Why “our folks” may not vote



I grew up in a world of outdated duplexes, summer latchkey, frozen food and used cars. A world I have often smugly described as “working class.” A world which for many years afforded me the intoxicating superiority of having a chip on my shoulder. Of having deluded myself into thinking that I was “self-made.”

The world I grew up in was characterized by delayed gratification, thwarted ambitions, meager pleasure and frequent suffering. A world that felt precarious – where debt was managed, insurance companies fought with, and where the needs of children amounted to serious hardship for their parents.

It was also a world where one begins working at 16 not 14. Where at one’s first job, one makes an amount of money meaningfully smaller than that made by their parents. Where with that meaningfully smaller amount of money one buys things which one wants for oneself, not which one needs for one’s family. A world where one goes to the dentist every six months. A world where books are bought, not borrowed. It is a world recognizable to many as the beleaguered middle class of the 21st century. 

There is another world. One that I did not know existed until I fell in love with someone who lives in it. 

This is a world where toothaches are endured and not treated. Where graduating highschool is not a nominal rite of passage but a real feat in the face of odds. Where narcotics are as hard to avoid as jail time. A world where work is something that precludes living. Where work is constant and grueling. A world where the goings on of making a living, and in the spare moments having fun, are the chief concerns. Where life happens to you, often unfairly, and with little advance warning. This is a world that is indisputably real, concerned with the obvious, the tangible, the immediate – where anything that is necessary cannot be presumed upon, where there is no vantage point, no basis for speculation. 

The world I am describing is not an exotic place. It is the world of many Americans today. 

A group of people who despite facing rapidly increasing housing and healthcare costs have not, according to the Pew Research Center, seen an increase in wealth in two decades and whose wages have the same purchasing power as they did 40 years ago. 

A group of people, the large minority of whom, do not vote. A group of people who in certain spheres of the public imagination do not vote “enough.” 

The pattern of low voter turnout is frequently discussed. Often pundits attempt to identify a class of people, rarely their own, who are to blame for the latest lost election. Sometimes it is black people, sometimes poor people, it is very often young people. One can scarcely imagine what might be said about young, poor, black people if they were mentioned at all. 

An example of this type of discourse is this rather indulgent lament from Michelle Obama: “The people who didn’t vote at all, the women,  the young people…after all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. Every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up. That’s my trauma.”

I wonder what “all that work” Obama alludes to is. Considering that in 90% of elections, the campaign with the most money wins I suspect she means fundraising. 

“That’s my trauma” is an incredibly revealing phrase. And I think one which the engineers of those expensive losses, those disappointing investments – failed political campaigns – can relate to. A certain political class is increasingly appalled at the momentum which populism, particularly right-wing populism, has accrued. It is as if their own irrelevance is beginning to dawn on them. This does not seem to inspire self-reflection but rather a resentment towards the swaths of the population they perceive to be crucial to winning elections and to whose vote they feel entitled to: “our folks.”

This resentment is the projection of a fear. A fear that as it turns out is rational. The fear that the experiment of Western Liberal Democracy has failed. That the inevitable cancer of postmodernity – alienation – has metastasized to the lymph nodes of the body politic: “our folks.” 

The person I fell in love with, the one I mentioned earlier who lives in the world that is not mine, is my boyfriend. 

I’m not fond of that label. He is older than me, closer to 30 than 20, and it seems patronizing to call him “boy.”

But that is the label we use, partially to avoid the intimidating connotations of commitment which cling to “partner,” and the saccharine naivete of “lover.”

“Husband” would be inaccurate as we are not married. 

So we are “boyfriends.”

My boyfriend is ignorant. For instance, he had not, upon her death, ever heard of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This initially shocked me. Gave me doubts. I thought to myself that it was “unattractive.” I tried to remember when I had first learned who Ruth Bader Ginsberg was. It occurred to me that it was probably while reading the assigned reading from my Honors Government class which I naturally had time to do because I was not, as he was, picking up my mother’s shifts at KFC.

To my surprise, I have learned I am also ignorant. For instance, I did not know that there is part of Wichita referred to as “Babymamaville”: an income-subsidized housing division commonly home to unwed mothers. I also did not know that living in Babymamaville is an uncommonly kind and loving person. A person who calls me “baby” and “sugar.’ A person who has become my friend. A person who says that she only feels appreciated by others when she cooks for them. A person who cooks a lot. A person who once made her therapist cry and has not been back since. A person who is in her 20’s and whose kidneys function at 2%. A person who as a result can drink 8 oz of orange juice, her favorite, every 30 days. 

I ask myself and I ask you, which ignorance is greater?

I recently saw a piece of propaganda that said, in the voice of an old woman, “voting is the most important thing you can do.” This thought – the thought that voting of all things is more important than working, cleaning, cooking, raising children – is the sort of thought that could only occur to someone who has the privilege of being divorced from what Joan Didion called the “dailiness of life.” The actual business of living which for so long has been delegated by the rich to the poor. The delegation deemed necessary to wield influence in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” The room that was, in the words of Newcastle University Professor of Modern Literature Alison Light, “tended by a series of cooks and maids throughout (Woolf’s) life.”  Consider for a moment the resources of time and money it takes to participate in modern electoral politics. To watch hours of debates which are only available on cable, to read articles about said debates which live behind paywalls, to stand in line for hours in the middle of a weekday, to research policy, to navigate the opaque network of bias that contaminates every major newsource, to verify the veracity of countless claims and counterclaims, to formulate an intelligent response to absurdity, to argue on Facebook with distant relatives, to publicly mourn a Supreme Court Justice you never met.

While you were doing this somebody else was making it possible: a housekeeper, a babysitter, an administrative assistant, a fry cook, a cable repair person, an uber driver, a gas station attendant, a mechanic, a grocery bagger. 

Ask yourself, who has to work so that you can vote?

As my boyfriend once succinctly put it during a conversation about our emerging differences, “I’m not saying you had it made, I’m saying that the part of town that you grew up in is different from the part that I grew up in.”

With those words he did what I doubt any theorist has ever done which is to capture in one sentence the palpable divisions drawn by an American class system that is widely believed to not exist.

A class system which, if the pseudo-religious mythology of American exceptionalism is to be upheld, must be denied. 

The situation is this: that class system is no longer deniable. 

The hero worship of “I’m with Her” is not tenable in the era of “Make America Great Again.” 

The politicians who will win elections in today’s America are those with the common sense to acknowledge the elephant in the room: that America is not great. 

If you want “our folks” to vote then stop pretending they don’t exist.