In a tweet last March, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to the elitist assaults on her that attempt to diminish and discredit her intellect and governing abilities based on her working-class roots and identity:
“I find it revealing when people mock where I come from, & say they’re going to ‘send me back to waitressing,’ as if that’s bad or shameful. It’s as though they think being a member of Congress makes you intrinsically ‘better’ than a waitress.”
Ocasio-Cortez here addresses a much larger tendency in U.S. culture, one which, as a culture and society, we talk about much less than, say, we do racism or sexism. Don’t get me wrong, the practices and ideologies that devalue and attribute inferiority to people on the basis of skin color and sex are alive and all-too-well in U.S. life, deeply ingrained in both our institutions and, frankly, in the minds of many.
But we do talk about it as a culture, even if not enough and not in the most productive ways. And these practices and ideologies are subject to scrutiny and redress in the legislative arena, even if that legislation is highly contested and thus far grossly insufficient to remedy and combat the deeply-rooted prejudices, indeed hatred, informing social and economic practices of discriminating against women and people of color.
And a good number of Americans, whether or not they fully walk the walk, agree that racism and sexism have no place in a society that aspires to an egalitarian ideal.
Much less questioned is the practice of devaluing people, economically and culturally, based on what, occupationally speaking, they do in the world. Few challenge whether the burger-flipper at McDonald’s deserves as much pay—is worth as much—as the CEO, whether the school custodian deserves as much as the principal, whether the postal carrier or grocery store clerk deserves as much as a lawyer or doctor, and so on. Because of our nation’s dominant belief in meritocracy, these inequities make sense, even though McDonald’s could not produce wealth without the burger-flippers and the school could not run without the custodian.
And these economic valuations carry with them social and cultural valuations of people as well. On the whole, U.S. culture looks down on the working class, attributing inferior intellectual ability and simply less importance to working-class people.
Obviously, sexism and racism play a role here too. Women’s work and women workers have historically been devalued because women have been seen as physically and intellectually inferior; and people of color, obviously, have been labeled as intellectually inferior and often less than human and thus undeserving.
Ocasio-Cortez, though, is taking on this less-talked about form of supremacist or hierarchical thinking, which at times is referred to as “classism,” an “ism” of which she is often the victim in her congressional seat.
Donald Trump, for example, recently attacked the Green New Deal she proposed as “the craziest thing.” But look at how he presented it, linking it to her previous employment: “The Green New Deal, done by a young bartender, 29 years old. A young bartender, wonderful young woman.”
He doesn’t assess the Green New Deal on its merits. And he certainly doesn’t assess Ocasio-Cortez on the content of her character and intellect, which is formidable.
Rather, he dismisses the ideas based on her working-class identity and history, as do others.
She is just a waitress, just a bartender. Therefore, her ideas must have no worth because “those people” are less intellectually able.
Addressing this discrimination, this hatred, really, is important for challenging the anti-egalitarian elements of U.S. culture.
I’m brought back to Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, as Vonnegut really puts his finger on this damaging ideological hate—and self-hatred—animating U.S. politics and culture. His character Howard Campbell, an American who has become a Nazi propagandist, writes a monograph about American culture, in which he diagnoses the hatred of those who make less money—a hatred that is also internalized. The monograph reads:
America is the wealthiest nation on earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand—glued to a popsicle stick and flying from the cash register.
This passage captures something we see with Trump, which he didn’t create but which he plays on and perpetuates. We see it in his mocking of Ocasio-Cortez being a bartender; we see it when he mocks a journalist with a disability; we see it when he mocks “losers”; and we see it in his everyday cruelty, racism, and sexism. He hates those “losers” living on the lower rungs of our world, those who make less money and have less power, influence, and glory. He fuels people’s internalization of these values.
So the question is: how can a leader in a representative democracy represent those he hates?
If you believe someone is intellectually inferior, will you advocate for them to have an affordable college education? Will you seem them as deserving? If you loathe groups of people and deride them, will you devote energy to making their lives sustainable and better?
I think we see the answer is “no.” Trump cannot represent the interests of workers because he has disdain for them, as he does for women and people of color.
We need to say it, though.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.