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No bum that can’t speak poifect English oughta stay in this country — oughta be de-exported the hell outta here!—Archie Bunker

Archie Bunker

Back in the day — before the internet, before even cable — everybody watched Archie Bunker, the middle-ged misanthrope from Queens who weekly sat before us in his modest living room, rudely putting down pretty much anybody and anything, but especially educated liberals and women’s libbers.

The creator, Norman Lear, and the star, Carroll O’Connor, intended the character to be a satire on working class closed-mindedness, but it lasted for years because the very people it made fun of actually adored Archie: he was saying what they really thought, but couldn’t say in public.

Sound familiar?

Civil rights for blacks, equal rights for women, challenged the unexamined values of the white working class, as exemplified by Archie Bunker. The reaction was ferocious, and it made the Republican Party the tribune of the white working class.

Archie captured the cultural dimension of a fundamental class divide that has, over half a century, transformed our political landscape. From the New Deal to the 1970s, the Democrats were the working class party, the Republicans the respectable middle class party. Franklin Roosevelt could be an educated aristocrat and still appeal to the workers as long as the GOP was represented by the stuffy, prissy Herbert Hoover, or Tom Dewey. But when Republicans from Goldwater and Nixon to Reagan learned to speak the working man’s language, to articulate his prejudices and antagonisms, they were able to move into an opening.

The opening emerged when the Democrats, beginning as early as the erudite Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, and especially with the Kennedys in the 1960s, began to appeal to the educated middle class. Civil rights for blacks, equal rights for women, challenged the unexamined values of the white working class, as exemplified by Archie Bunker. The reaction was ferocious, and it made the Republican Party the tribune of the white working class.

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Donald Trump (another man from Queens) marks a new stage in this transformation of the GOP, as he defeated a full array of more sedate middle and upper class candidates because — like Archie — he spoke the language. He’s still a rich guy appealing to poor guys, but that’s hardly unique in American politics. The Republican Party is now the closest thing to a working class party that we’ve had since the New Deal.

The Democrats will not successfully appeal to Trump’s Archie Bunker base without betraying the commitments to political and economic equality that have come to define the party. This doesn’t mean that the white working class has no legitimate grievances: on the contrary, both parties have presided over the destruction of the old industrial and farming America in which they thrived. Republicans have no intention of doing anything serious about that, but they pay no penalty because they speak the language. Democrats ought to be serious about helping the urban and rural working class, because it’s good for the whole country, even though few of these people will return to voting Democratic.

Fortunately for Democrats, the Archie Bunker working class is a shrinking minority. The vast majority of women, most racial and ethnic minorities, and of course, the vast majority of the educated, will be more fertile ground.

The paradox, yet again will be that once Democratic policies have given these constituencies something to lose, like the Archie Bunker working class, they’ll tend to be more conservative.

john peeler

Imagine what Archie would say about this essay.

John Peeler