So the McCain campaign won’t let go of Joe the Plumber. He’s still being trotted out in speeches by McCain and Palin. They mention again and again how Obama wants to “spread” Joe’s wealth.
Aside from the condescension (yet again) implicit in McCain’s reduction of Joe to a stereotype (and leaving out any of the frenzied investigations into just who Joe really is), I want to look a little closer at what the Joe the Plumber rhetoric really means.
Joe, of course, is white. He’s from Ohio, a state connected with middle-American whiteness, as opposed to the cities that McCain likes to emphasize in reference to Obama (“I don’t need any advice from a…Chicago politician!”).
The city is black; Middle America is white.
Joe the Plumber’s purported wealth is used in conjunction with his whiteness: Joe is just a plumber, just an average guy, but he’s going to be taxed more under Obama’s plan. The subtext, of course, is that your “average,” white, hardworking guy is going to be taxed to give money to those who don’t work hard.
Joe appears to be your neighbor, the guy down the street, the guy you could be if maybe you put in a few more hours. Joe is used to emphasize the class difference between white and nonwhite folks.
Racism has been used to break up class solidarity in this country. Any awareness of class is of course “socialism” and “class warfare.”
Obama can’t mention this on the campaign trail, and the only candidate who did really emphasize it was the white guy, John Edwards. It never became a winning issue for him, though it might have been different if he wasn’t running against two political rock stars, Clinton and Obama.
For Obama to talk about class would be to emphasize in people’s minds that class = race. To be black is to be assumed to be part of the underclass.
It’s why Fox News referred to Ivy League-educated, very married Michelle Obama as Barack’s “baby mama,” and mostly got away with it. “Baby mama” means something other than just an unmarried woman, though. It relates to the picture of the welfare recipient: black, female, having babies so that she can get a government handout.
White people who are otherwise held down by their class still have someone to look down on: the black welfare mom, the illegal immigrant, etc. So when McCain mentions welfare on the campaign trail, he’s not just talking about Obama’s economic plans, which haven’t included any attempts to save welfare programs from Clinton-era gutting.
He’s reminding his audience yet again that Obama is black.
When he says “spread the wealth,” in conjunction with a picture of Joe the Plumber, it is implicit that Joe the Plumber is white and that the wealth would be going to those who are not white. Just like “Chicago politician,” and of course “terrorist,” “Joe the Plumber” is a dogwhistle to the base.
The attempt at associating Obama with Bill Ayers is an attempt not to group Obama with sixties radicals, but with Muslim, middle-eastern terrorists. In this way too, it is a racialized dogwhistle.
But the more the economy sinks, the less impact foreign affairs have, and so McCain had to find himself an economic scare tactic to match his foreign policy scare tactic.
The problem with dogwhistles, though, and with McCain’s ever-increasing reliance on them, is that they only appeal to the base. The further we get from the Cold War, the less impact the word “socialism” has on the average American, just as the further we get from 9/11, the less impact the word “terrorism” has.
And while the economic is failing fast, fewer and fewer Americans are worried about comparing themselves favorably to those worse off than themselves. They just want to make sure they’ll have jobs next year, next month, even next week.