Not for America the prerogatives of royalty or the privileges of aristocracy. No, the majority of those who came over to our shores were ordinary people. No surprise then that we’ve long celebrated the “Common Man.” In one way or another we’ve declared that the “average Joe” provides the essential ballast for the United States, the most durable democratic society known to the world. Indeed, it was “Common Sense,” that extraordinary piece of plain pleading by Tom Paine that in 1775 helped persuade the “man in the street” that the only logical and sensible course for America was to declare its independence from England. And not long afterwards, when the victorious revolutionaries concluded it was time to establish a national government, it was, they agreed, to be based not on Holy Writ or Royal Proclamation, but upon “We the People,” forever protected by a “Bill of Rights.”
Over the years, even as great wealth accumulated in America and the well-to-do established their pre-eminence, we continued to view the common man as properly representative of America. Thomas Jefferson was but one of a long line of observers who placed the simple yeoman farmer and the independent husbandman at the center of the new republic he wished to form. Andrew Jackson went even further, insisting that his presidency (1828) had ushered in a new dawn for ordinary Americans, whose interests he would champion. Every man, he asserted, was qualified to hold public office; the days of an elite cadre of office holders were over. Moreover, Jackson from Tennessee saw himself as representing the hardy men of the western frontier, those intrepid pioneers rapidly spreading out from the land establishing new western states, the driving force behind American expansionism and “Manifest Destiny.” Back, in parts of the east, at about the same time, individuals began attending common schools at public expense. Nowhere else in the world were ordinary people given such opportunities for formal schooling and advancement.
Throughout the 19th Century and into the twentieth, America’s self-image remained focused on the common man, in one form or another, starting with William Henry Harrison’s Log Cabin Campaign for the presidency in 1840. That basic structure of frontier life came to symbolize all that was simple and sturdy in the American character. Abe Lincoln’s days as a “rail splitter” confirmed his standing as a typical son of the pioneer West. Later on the cowboy took the place of the pioneer, assuring Americans that plain folks could be both essential and heroic. Decades later Charles Lindbergh took to the sky to remind the country that an ordinary American embodied all that was admirable and brave in the national character. When it came to heroism, GI Joe showed he was up to the challenge in World War II, vanquishing the formidable military forces of both Germany and Japan. Back home, millions upon millions of working men and women demonstrated that almost overnight they could produce absolutely astounding amounts of armaments and war materials, as well as consumer goods. And later on, during the Cold War, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), our everyman, proved able finally to defeat his Russian Communist adversary in the ring and after that, as Rambo, salvage some honor for Americans in Viet Nam, thanks to his heroic actions there.
But any discussion of the common man must not omit the challenges presented to that venerable tradition, including the contradictions and inconsistencies that cropped up along the way. While the social and economic standing of your average American tended to locate him in the working classes, Americans came to see themselves either as aspiring to or occupying the middle class. The workingman (perhaps because so many were immigrants) rarely received the credit or status due him (except among Socialists). As their numbers declined, however slowly, farmers also suffered diminished status, especially as urban populations swelled and cities became cultural and commercial centers. It didn’t help that over the years rural people stuck to their bible and their guns or that “good old boys” imposed Jim Crow on black populations and lynched “uppity negroes” or that “hard hats” rallied round the flag and used it to demean dissidents. Consider also the impact of comedian Jay Leno’s TV stunts with his “man (or “woman”) on the street” interviews and quizzes. What did it say about typical Americans when the following questions were put to them? – “Who did Americans fight in the War of Independence?” “What divided East and West Germany?” “What month of the year do we vote for president?” and no one answered correctly? (“This is frightening,” remarked Leno.)
In recent years, defining the “average Joe” or analyzing “John Q. Public” or placing “everyman” under the microscope has become ever more complicated. Cultural expression has exploded into numberless enclaves; political polarization has confounded conventional conversation, and ethnic diversity has undermined unifying symbols. Michael Moore might once have spoken for the “silent majority” but that’s no longer the case.
At present, the common man has, however, a most prominent spokesman – Donald Trump. Admittedly not “of the people,” he has, however, positioned himself as “tribune of the people.” Both a creature of the mass media, and as the great “white hunter” of the business jungle he has tapped into many of the admittedly less admirable themes associated with ordinary Americans. He has encouraged isolationist sentiment and has embraced the military. He has lampooned elites and elitist institutions. He has promoted a narrowly cast version of religious expression. He’s tilted the scales in favor of white ethnic solidarity and demeaned minority populations. He has questioned the value and the substance of scientific thinking and the role of expertise. He has voiced the prerogatives of male chauvinism. His vanity and grandiosity far exceed the boundaries of traditional “tall tales.” Trump retains his hold on his base because he speaks like them, gives voice to their concerns, disappointments, and to society’s devaluation of common folks.
Ironically the Pandemic could rekindle our faith in and respect for the common man. We’ve come to recognize just how dependent we are on those that enable our society to operate (if even on a limited basis) so that the rest of us can shelter in place. The workers who keep the mass transportation system up and running, the trucks rolling, the garbage collected, the folks who police our streets, maintain our power grids, drive the ambulances and staff the hospitals, deliver our mail and packages, grow and harvest our food, stock grocery shelves – without them our society would rapidly descend into catastrophic collapse. And most of those folks have not done well by us in recent times. They’ve fallen behind, become more vulnerable, their rewards limited, their hopes diminished. Recognizing and celebrating these “essential workers,” highlighting their seemingly prosaic, but now heroic, roles could serve to renew our faith in and appreciation of ordinary Americans.
Throughout this crisis we’ve heard repeatedly that when in the past the American people were challenged, were called upon to confront hard times, deal with severe setbacks and
adversity, they rose to the occasion, persevered. If they are still made of that same “right stuff,” they should be able, once more, to lead us through this crisis.