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Democrats running for president in 2020 must stop equating hard work with morality

This rhetoric of hard work is meant to be encouraging, but it often feels patronizing instead.
Emma Taylor, left and her husband Andrew, both of Cleveland, talk with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and his wife Connie Schultz, right, after Brown and Schultz cast their ballots Nov. 6, 2018, in Cleveland.
Emma Taylor, left and her husband Andrew, both of Cleveland, talk with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and his wife Connie Schultz, right, after Brown and Schultz cast their ballots Nov. 6, 2018, in Cleveland.Phil Long / AP file

Labor is having a moment on the 2020 campaign trail, but not in the way one might hope for.

It began when Sen. Elizabeth Warren essentially kicked off the Democratic primary in December by releasing a rousing 2020 campaign video that hinted at wealth redistribution while rhapsodizing about the virtue of a hard day’s work. As the video begins, Warren declares that, “In our country, if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to take care of yourself and the people you love. That’s the fundamental promise of America.”

Since Warren officially announced her candidacy, several other Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring as well. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown took Warren’s “work hard, live a good life” sentiment to a new level by announcing that he will explore a 2020 bid by embarking on a “Dignity of Work” tour of crucial battleground states like Iowa and South Carolina. In a press release, Brown argued that, “Dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone... When work has dignity, everyone can afford health care, education, and housing.”

If this line sounds familiar, that’s because it belongs to a rhetorical tradition of the campaign trail, in which politicians of both parties celebrate hard work as the essence of what it means to be an American. It’s a safe bet that every 2020 contender — even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — will echo some variation of this idea.

The logic here is that the American people once enjoyed prosperity by virtue of their work. This is basically a 21st-century rekindling of the concept of the Protestant work ethic — which stipulates that a person is defined (or redeemed) by the quality of their labor. In other words, as long as you are chipping away at some endeavor, then you deserve to be afforded the basic cornerstones of a comfortable life.

When Democrats like Warren and Brown preach the gospel of working hard, the rhetoric is most likely meant to be both encouraging and nostalgic — an ode to the famous American work ethic, and a memento to the “good old days” when a (white) middle-class worker could feed themselves and their family.

But the subtle ideology of hard work is actually quite insidious, not to mention patronizing. Framing hard work as the prerequisite for comfort and security encourages voters to sympathize with the wealthiest class (who, logically, must be the hardest of all workers) and to look down on the less fortunate, such as the 30 percent of American families who now have more debt than savings or the growing number of Americans who are exiting the workforce because they can’t find work.

Framing hard work as the prerequisite for comfort and security encourages voters to sympathize with the wealthiest class.

Working hard is idealized as a kind of self-fulfilling dignity — which suggests that anything less is something to be ashamed of. Can’t pay your rent or afford your pills? You need to work harder. Mental or physical illness keeping you from holding down a steady job? You are less deserving of the American Dream.

It’s ironic that Democrats unwittingly propagate the notion that hard work is dignity, which better compliments the Republican Party’s dog-eat-dog capitalist worldview. This idea glosses over the human brutality of hard work, which can break bodies, families and communities. And worse, the myth that hard work is virtuous compromises the Democratic Party’s credibility as a party that cares about inequality. Arguing that people should have new economic rights on the condition that they work hard sends a confusing message about what the Democrats ultimately stand for.

People, or productivity?

Speaking as a journalist who has written about the gulf between the myth of hard work and the reality of how people feel about the “dignity” of labor — especially millennials, who inherited an economy with poor labor protections and stagnant wages, and are becoming understandably disenchanted with capitalism — I’d like to pose a challenge to all the Democrats who plan on running in 2020.

Have the courage to say that every American deserves basic economic security. Period.

Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 video actually foreshadows a rhetorical change like this. Warren at least concedes that the “rules” of economic mobility in America primarily benefit white families and that minorities who work hard reap far fewer rewards because of structural racism. This is kind of a “thought warmup” for voters who aren’t yet ready to consider that hard work doesn’t bestow dignity upon everyone, and that every person’s rights to housing, health care, and an education should be independent of what they do for a living, or whether they even work at all.

Some will deride this new framing as a slippery slope toward socialism. But it could also electrify voters who’ve experienced burnout from the crush of long hours, meager paychecks, debt collection notices. It could offer hope that one day, we might not have to give so much of our time and lifeblood to our employers to be afforded the necessities of survival and happiness.

If there’s one thing we learned in the 2018 midterms, it’s this that voters respond strongly when they feel belatedly recognized by politicians. The victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who spoke to routinely ignored voters of color and millennials, demonstrated the power of talking openly about structural poverty and how it deprives people of their right to a decent life. Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, took things even further and said that in America, no person should “be too poor to live.”

Guess which demographics boosted Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley to victory? Millennials and voters of color.

The 2020 election is heating up at a moment when much is changing in American politics. Today there are more women and people of color holding public office than ever before. Lofty ideas like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal are now being pursued. The timing is perfect for turning the page on this notion that only people who work hard should be considered true Americans — and that work is inherently moral.

Sure, in the short term, this might mean alienating old-fashioned voters who say stuff like, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” — but frankly, that’s a loss that the Democratic Party can afford. Because the party would stand to gain scores of voters (most of them young people) who’ve yet to taste the tough-won prosperity that politicians reflexively gush about. Few things would be more seismic or cathartic than hearing a presidential contender acknowledge that hard work isn’t everything, and that some things are more important. Like living.