When Joe Wurzelbacher’s name slipped into last week’s debate, and Joe the Plumber was born, another version of a repetitive theme took hold. Senator Barack Obama has made racial progressive history a footnote of his candidacy, preferring to make his statements ecumenical, embracing. Not only has he underscored his humility by doing so, he has reached out to a broad coalition (using his words) of Americans who claim more than one or two allegiances that extend beyond ethnic designations. Though, as he gains the trust of voters everywhere by solidifying his American tale as simply another of the many stories in our fold, media outlets continue to harp on Joe the Plumber. Before Joe, there were the hard-working middle class voters: a euphemism for white voters. Before the hard-working middle class voter, there were the Evangelicals. Let’s not forget Joe Six Pack. And before him, there were the Reagan Democrats.
The media pundits, from left to right, from newspapers to television broadcasts, have been silently rooting for the Joes of the world by leading with stories about Senator Obama’s seeming inability to convert the “hardest working” segment of the voting population, namely white males. The insinuation here is both dangerous and offensive. It’s as if Obama will never convert Americans to vote for him if he doesn’t first acknowledge that white men must be the lifeblood of the entire country. It gives primacy to the notion that some votes matter more than others, and that this is the central ethic of American life. The heartland is rendered a mythical place to house the Joe morality scale, to represent the entrenched thinking of a so-called value voter.
Politics is not necessarily all about division, but its aim is to identify the needs of many splintered groups for the purpose of addressing a nation’s civic wants. During the political season, it becomes harder to differentiate lines drawn from divisions recalibrated: the Hockey Moms and the Joe Plumbers versus the community organizers and latte-drinkers. Lost in that shuffle is just how much a Hockey mom’s financial concerns parallel the community-organizing teacher’s financial concerns.
Enter Joe the Plumber, with his confrontational attitude about a black Senator distributing his wealth into some other plumber’s less fortunate hands. Or, even more ugly, distributing his wealth among public beneficiaries like, say, his nation’s education system and infrastructure. Joe wants to protect the right endowed him by the original Constitution, a document ratified by white landholders in early America. This is a class rift that will not be easily overcome because the clerical magistrates and the financiers who wrote the doctrines of all men being created equal also endorsed an industry hedged in inhuman trade. The basis of every Joe the Plumber’s class fears, of every Hockey mom’s race apprehension is that the tacit admission of equality to a black Senator pursuing his American dream is markedly different from a white one pursuing his.
Although Sen. Hillary Clinton was the first to use these sentiments as campaign fuel, the media has long been obsessing over the white vote. Matt Bai, for instance, published the latest in a series of articles focusing on Sen. Obama’s drive to meet Americans from every section of the country titled “Working for the Working-Class Vote.” The two assumptions at play are that working-class (as a term) signifies white (or means White American in the Election more than it means Black American); and that Barack Obama should court these voters with cautious deference so as not to trample on their values. Barack Obama’s Kansan grandmother is ailing at this hour. The woman who essentially raised him from boyhood to manhood, who is white, and who does espouse some of the values that reporters have tried to identify as unique to the heartland, is facing illness with her black grandson dipping out of a presidential race to be by her side. Discussions of an ambitious plumber seem contrapuntal to the message of this particular candidate’s campaign: unity moves the group forward faster than separation.
Still, the network talk shows will fixate on the white male voter to obscure the sad fact that the government (composed mostly of white males) has shamelessly plundered the pockets of every American to protect its cozy fraternity in the wake of disaster. However restive the white male voter is, it would be scurrilous to believe he is stupid. Joe the Plumber may be more loyal to his income tax return than to a supposed racial brotherhood meant to exclude men with African ethnicities and Muslim names. In fact, if that false brotherhood has been exposed in the form of a $2300-per-citizen tax increase, Joe might just start to believe that he is a part of those excluded groups, rather than holding on to hard-wired social attitudes about racial order.
Regardless of unreliable polling data, there are some Joe Six Packs who have made no racial pronouncement. The media has demonstrated irresponsible attitudes toward this group. The Rednecks for Obama, and the Soccer Moms against the Iraq War, have just as valid a view about the outcome of this election as the Joes and Sarahs. The more we make problematic assignments of social stations that traverse political parties, that betray the diverse views even within one person, the more we disable the nation’s greatest strength up to this point. Americans have been able to come together to produce great cities, world-renowned products and political agendas. Whether the coalescence was gradual or hard-fought, we banded together despite labels like immigrant, communist, pinko, outsider threatening to make some of us uncomfortable.
The challenge at hand is not weeding out the Real Americans from the Other Americans, but finding ways to make all of America real in its erring humanity. So we can consistently turn the mic to Joe the Plumber, who is already eager to speak for himself, or we can pass the megaphone around the room to unearth those common means that Joe shares with his neighbors. Barack Obama, John McCain, the media and its surrogates, the parties and their spokespeople, should court the white values voter no more than they court the Asian American voter. It is one thing to recognize how one group’s feelings may parallel another’s, but entirely another thing to place that group higher on the political totem pole.