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Goldberg: Courting Joe the Puppeteer

ElectionsPoliticsBusinessDemocratic PartyBooker T. WashingtonRepublican PartyOccupy Wall Street

Earlier this month, the left-wing magazine the Nation highlighted Joe Therrien as a symbol of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A New York City public school drama teacher, Therrien was frustrated with the shortcomings of the school system. So he quit his job and "set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion — puppetry." Three years and $35,000 in student loan debt later, Therrien returned home, only to find he couldn't land a full-time job. Apparently, a master's in puppetry doesn't provide the competitive edge in the marketplace he'd hoped for.

Therrien joined Occupy Wall Street, constructing giant puppets and "figuring out how to make theater that's going to help open people up to this new cultural consciousness. It's what I'm driven to do right now."

He may not realize it, but Joe the Puppeteer may be for Democrats what Joe the Plumber was for the GOP. (Joe Wurzelbacher was the Ohio man who confronted candidate Barack Obama about raising taxes on small business.)

Thomas Edsall opines in the New York Times that the Democrats have made a fateful decision. "All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up … of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic."

After decades of trying, the white working class is now "an unattainable cohort," according to Edsall and a slew of Democratic strategists.

The most common explanation for this failure is a self-serving and mossy tale about a racial backlash. The most recent version holds that the "tea parties," which are about as white as the Occupy Wall Street movement, amount to a bigoted reaction to a black president. Never mind that the leading tea party contender for the GOP nomination is Herman Cain.

In a less charged environment, the differences between Obama and Cain would be seen as a continuation of the great philosophical rivalry between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois, a socialist intellectual, favored promoting a "talented tenth" — a black progressive elite focused on state-run, top-down reforms — while Washington preached self-help and entrepreneurialism from the bottom up.

Today's Democratic Party has an ingrained cultural aversion to the Booker T. Washington school. Liberal elites see themselves as a multiracial talented tenth, planning the economy and guiding society. In power, they lavish support on fashionable but unproductive sectors of the economy, such as green energy boondoggles, and they buy off big constituencies invested in ever larger government such as public sector unions, the "helping professions" and even too-big-too-fail businesses.

Their arguments sound economic and empirical, but ultimately they're cultural in nature. The upscale white professionals the Democrats are courting disproportionately share a cultural affinity for government and faith that statist interventions are for your own good. They also believe government needs to help people succeed — or escape — the rat race of the private sector. (Remember Michelle Obama's advice to working-class women? "Don't go into corporate America.… Become teachers. Work for the community.") In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, Obama mocked the Booker T. Washington concept of self-reliance: "In Washington, they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is, you're on your own."

Later, Rep. Nancy Pelosi sold healthcare reform as a "jobs bill" because "if you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent … your aspirations because you will have healthcare," she explained as if speaking straight to Joe the Puppeteer. "You won't have to be job locked."

That might be a compelling message to the white left represented at Occupy protests. The question is whether it sounds condescending or aloof to the rest of the Democratic coalition that wouldn't mind being "job locked" right now.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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