You may not have noticed it, but American coal miners have, for more than six months, waged one of the largest and most dramatic strikes in recent history. That's right, American miners. But their strike has been so thoroughly buried by the media that it's possible for even a diligent news-watcher to believe that only the Soviet Union--or Poland--still has an assertive working class.
America's working-class majority has never received publicity in proportion to its numbers. It enjoyed a brief modishness following its "discovery" by the media in 1969. This discovery was in many ways parallel to the "discovery" of poverty six years earlier: A previously invisible group was unveiled, with great fanfare, on the covers of the national newsmagazines, examined in television specials and seized upon by academics. For a few years at least, the working class enjoyed the attention of Hollywood ("The Deer Hunter," "Blue Collar") and of journalists and academics who produced dozens of books and articles on the "neglected majority."
Then, in the 1980s, the working class dropped from sight. Hollywood lost interest, and on television, aside from "Roseanne" and "Married, With Children," there is almost nothing to remind us that not every family is supported by a doctor-lawyer team. In the newspapers, there has been a steady decline of labor coverage, leaving the labor reporting that does go on increasingly in the hands of the business section. In academia, as a professor friend reports to me, "class is out of style."
So it is possible for a middle-class person today to read the papers, watch television, even go to college without suspecting that America has any inhabitants other than white-collar professionals and, of course, the thoroughly demonized "black underclass."
The producers of public-affairs talk shows do not blush to serve up four upper-income professionals to ponder the minimum wage or the need for a national health program. Working-class people are likely to cross the screen only as witnesses to crimes or sports events, never as commentators or--even when their own lives are under discussion--as "experts."
The disappearance of the working class reflects the longstanding cultural insularity of the professional middle class. Why did the working class, or the poor, have to be "discovered" in the first place? From whose vantage point were they missing? If anything, the natural solipsism of the professional middle class has increased with the class-polarizing trends of the '80s. Compared to, say, a decade ago, the classes are less likely to mix in college (due to the decline of financial aid), in traditional residential neighborhoods (as speculation drives the working class out to new towns far on the fringe) or even in the malls (with the accelerating segmentation of the retail industry into upscale and downscale components).
In the absence of real contact or communication, prejudices easily substitute for knowledge. The most intractable stereotype is of the white working class as a collection of reactionaries and bigots--"hard-hats" or "Archie Bunker types."
The truth is that the working class is far more reliably liberal than the professional middle class. It was more, not less, opposed to the war in Vietnam. It is more, not less, disposed to vote for a Democrat for President. Also, in decrying the racism of blue-collar whites--as in Bensonhurst or Howard Beach--we should not forget the recent epidemic of campus racism by thoroughly affluent whites.
Even deeper than the stereotype of the hard-hat bigot lies the middle-class suspicion that the working class is dumb, inarticulate and mindlessly loyal to archaic values. In the entertainment media, for example, the working class is usually a setting for macho exhibitionism (from "Saturday Night Fever" to, in cameo, "Working Girl") or mental impairment (as in "Married, With Children"). Sociologists have reinforced this prejudice with theories of working-class "parochialism" and "authoritarianism."
Finally, there is a level of prejudice that is usually disguised as a matter of taste. In middle-class stereotypes, the white working class, for example, is addicted to cigarettes, Budweiser, polyester and network television. Furthermore, in the middle-class view, polyester is "tacky"--a common code word for "lower class." Health concerns, plus a certain reverence for the "natural" in matters of food and fiber, infuse these middle-class prejudices with a high-minded tone of moral indignation.
Middle-class prejudices are real and hurtful to working-class Americans. But they also add to the parochialism of the professional middle class itself, which is increasingly isolated in its own social and residential enclaves, condemned to hear only the opinions of its own members (or, of course, of the truly rich), and cut off from the lives and insights of the American majority.