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Am I the only American voter who’s getting annoyed by all the faux-populist obeisance and condescending lip-service that’s being paid to “average Joes” this Fall?
First there was “Joe Six-Pack,” the frequently invoked working-class soulmate of Alaskan “Hockey Mom” Sarah Palin. Then, there was “Joe from Scranton,” Senator Joseph Biden’s strained reinvention of himself as a regular blue-collar guy from Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. And now we have “Joe the Plumber,” the Ohio handy man directly addressed by both John McCain and Barack Obama in their final TV debate on Oct. 15.
What’s bothering me, first of all, is the form of address itself.
Unlike Palin’s beer-loving archetype, “Joe the Plumber” is an actual person, with a real last name (It’s Wurzelbacher and, yes, that might be hard to pronounce correctly on national TV.) Yet when someone like Joe Wurzelbacher briefly commands center stage—as a random stand-in for all workers (or, more accurately, would-be small business owners)—he is immediately shorn of his full identity and referred to by his trade instead.
To the extent that Wurzelbacher is getting full name treatment in post-debate media coverage, he may soon regret it. Already, it’s been reported that he’s non-union, un-licensed, never completed his apprenticeship as a plumber, and has an unpaid state income tax bill of $1,200. In 2006, he was earning just $40,000 when he got divorced. The two-man plumbing firm that employs him operates out of the owner’s home and doesn’t generate enough income for its taxes to be raised under Obama’s plan. It would appear, therefore, that Wurzelbacher has bigger, short-term problems than buying out the owner for $250,000, far more than the business is worth, and then, if he ever earns more than that in a single year in this economy, getting a slightly larger tax bill from Obama!
Now if McCain and Obama were talking about a better-credentialed building trades guy who only goes by one name—like “Jesus the Carpenter”–surname dropping wouldn’t seem so patronizing. (The Democrats, at least, seem to be invoking His name somewhat less than they did earlier in the campaign.) But there’s still a glaring double-standard at work here. It says a lot about how working class people get talked about by politicians of both major parties when they’re not being made to disappear entirely into our vast “middle class” (which, at times, seems to include 95 per cent of the population).
When the names of the high and mighty in America—bankers, big businessmen, professors, or generals–come up in prime time debates or on the campaign trail, they never warrant the same disrespectfully informal and/or stereotypical treatment. For example, when Obama discusses the impact of his tax proposals on a well-heeled Omaha investor (who’s also his economic advisor) and not a mere toilet-fixer in Toledo, he doesn’t refer to him as “Warren the Billionaire.”
Likewise, when McCain launches into his favorite refrain about “corruption and greed on Wall Street,” he never fingers the perpetrators by their first names (or any name actually). And just think of all the possibilities there, from “Richard the Bankrupt” at Lehman Brothers to “Alan the Enabler” of Federal Reserve Board fame. Nor does McCain cite “Dave the General” when he’s striving for greater credibility on military matters in Iraq. And even when he and Palin are warning us about that dangerous Chicago professor and Obama neighbor, they never just call him “Bill the Terrorist.” We’re always reminded of his proper name: William Ayers.
So, if ex-Weathermen are entitled to have last names attached to their first, isn’t it time that our leading pols got a little less familiar when addressing us ordinary folks, whether or not our real name is Joe? At the very least, they could stop trying to put themselves and so many of their fellow citizens into such silly, stereotypical, and ultimately meaningless categories, based on our choice of beverage, occupation, or spectator sport. Among the hopeful signs associated with this year’s presidential race are reports from around the country indicating that voters are not allowing themselves to be so easily pigeonholed. In fact, many seem poised to cast a vote for a candidate who’s own personal history doesn’t lend itself to the usual race, class, or ethnic profiling.
With that positive development in mind, nothing would be more appropriate than a ban on “Average Joeism”—for the rest of the campaign and any future ones. Unless, of course, the candidates want to start addressing our “betters” with the same first-name familiarity they’ve heretofore reserved for us.
STEVE EARLY is the author of a forthcoming book for Monthly Review Press called “Embedded In Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.” In any voter profiling of himself, he insists that his last name be used. He can be reached at email@example.com