Who are the “hardhats” really?

As Historian Penny Lewis argues, the class war that occurred due to the polarized opinions of the Vietnam War was really based on stereotypes, not reality. These stereotypes were created in large part by the media and the “blue collar backlash” was actually a quite selective interpretation of the opinions of the working class at the time (Lewis). This biased view did play a role in President Nixon’s attempt to gain favor for himself and the Republican party. He saw the hardhat demonstrations portrayed by the media as a sign that there was a group of people that may have been traditionally Democratic voters that could be swayed to vote Republican if they felt like their voices were being heard. With this idea in mind, Nixon attempted to appeal to the “silent majority,” the low-income white working class that wanted to maintain their traditional values and did not like all of the change around them. In response, Nixon focused his campaign on topics like tax cuts, defense spending, family values, and themes of law and order and unity among the white working class in his speeches leading up to the election to try to further consolidate them into a strong voting group opposed to the protestors and the elites (Lewis). 

Aside from their opposition to the anti-war left, there were a number of other sources of antagonism for the white working class. They felt angry at their economic instability, the country’s loss of traditional values, and that the system was treating them unfairly. Possibly the biggest source of contempt was their resentment towards the privileged youth and their behaviors. Often the children that ended up going to college were from upper class families, but many workers had also dedicated their lives to trying to get an education for their children to have better opportunities. Thus, with the protests happening at the colleges and the campuses closing, they felt like the kids were throwing away an opportunity they wished they could have had. While it seems like these ideas made the switch to a Republican majority inevitable, the reality is that the white American working class could have been swayed to the right or the left. The reason they chose to vote Republican was due to the failure of the Democrats to represent the workers’ diverse political opinions. This made the white working class feel like they didn’t have a voice in the party, especially following the Democrats embracing civil and voting rights. Lewis mentions that Democrats could have continued to practice anti-racist policies if they had made the white working class feel less targeted by also implementing programs like desegregation of housing in middle and upper class neighborhoods as well. In short, they could have prevented the political realignment of this group if they had made them feel less alienated and more reassured of the importance of their opinions.

I feel like it’s interesting to think about how the media affects our views on things through the way they emphasize or ignore certain perspectives. This instance really reflects that in the way that they divided the elites and the hardhats despite the fact they might have actually agreed on certain things. I think that modern media is definitely very guilty of this tactic as well, especially in politics.

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