president of the United States is going to have a huge responsibility. Last year the top 300,000 income earners earned more than the bottom 150 million, and that gap is not healthy.
Do folks think that there just isn't an audience for real honest conversations about social class in this country? It isn't news that everyone and their brother consider themselves to be middle class with incomes ranging from twenty thousand to over a hundred thousand dollars. Is this refusal to engage in the conversations that must occur about the sad realities of social class due to our persistent belief in the American dream? I am really curious what folks think, so share.

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Corporate power has constructed the discourse so class tensions are mapped onto other areas of politics, like sexuality. Neoliberal economic theory is the reigning dogma of the day, so it's not surprising that those of us who attempt to engage class issues get shot down.

Great post!

Bruce, thanks for the post. Got you linked up over on G-Spot.

Anyway, I think that issues of class, like race and gender, prove to be very scary topics for people to talk about. And I think that for those of us who are working class, there is always an intense amount of shame around our class status. Like if we reveal it to other people, we'll somehow be less "worthy," and if we don't make it out of the working class, we've somehow failed.

For me, I am constantly reminded of my working class background, especially within the context of the academy and also at my job. When I was in grad school, I would get frustrated that the students who were from upper-middle class families seemed to be leaps and bounds ahead of me, if only because they were more familiar with the vocabulary. Our use of language absolutely classifies us. At work, I can relax when I'm working with the kids and use my normal speech because they are working class, too. But when I go to meetings or give presentations about our program, I have to switch into a different mode of speech so that I don't come across as ignorant. The one word I refuse to abandon is "ya'll," because I find it to be nongendered.

Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head today. The reason class is being left out of the presidential debates is because those in privilege refuse to see it as an issue.

There is an audience - just not an audience of Class A consumers to be marketed to! But Michael Moore's new movie addresses this - and just look at how he's being treated by the government over it. And John Edwards talks about class, sure, really simplistically, but he's still addressing the issue, and he can't even catch a break in the Democratic Party. Barbara Eirhenrech wrote Nickel and Dimed, and that was supposed to start a national dialogue on this issue, but, yeah, that really took off.

It's really one of those things that can make people feel hopeless, because those with the ower to change it have the luxury of not having to notice it. And those who notice generally don't have the power to change it. And so many of those in power just don't want things to change because they know that if equality came about, they'd have to give up some of their privilege.