WASHINGTON — For more than three decades, working-class Americans receded as cultural heroes, replaced in the popular imagination by swashbuckling entrepreneurs, brilliant innovators, and shrewd investors who make millions at the touch of a computer key.
It was not always this way. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the people who operated the trains, worked the machines and tended the farms were stars of film and fiction. Think of Frank Capra movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life and the fiction of John Steinbeck, including his underappreciated novel, In Dubious Battle. It was a more democratic and egalitarian culture whose soundtrack was Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
After five years of economic travail caused by Wall Street excesses and increasingly widespread worry over rising inequality and declining mobility, the culture shows signs of changing again.
For the first time in a long time, working people are making their way back into the news. Fast-food workers have been underpaid for a long time. Only over the last year or so have their battles for above-poverty wages begun to grab headlines.
In 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed, her classic on the discontents of low-paid work. At the time, she was fighting against social winds, let loose by the tech boom and a soaring stock market, to bring attention to the many left out of our grand prosperity. Now, Ehrenreich has more company as gifted younger writers bring the toil of cooks and servers and warehouse workers alive for wide audiences.
What’s striking about the new labor writers is that they are not romantics. They don’t think that we can return to the ’30s or ’40s any more than we can re-popularize black-and-white movies. But they write with clarity, empathy and understanding, treating our economy’s service workers as flesh-and-blood human beings with responsibilities, families they deeply care about, and aspirations they’d like to fulfill.
If you have any doubt that culture affects politics, consider our celebrations of the life and mission of Nelson Mandela. He is now an internationally beloved figure because of his work for reconciliation, and rightly so. But we forget the time when the anti-apartheid movement was controversial, when some branded the African National Congress as a “terrorist” organization, and when, in 1986, Congress had to override President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.
Political mobilization around the world was central to Mandela’s victory. In eulogizing him, President Obama used himself as an example of how the anti-apartheid movement defined a generation. The arts were a big part of this. Shortly after Mandela’s death was announced, Peter Rothberg of The Nation magazine posted his 10 favorite songs from “artists of all genres and stripes” who paid tribute to Mandela. Similarly, The New York Times offered a gallery of poster art produced over the years during which Mandela was imprisoned.