Wealth and class are not determinants of intellect or governing ability
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez | Mark Lennihan/AP

In a tweet on her recently President Trump tried to diminish and discredit Rep. Ocasio Cortez by saying her intellectual and governing abilities stem from her working-class roots and identity:

“I find it revealing when people mock where I come from, and 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 which we talk about much less than we do racism or sexism – the practice of devaluing people on the basis of their occupation.

Few challenge whether the burger-flipper at McDonald’s deserves as much pay—is worth asmuch—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.

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 have been labeled as intellectually inferior and often less than human and thus undeserving.

In fact, when we talk about race and gender, in many ways we are already talking about class, even if not always acknowledged.  People’s race and gender have historically been factors in determining their position in the class structure.

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. And we need to see that these prejudices against working people are not unique to Trump but a larger problem in American culture and society which he happens to exemplify while occupying one of the most powerful positions on the globe.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.