President Bush used the phrase “hard work 11 times in his debate with Senator Kerry last night.
It worked, I think, as a code word, a way of reaching out to a very particular, but very large, group of voters.
Most Americans don’t work for a living. They risk for a living. If they run a small business, they are especially vulnerable. If they are members of Free Agent Nation, they must be very, very responsive to a changing set of circumstances. Even if they belong to a corporation, large or small, they are subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. As the corporation confronts new dynamism, they can be downsized, rationalized or otherwise dumped.
The Democratic camp, many of them, may work for a living, but they do not risk for a living. They hold protected positions in unions, civil services, and universities. The world may rise and fall with dynamism, but they ride not the large and small boats of enterprise, but a larger, more secure, platform of occupational privilege. (The “owning vs. “working class distinction is still a salient distinction. But the real measure of privilege may be how protected we are from dynamic effects of the marketplace.)
There are lots of ways to protect ourselves from risk: education, intelligence, foresight, planning. But these are only the necessary conditions of managing risk. The sufficient condition is hard work. Those who risk for a living get up every morning, gird loins, grit teeth, and get down to business. They work really, really hard.
(Let me say, parenthetically, that I’ve done a lot of ethnographic work in this area. Over the years I have interviewed hundreds of Americans for thousands of hours of contact. I have worked as a consultant for many people in the corporate world. I am frequently wowed by how demanding, how time scarce, how stressed, and how effortful most of these lives are. All without a net.)
Bush used “hard work 11 times last night perhaps because this phrase has special resonance for those who risk for a living. The phrase allowed the President to say, “Listen, what I am doing in the White House is what you do every day. It allowed him to say, “We are both working hard because that is the way we respond to the risk that defines our lives and our worlds.
“Hard work was perhaps a code word. Those who live by risk got it immediately. Those who do not heard it as everyday language. Clever President Bush. He managed to sneak a rallying cry into the most ordinary little phrase. It allowed him to claim common purpose with Republicans, real and potential.
Dan Pink says that Free Agent Nation has a population of 33 million and notes, “Even this […] figure means that free agents easily outnumber all manufacturing workers and all government workersand may be the largest single cluster of workers in the economy.” If we add to this the people who work in the corporate world without the protection of union contracts or tenure, the number of people who “risk for a living” must be very high.
This is a natural Republican constituency. These are people who believe, or must at least act as if they believe, in the necessity of hard work. Whether the Republican party has found a way to recruit this group remains to be seen. The notion of the “ownership society” is apparently one such attempt. It is possible that President Bush’s “hard work” phrase represents the beginnings of a second, more comprehensive, strategy.
Stats from Dan Pink’s Free Agent webpage here