Following up on my last post, I was searching for coverage of Ronald Reagan’s infamous “strapping young buck” comment from 1976 and found this wonderful commentary by Ian Haney López on Bill Moyers’s show.
In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, López mentions the “work ethic” angle several times.
The narratives promoted alike by the ethnic turn and racial-demagogues—a lack of work ethic, a preference for welfare, a propensity toward crime, or their opposites— reinvigorated racial stereotypes, giving them renewed life in explaining why minorities lagged behind whites…. they became the staples of political discourse, repeated ad nauseam by politicians, think tanks, and media.
In accord with the stories spun by dog whistle politicians, many whites have come to believe that they prosper because they possess the values, orientations, and work ethic needed by the self-making individual in a capitalist society. In contrast, they have come to suppose that nonwhites, lacking these attributes, slip to the bottom, handicapped by their inferior cultures and pushed down by the market’s invisible hand, where they remain, beyond the responsibility, or even ability, of government to help.
Many older whites nostalgically pine for the days when a solid work ethic meant a good job, a decent home, a new car every few years, an affordable college education for the kids, and a nice vacation by the lake or seashore every August.
Dog whistle politics (as opposed to overt racist rhetoric) got its start with George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace addressed his speeches to the proverbial hard-working, tax-paying, church-going, law-abiding, gun-toting patriotic citizen:
You people work hard, you save your money, you teach your children to respect the law. Then when someone goes out and burns down half a city and murders someone, pseudo-intellectuals explain it away by saying the killer didn’t get any watermelon to eat when he was ten years old.
As far as I can determine, though, the phrase “work ethic” never crossed George Wallace’s lips during his 1968 campaign. If it happened, it wasn’t reported. If it was reported, it wasn’t archived anywhere I could find it. It would be surprising if Wallace did use the phrase in 1968. It wasn’t a huge vernacular term.
Understandably, perhaps, some readers are ignoring the specificity of my argument. It is not about Weber’s theory or Luther’s or Calvin’s doctrine of calling or predestination. It is about the usage, particularly the vernacular usage of the term, “work ethic” as a synonym and/or substitute for Weber’s “Protestant ethic.” Unless preceded by the modifier “Protestant” or “Puritan,” the work ethic is explicitly not Weber’s theory. Weber was seeking specifically to differentiate between the beliefs and behaviors of Protestants and Catholics.
In his 1971 appeal to the presumably traditional American work ethic, Nixon was seeking to appeal especially to Italian, Polish, Irish, etc. “ethnics” who were exactly the opposite of the people Weber was talking about. As Nixon said, “Keep religion out of it.” Well, if you “keep religion out” of the Protestant ethic, it no longer has anything to do with Weber’s theory. The Protestant ethic and the work ethic are not synonyms.
Nixon was not the first to put the words “work” and “ethic” together in a single phrase without the religious modifier. But before Labor Day, 1971 the usage was sparse. Usage was sparse enough to permit examination of each time the phrase was used in a journal or newspaper.
There is one instance that stands out. In a Nation article published in April, 1968, Roszak took “good liberal” Hans Tuch to task for invoking “the Protestant work ethic to give the hippies a fatherly tongue-lashing…” Note the residual Protestant modifier. Tuch, in turn, had cited (disparagingly) a Time magazine essay from July 30, 1967 in which the author had mused:
What offends, perplexes and yet also beguiles the straight sector is hippie-dom’s total disregard for approbation or disapproval. “Do your own thing,” they say, and never mind what anyone else may think or do. Yet this and many hippie attitudes represent only a slight and rather engaging distortion of the Protestant Ethic that they purport to reject.
In a March 11, 1969 memorandum to President Nixon, Daniel Moynihan lamented the “emotional strain for people who may still share a Southern Protestant outlook about the work ethic.” The context for this remark was survey research showing a very high concurrence among welfare recipients toward the work ethic. Note that three words intervene between Protestant and work ethic. “Keep religion out of it.”
Notice that there are two distinct threads that are being woven into a narrative. One is the disdain for, critique of, or “slight and rather engaging distortion” of the Protestant (work) Ethic. The other is a large number of destitute people who depend on welfare but who subscribe to the (Protestant) work ethic.
Nixon: “We see some members of disadvantaged groups being told to take the welfare road rather than the road of hard work, self-reliance, and self-respect.”
Hard work, work hard. hard-working… What’s ethic got to do with it? Ethics have to do with morality. Ethical people are good, unethical people are bad. For Weber, Protestants worked hard because of their ethics. For the audiences conjured by Wallace and Nixon, was it that people were good because they worked hard? No. The point was that people they felt hostile toward (hippies, Blacks, protesters, intellectuals) deserved to be punished because they were bad people attacking morality.
Nixon: “Recently we have seen that work ethic come under attack.”